Northern Hemisphere continental winter warming following the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption: reconciling models and observations
It has been suggested, and is widely believed, that the anomalous surface warming observed over the Northern Hemisphere continents in the winter following the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was, in fact, caused by that eruption, via a stratospheric pathway that involves a strengthening of the polar vortex. However, most studies that have examined multiple, state-of-the-art, coupled climate models report that, in the ensemble mean, the models do not show winter warming after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption. This lack of surface warming in the multi-model mean, concomitant with a frequent lack of strengthening of the polar vortex, is often interpreted as a failure of the models to reproduce the observations. In this paper we show that this interpretation is erroneous, as averaging many simulations from different models, or from the same model, is not expected to yield surface anomalies similar to the observed ones, even if the models were highly accurate, owing to the presence of strong internal variability. We here analyze three large ensembles of state-of-the-art, coupled climate model simulations and show that, in all three, many individual ensemble members are able to produce post-Pinatubo surface warming in winter that is comparable to the observed one. This establishes that current-generation climate models are perfectly capable of reproducing the observed surface post-eruption warming. We also confirm the bulk of previous studies, and show that the surface anomaly is not statistically different from zero when averaged across ensembles of simulations, which we interpret as the simple fact that the volcanic impact on continental winter temperatures is tiny compared to internal variability. We also carefully examine the stratospheric pathway in our models and, again confirming previous work, show that any strengthening of the polar vortex caused by the Mt. Pinatubo eruption is very small (of the order of a few meters per second at best). Such minuscule anomalies of the stratospheric circulation are completely overwhelmed by the tropospheric variability at midlatitudes, which is known to be very large: this explains the lack of surface winter warming in the ensemble means. In summary, our analysis and interpretation offer compelling new evidence that the observed warming of the Northern Hemisphere continents in the winter 1991–1992 was very likely unrelated to the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption.