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Tropical Rainfall Trends and the Indirect Aerosol Effect

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  • 1 CSIRO Atmospheric Research, Aspendale, Victoria, Australia
  • | 2 Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
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Abstract

An atmospheric global climate model coupled to a mixed layer ocean model is used to study changes in tropical rainfall due to the indirect effects of anthropogenic sulfate aerosol. The model is run to equilibrium for present-day (PD) and preindustrial (PI) sulfur emission scenarios. As in two other recent studies, the model generally gives a southward shift of tropical rainfall in the PD run relative to the PI run. This is largely due to a hemispheric asymmetry in the reduction of sea surface temperature (SST) induced by the perturbation of cloud albedo and lifetime.

Observed precipitation trends over land for the period 1900–98 show a complex pattern in the Tropics, but when zonally averaged, a southward shift similar to (but weaker than) the modeled shift is clearly evident. The zonally averaged tropical trends are significant at the 5% level in several latitude bands. The modeled present-day hemispheric contrast in cloud droplet effective radius (which affects cloud albedo) is well supported by one long-term satellite retrieval, but not by another. A third satellite retrieval, which only covers an 8-month period, does show a marked hemispheric contrast in effective radius.

Both in the modeled changes and the observed trends, a prominent feature is the drying of the Sahel in North Africa. Modeled dynamical changes in this region are similar to observed changes that have been associated with Sahelian drought. Previous work has identified a near-global, quasi-hemispheric pattern of contrasting SST anomalies (cool in the Northern Hemisphere and warm in the Southern Hemisphere) associated with dry conditions in the Sahel. The present results, combined with this earlier finding, suggest that the indirect effects of anthropogenic sulfate may have contributed to the Sahelian drying trend. More generally, it is concluded that spatially varying aerosol-related forcing (both direct and indirect) can substantially alter low-latitude circulation and rainfall.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Leon Rotstayn, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, PMB1 Aspendale, Vic 3195, Australia. Email: leon.rotstayn@csiro.au

Abstract

An atmospheric global climate model coupled to a mixed layer ocean model is used to study changes in tropical rainfall due to the indirect effects of anthropogenic sulfate aerosol. The model is run to equilibrium for present-day (PD) and preindustrial (PI) sulfur emission scenarios. As in two other recent studies, the model generally gives a southward shift of tropical rainfall in the PD run relative to the PI run. This is largely due to a hemispheric asymmetry in the reduction of sea surface temperature (SST) induced by the perturbation of cloud albedo and lifetime.

Observed precipitation trends over land for the period 1900–98 show a complex pattern in the Tropics, but when zonally averaged, a southward shift similar to (but weaker than) the modeled shift is clearly evident. The zonally averaged tropical trends are significant at the 5% level in several latitude bands. The modeled present-day hemispheric contrast in cloud droplet effective radius (which affects cloud albedo) is well supported by one long-term satellite retrieval, but not by another. A third satellite retrieval, which only covers an 8-month period, does show a marked hemispheric contrast in effective radius.

Both in the modeled changes and the observed trends, a prominent feature is the drying of the Sahel in North Africa. Modeled dynamical changes in this region are similar to observed changes that have been associated with Sahelian drought. Previous work has identified a near-global, quasi-hemispheric pattern of contrasting SST anomalies (cool in the Northern Hemisphere and warm in the Southern Hemisphere) associated with dry conditions in the Sahel. The present results, combined with this earlier finding, suggest that the indirect effects of anthropogenic sulfate may have contributed to the Sahelian drying trend. More generally, it is concluded that spatially varying aerosol-related forcing (both direct and indirect) can substantially alter low-latitude circulation and rainfall.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Leon Rotstayn, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, PMB1 Aspendale, Vic 3195, Australia. Email: leon.rotstayn@csiro.au

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