The effect of external forcings on atmospheric circulation is debated. Due to the short observational period, the analysis of the role of external forcings is hampered, making it difficult to assess the sensitivity of atmospheric circulation to external forcings, as well as persistence of the effects. In observations, the average response to tropical volcanic eruptions is a positive North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) during the following winter. However, past major tropical eruptions exceeding the magnitude of eruptions during the instrumental era could have had more lasting effects. Decadal NAO variability has been suggested to follow the 11-year solar cycle, and linkages have been made between grand solar minima and negative NAO. However, the solar link to NAO found by modeling studies is not unequivocally supported by reconstructions, and is not consistently present in observations for the 20th century. Here we present a reconstruction of atmospheric winter circulation for the North Atlantic region covering the period 1241–1970 CE. Based on seasonally resolved Greenland ice core records and a 1200-year-long simulation with an isotope-enabled climate model, we reconstruct sea level pressure and temperature by matching the spatiotemporal variability in the modeled isotopic composition to that of the ice cores. This method allows us to capture the primary (NAO) and secondary mode (Eastern Atlantic Pattern) of atmospheric circulation in the North Atlantic region, while, contrary to previous reconstructions, preserving the amplitude of observed year-to-year atmospheric variability. Our results show five winters of positive NAO on average following major tropical volcanic eruptions, which is more persistent than previously suggested. In response to decadal minima of solar activity we find a high-pressure anomaly over northern Europe, while a reinforced opposite response in pressure emerges with a 5-year time lag. On centennial timescales we observe a similar response of circulation as for the 5-year time-lagged response, with a high-pressure anomaly across North America and south of Greenland. This response to solar forcing is correlated to the second mode of atmospheric circulation, the Eastern Atlantic Pattern. The response could be due to an increase in blocking frequency, possibly linked to a weakening of the subpolar gyre. The long-term anomalies of temperature during solar minima shows cooling across Greenland, Iceland and western Europe, resembling the cooling pattern during the Little Ice Age (1450–1850 CE). While our results show significant correlation between solar forcing and the secondary circulation pattern on decadal (r = 0.29, p 〈 0.01) and centennial timescales (r = 0.6, p 〈 0.01), we find no consistent relationship between solar forcing and NAO. We conclude that solar and volcanic forcing impacts different modes of our reconstructed atmospheric circulation, which can aid in separating the regional effects of forcings and understanding the underlying mechanisms.
EPIC Alfred Wegener Institut