Large-Scale Effects on the Regulation of Tropical Sea Surface Temperature

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  • 1 Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
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Abstract

The dominant terms in the surface energy budget of the tropical oceans are absorption of solar radiation and evaporative cooling. If it is assumed that relative humidity in the boundary layer remains constant, evaporative cooling will increase rapidly with sea surface temperature (SST) because of the, strong temperature dependence of saturation water vapor pressure. The resulting stabilization of SST provided by evaporative cooling is sufficient to overcome positive feedback contributed by the decrease of surface net longwave cooling with increasing SST. Evaporative cooling is sensitive to small changes in boundary-layer relative humidity. Large and negative shortwave cloud forcing in the regions of highest SST are supported by the moisture convergence associated with large-scale circulations. In the descending portions of these circulations the shortwave cloud forcing is suppressed. When the effect of these circulations is taken into account by spatial averaging, the area-averaged cloud forcing shows no sensitivity to area-averaged SST changes associated with the 1987 warming event in the tropical Pacific. While the shortwave cloud forcing is large and important in the convective regions, the importance of its role in regulating the average temperature of the tropics and in modulating temperature gradients within the tropics is less clear. A heuristic model of SST is used to illustrate the possible role of large-scale atmospheric circulations on SST in the tropics and the coupling between SST gradients and mean tropical SST. The intensity of large- scale circulations responds sensitively to SST gradients and affects the mean tropical SST by supplying dry air to the planetary boundary layer. Large SST gradients generate vigorous circulations that increase evaporation and reduce the mean SST.

Abstract

The dominant terms in the surface energy budget of the tropical oceans are absorption of solar radiation and evaporative cooling. If it is assumed that relative humidity in the boundary layer remains constant, evaporative cooling will increase rapidly with sea surface temperature (SST) because of the, strong temperature dependence of saturation water vapor pressure. The resulting stabilization of SST provided by evaporative cooling is sufficient to overcome positive feedback contributed by the decrease of surface net longwave cooling with increasing SST. Evaporative cooling is sensitive to small changes in boundary-layer relative humidity. Large and negative shortwave cloud forcing in the regions of highest SST are supported by the moisture convergence associated with large-scale circulations. In the descending portions of these circulations the shortwave cloud forcing is suppressed. When the effect of these circulations is taken into account by spatial averaging, the area-averaged cloud forcing shows no sensitivity to area-averaged SST changes associated with the 1987 warming event in the tropical Pacific. While the shortwave cloud forcing is large and important in the convective regions, the importance of its role in regulating the average temperature of the tropics and in modulating temperature gradients within the tropics is less clear. A heuristic model of SST is used to illustrate the possible role of large-scale atmospheric circulations on SST in the tropics and the coupling between SST gradients and mean tropical SST. The intensity of large- scale circulations responds sensitively to SST gradients and affects the mean tropical SST by supplying dry air to the planetary boundary layer. Large SST gradients generate vigorous circulations that increase evaporation and reduce the mean SST.

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