Post tagged Large-Scale Dynamics

Understanding changes in the tropical Pacific atmospheric circulation with global warming

The weakening of the Walker circulation in the tropical Pacific is a robust response to global warming in climate models. This can have a global impact on climate, because the convection in the ascending branch of the Walker circulation triggers planetary scale waves that radiate to higher latitudes. In a recent article in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences (Wills et al. 2017), we study the physical mechanisms responsible for the Walker circulation weakening in an idealized model. Here, we discuss how this work applies to the real-world climate system and how Walker circulation changes are related to tropical Pacific sea-surface temperature changes.

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Atmospheric circulation changes control patterns of wetting and drying with global warming

The hydrological cycle will change substantially in response to global warming. For the most part, wet regions will get wetter and dry regions will get drier as the amount of water the atmosphere can carry increases with warming. But regional patterns of precipitation minus evaporation are influenced by planetary-scale stationary waves, which are subject to substantial shifts and changes in strength as the planet warms. These stationary-wave changes lead to large regional changes in the hydrological cycle and modify the sensitivity of the hydrological cycle to global warming.

One of the most substantial climate changes in response to global warming is the increase in atmospheric water vapor content. Because of the increase in moisture content, existing wind patterns carry more moisture and strengthen the atmospheric branch of the hydrological cycle: storms bring more rainfall, wet regions get wetter, and dry regions get drier (Held and Soden 2006, O’Gorman and Schneider 2009).

Changes in the winds lead to further changes in the hydrological cycle with global warming. For example, there is an expansion of the subtropical dry zones associated with the poleward expansion of the Hadley circulation with global warming (Lu et al. 2009). Even bigger changes can result from shifts or changes in strength of tropical and subtropical convergence zones. These circulation changes lead to regional departures from the “wet gets wetter, dry gets drier” idea (Chou and Neelin 2004, Seager et al. 2010).

Wills et al. (2016) present an analysis of how circulation changes influence the global pattern of change in net precipitation (precipitation minus evaporation, P – E). The focus is on the east-west (or zonal) variations of P – E, and how they change with global warming. Here, we overview some of the findings from this paper.

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Understanding the width of the ITCZ

The intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) is narrow, but why? Was the ITCZ narrower or wider in past climates? How will the width of the ITCZ respond to global warming? These questions challenge our understanding of climate dynamics, and have implications for the impact of climate change in the tropics.

Figure 1. The observed ITCZ: Average precipitation rate (1998-2014) over oceans from the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (colours). The red contour maps where the vertical velocity in the mid-troposphere is zero, i.e. the boundary separating regions of ascending and descending air in the tropics. Vertical velocity data are from the ERA-Interim reanalysis.

As described in the previous blogpost, the ITCZ is a band of intense rainfall that circles the Earth (Fig. 1), moving north and south across the equator over the course of a year following the seasonal cycle of solar insolation. Averaged over a year, the centre of the ITCZ lies just north of the equator. Considerable research has focused on why the ITCZ sits at 6° north on average, and how the ITCZ position varies with climate. What has received comparatively little attention is the width of the ITCZ. Despite being of fundamental importance for controlling tropical climate and sea-surface temperatures (Pierrehumbert 1995), it is not clear what controls the ITCZ width nor how it should respond to changes in climate. Studies with climate models have noted that the ITCZ width depends on interactions between radiation and clouds (Voigt & Shaw 2015) and how the model represents sub-grid scale convection (Kang et al. 2009), but a physical understanding of why the ITCZ width is affected by these processes is lacking. Here we present results from Byrne & Schneider (2016) in which we combine basic theory and idealised climate-model simulations to investigate the physical processes determining the width of the ITCZ and its sensitivity to climate change.

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Why does the ITCZ shift and how?

Annual-mean precipitation (colors) and surface winds (arrows). The precipitation data are from TRMM-TMPA for the years 1998– 2012, and the wind data are based on the ECMWF interim reanalysis for the same years. From Schneider et al. (2014).

Most rain on Earth falls in the tropical rain belt known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which on average lies 6° north of the equator. Over the past 15 years, it has become clear that the ITCZ position can shift drastically in response to remote changes, for example, in Arctic ice cover. But current climate models have difficulties simulating the ITCZ accurately, often exhibiting two ITCZs north and south of the equator when in reality there is only one. What controls the sensitivity of the ITCZ to remote forcings? And how do the model biases in the ITCZ arise?

Paleoclimate studies (e.g., Peterson et al. 2000, Haug et al. 2001) and a series of modeling studies starting with Vellinga and Wood (2002), Chiang and Bitz (2005) and Broccoli et al. (2006) have revealed one important driver of ITCZ shifts: differential heating or cooling of the hemispheres shifts the ITCZ toward the differentially warming hemisphere. So when the northern hemisphere warms, for example, because northern ice cover and with it the polar albedo are reduced, the ITCZ shifts northward. This can be rationalized as follows: When the atmosphere receives additional energy in the northern hemisphere, it attempts to rectify this imbalance by transporting energy across the equator from the north to the south. Most atmospheric energy transport near the equator is accomplished by the Hadley circulation, the mean tropical overturning circulation. The ITCZ lies at the foot of the ascending branch of the Hadley circulation, and the circulation transports energy in the direction of its upper branch, because energy (or, more precisely, moist static energy) usually increases with height in the atmosphere. Southward energy transport across the equator then requires an ITCZ north of the equator, so the upper branch of the Hadley circulation can cross the equator going from the north to the south. Read more “Why does the ITCZ shift and how?” »