In the 1960s and early 1970s sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean cooled rapidly. There is still considerable uncertainty about the causes of this event, although various mechanisms have been proposed.
In this observational study it is demonstrated that the cooling proceeded in several distinct stages. Cool anomalies initially appeared in the mid-1960s in the Nordic Seas and Gulf Stream Extension, before spreading to cover most of the Subpolar Gyre. Subsequently, cool anomalies spread into the tropical North Atlantic before retreating, in the late 1970s, back to the Subpolar Gyre.
There is strong evidence that changes in atmospheric circulation, linked to a southward shift of the Atlantic ITCZ, played an important role in the event, particularly in the period 1972-76. Theories for the cooling event must account for its distinctive space-time evolution. Our analysis suggests that the most likely drivers were: 1) The ?Great Salinity Anomaly? of the late 1960s; 2) An earlier warming of the subpolar North Atlantic, which may have led to a slow-down in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation; 3) An increase in anthropogenic sulphur dioxide emissions. Determining the relative importance of these factors is a key area for future work.