According to the study, surface temperatures could remain flat as long as the anomalous trade winds last, but that once they cease, the rise in surface temperatures will resume. Moreover, the heat currently submerged in Pacific waters will bubble to the surface and accelerate that trend.
"If the winds go back to normal the warming rise can be very rapid," England said. "The projections catch up as if the 'hiatus' never occurred."
The magnitude of the strengthening of trade winds was not considered in earlier climate change models. Plugging that data into existing models, the team of researchers found the current lull in recorded surface temperatures over the last decade suddenly appeared in line with expectations.
In good science, every answer opens the door to new questions. In this case, the next stages of research will address the mystery of what's causing that strengthening in the trade winds.
"The winds are twice as strong as what we would expect," England said.
That difference could easily be driven in part by global warming, he said, but the research isn't there yet to say for certain.
"Bottom line: Half natural and half driven by other changes, possibly climate change," he said.
Scientists aren't entirely sure when the additional strength of the trade winds will weaken, allowing the heat beneath the surface to escape and warm the atmosphere.
"It's virtually impossible to say," England said, while adding that the increase is "definitely temporary."
"Looking in the climate record over the last hundred years, [the trade winds tendency is to] flip every 20 to 25 years," he said. Using that as an estimate puts the timeframe to within about seven years from today.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in New York City