A low-order quasigeostrophic double-gyre ocean model is subjected to an aperiodic forcing that mimics time dependence dominated by interdecadal variability. This model is used as a prototype of an unstable and nonlinear dynamical system with time-dependent forcing to explore basic features of climate change in the presence of natural variability. The study relies on the theoretical framework of nonautonomous dynamical systems and of their pullback attractors (PBAs), that is, of the time-dependent invariant sets attracting all trajectories initialized in the remote past. The existence of a global PBA is rigorously demonstrated for this weakly dissipative nonlinear model. Ensemble simulations are carried out and the convergence to PBAs is assessed by computing the probability density function (PDF) of localization of the trajectories. A sensitivity analysis with respect to forcing amplitude shows that the PBAs experience large modifications if the underlying autonomous system is dominated by small-amplitude limit cycles, while less dramatic changes occur in a regime characterized by large-amplitude relaxation oscillations. The dependence of the attracting sets on the choice of the ensemble of initial states is then analyzed. Two types of basins of attraction coexist for certain parameter ranges; they contain chaotic and nonchaotic trajectories, respectively. The statistics of the former does not depend on the initial states whereas the trajectories in the latter converge to small portions of the global PBA. This complex scenario requires separate PDFs for chaotic and nonchaotic trajectories. General implications for climate predictability are finally discussed.

%B Journal of Climate %V 29 %P 4185-4202 %8 Jun 2016 %G eng %N 11 %R 10.1175/jcli-d-15-0848.1