The North Atlantic oscillation (NAO) is a climatic phenomenon in the North Atlantic Ocean of fluctuations in the difference of atmospheric pressure at sea level between the Icelandic low and the Azores high. Through east-west oscillation motions of the Icelandic low and the Azores high, it controls the strength and direction of westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. It is part of the Arctic oscillation, and varies over time with no particular periodicity.
The NAO was discovered in the 1920s by Sir Gilbert Walker. Unlike the El Niño-Southern Oscillation phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, the NAO is a largely atmospheric mode. It is one of the most important manifestations of climate fluctuations in the North Atlantic and surrounding humid climates. The North Atlantic Oscillation is closely related to the Arctic oscillation (AO) or Northern Annular Mode (NAM), but should not be confused with the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO).
The Arctic oscillation (AO) or Northern Annular Mode/Northern Hemisphere Annular Mode (NAM) is an index (which varies over time with no particular periodicity) of the dominant pattern of non-seasonal sea-level pressure variations north of 20N latitude, and it is characterized by pressure anomalies of one sign in the Arctic with the opposite anomalies centered about 37-45N.
The AO is believed by climatologists to be causally related to, and thus partially predictive of, weather patterns in locations many thousands of miles away, including many of the major population centers of Europe and North America. NASA climatologist Dr. James Hansen explains the mechanism by which the AO affects weather at points so distant from the Arctic: "The degree to which Arctic air penetrates into middle latitudes is related to the AO index, which is defined by surface atmospheric pressure patterns. When the AO index is positive, surface pressure is low in the polar region. This helps the middle latitude jet stream to blow strongly and consistently from west to east, thus keeping cold Arctic air locked in the polar region. When the AO index is negative, there tends to be high pressure in the polar region, weaker zonal winds, and greater movement of frigid polar air into middle latitudes."
This zonally symmetric seesaw between sea level pressures in polar and temperate latitudes was first identified by Edward Lorenz and named in 1998 by David W.J. Thompson and John Michael Wallace. The North Atlantic oscillation (NAO) is a close relative of the AO and there exist arguments about whether one or the other is more fundamentally representative of the atmosphere's dynamics; Ambaum et al. argue that the NAO can be identified in a more physically meaningful way.