The Sensitivity of the Tropical Hydrological Cycle to ENSO

Brian J. Soden National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey

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Abstract

Satellite observations of temperature, water vapor, precipitation and longwave radiation are used to characterize the variation of the tropical hydrologic and energy budgets associated with the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). As the tropical oceans warm during an El Niño event, the precipitation intensity, water vapor mass, and temperature of the tropical atmosphere are observed to increase, reflecting a more vigorous hydrologic cycle. The enhanced latent heat release and resultant atmospheric warming lead to an increase in the emission of longwave radiation. Atmospheric global climate models, forced with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs), accurately reproduce the observed tropospheric temperature, water vapor, and outgoing longwave radiation changes. However, the predicted variations in tropical-mean precipitation rate and surface longwave radiation are substantially smaller than observed. The comparison suggests that either (i) the sensitivity of the tropical hydrological cycle to ENSO-driven changes in SST is substantially underpredicted in existing climate models or (ii) that current satellite observations are inadequate to accurately monitor ENSO-related changes in the tropical-mean precipitation. Either conclusion has important implications for current efforts to monitor and predict changes in the intensity of the hydrological cycle.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Brian J. Soden, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, P.O. Box 308, Princeton, NJ 08542.

Email: bjs@gfdl.gov

Abstract

Satellite observations of temperature, water vapor, precipitation and longwave radiation are used to characterize the variation of the tropical hydrologic and energy budgets associated with the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). As the tropical oceans warm during an El Niño event, the precipitation intensity, water vapor mass, and temperature of the tropical atmosphere are observed to increase, reflecting a more vigorous hydrologic cycle. The enhanced latent heat release and resultant atmospheric warming lead to an increase in the emission of longwave radiation. Atmospheric global climate models, forced with observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs), accurately reproduce the observed tropospheric temperature, water vapor, and outgoing longwave radiation changes. However, the predicted variations in tropical-mean precipitation rate and surface longwave radiation are substantially smaller than observed. The comparison suggests that either (i) the sensitivity of the tropical hydrological cycle to ENSO-driven changes in SST is substantially underpredicted in existing climate models or (ii) that current satellite observations are inadequate to accurately monitor ENSO-related changes in the tropical-mean precipitation. Either conclusion has important implications for current efforts to monitor and predict changes in the intensity of the hydrological cycle.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Brian J. Soden, NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, P.O. Box 308, Princeton, NJ 08542.

Email: bjs@gfdl.gov

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