The latitude preference of the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) is examined on the basis of observations, theory, and a modeling analysis. Observations show that convection is enhanced at latitudes of about 4° to 10° relative to the equator, even in regions where the sea surface temperature (SST) is maximum on the equator. Both linear shallow-water theory and a moist primitive equation model suggest a new explanation for the off-equatorial latitude preference of the ITCZ that requires neither the existence of zonally propagating disturbances nor an off-equatorial maximum in SST. The shallow-water theory indicates that a finite-width, zonally oriented, midtropospheric heat source (i.e., an ITCZ) produces the greatest local low-level convergence when placed a finite distance away from the equator. This result suggests that an ITCZ is most likely to be supported via low-level convergence of moist energy when located at these “preferred” latitudes away from the equator. For a plausible range of heating widths and damping parameters, the theoretically predicted latitude is approximately equal to the observed position(s) of the ITCZ(s). Analysis with an axially symmetric, moist, primitive equation model indicates that when the latent heating field is allowed to be determined internally, a positive feedback develops between the midtropospheric latent heating and the low-level convergence, with the effect of enhancing the organization of convection at latitudes of about 4° to 12°. Numerical experiments show that 1) two peaks in convective precipitation develop straddling the equator when the SST maximum is located on the equator; 2) steady ITCZ-like structures form only when the SST maximum is located away from the equator; and 3) peaks in convection can develop away from the maximum in SST, with a particular preference for latitudes of about 4° to 12°, even in the (“cold”) hemisphere without the SST maximum. The relationship between this mechanism and earlier theories is discussed, as are implications for the coupled ocean-atmosphere system and the roles played by midlevel latent heating and SST gradients in forcing the low-level atmospheric circulation in the tropics.

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