Impact of initial conditions versus external forcing in decadal climate predictions: A sensitivity experiment

Susanna Corti*, Tim Palmer, Magdalena Balmaseda, Antje Weisheimer, Sybren Drijfhout, Nick Dunstone, Wilco Hazeleger, Jürgen Kröger, Holger Pohlmann, Doug Smith, Jin Song Von Storch, Bert Wouters

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


The impact of initial conditions relative to external forcings in decadal integrations from an ensemble of state-of-the-art prediction models has been assessed using specifically designed sensitivity experiments (SWAP experiments). They consist of two sets of 10-yr-long ensemble hindcasts for two initial dates in 1965 and 1995 using either the external forcings from the "correct" decades or swapping the forcings between the two decades. By comparing the two sets of integrations, the impact of external forcing versus initial conditions on the predictability over multiannual time scales was estimated as the function of lead time of the hindcast. It was found that over time scales longer than about 1 yr, the predictability of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) on a global scale arises mainly from the external forcing. However, the correct initialization has a longer impact on SST predictability over specific regions such as the North Atlantic, the northwestern Pacific, and the Southern Ocean. The impact of initialization is even longer and extends to wider regions when below-surface ocean variables are considered. For the western and eastern tropical Atlantic, the impact of initialization for the 700-m heat content (HTC700) extends to as much as 9 years for some of the models considered. In all models the impact of initial conditions on the predictability of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is dominant for the first 5 years.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4454-4470
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • Climate models
  • Climate prediction
  • Decadal variability
  • Interdecadal variability
  • Model comparison
  • Oceanic variability


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