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Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

Sulfate aerosol radiative forcing alters the distribution of tropical precipitation in climate model simulations. The annual-mean tropical precipitation change is typically described as arising from an annual-mean change in the mean atmospheric circulation. However, the seasonality of the climatology of tropical humidity may modulate the annual-mean precipitation response. Here, the role of seasonality of tropical humidity is assessed using reanalysis and idealized atmospheric general circulation model (GCM) simulations perturbed by sulfate aerosol radiative forcing. When coupled to an aquaplanet slab ocean with low thermal inertia, the seasonal cycle in GCM simulations of the “continental” regime is large and the annual-mean precipitation change depends on both the seasonally varying perturbation mean meridional circulation and the seasonally varying climatological specific humidity. When coupled to an aquaplanet slab ocean with a higher thermal inertia, the seasonal cycle in GCM simulations of the “oceanic” regime is smaller and the annual-mean precipitation change can be approximated by considering the perturbation convergence of the water vapor flux of the annual-mean perturbation mean meridional circulation and the annual-mean climatological specific humidity. The results of the aquaplanet simulations taken together with the magnitude of the seasonality of humidity in an atmospheric reanalysis suggest that the simplest forms of energetic arguments for the tropical precipitation response to perturbations in the atmospheric energy budget, which neglect an explicit role for the seasonality of the radiative forcing and the climatological specific humidity, are not quantitatively accurate for Earth’s tropical land regions.

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Timothy M. Merlis and Matthew Henry

Abstract

Diffusive energy balance models (EBMs) that use moist static energy, rather than temperature, as the thermodynamic variable to determine the energy transport provide an idealized framework to understand the pattern of radiatively forced surface warming. These models have a polar amplified warming pattern that is quantitatively similar to general circulation model simulations. Even without surface albedo changes or other spatially varying feedbacks, they simulate polar amplification that results from increased poleward energy transport with warming. Here, two estimates for polar amplification are presented that do not require numerical solution of the EBM governing equation. They are evaluated relative to the results of numerical moist EBM solutions. One estimate considers only changes in a moist thermodynamic quantity (assuming that the increase in energy transport results in a spatially uniform change in moist static energy in the warmed climate) and has more polar amplification than the EBM solution. The other estimate uses a new solution of a truncated form of the moist EBM equation, which allows for a temperature change that is consistent with both the dry and latent energy transport changes, as well as radiative changes. The truncated EBM solution provides an estimate for polar amplification that is nearly identical to that of the numerical EBM solution and only depends on the EBM parameters and climatology of temperature. This solution sheds light on the dependence of polar amplification on the climatological temperature distribution and offers an estimate of the residual polar warming in solar radiation management geoengineered climates.

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Timothy M. Merlis and Tapio Schneider

Abstract

Linear stability analyses are performed on a wide range of mean flows simulated with a dry idealized general circulation model. The zonal length scale of the linearly most unstable waves is similar to the Rossby radius. It is also similar to the energy-containing zonal length scale in statistically steady states of corresponding nonlinear simulations. The meridional length scale of the linearly most unstable waves is generally smaller than the energy-containing meridional length scale in the corresponding nonlinear simulations. The growth rate of the most unstable waves increases with increasing Eady growth rate, but the scaling relationship is not linear in general. The available potential energy and barotropic and baroclinic kinetic energies of the linearly most unstable waves scale linearly with each other, with similar partitionings among the energy forms as in the corresponding nonlinear simulations. These results show that the mean flows in the nonlinear simulations are baroclinically unstable, yet there is no substantial inverse cascade of barotropic eddy kinetic energy from the baroclinic generation scale to larger scales, even in strongly unstable flows. Some aspects of the nonlinear simulations, such as partitionings among eddy energies, can be understood on the basis of linear stability analyses; for other aspects, such as the structure of heat and momentum fluxes, nonlinear modifications of the waves are important.

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Michael Rollings and Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

Reanalysis and other observationally-based estimates suggest the tropics have expanded more than simulated by coupled climate models with historical radiative forcing. Previous research has attempted to reconcile this discrepancy by using climate model simulations with constrained tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs) to account for the role of internal variability. Here the relationships between Hadley cell extent and internal SST variability and long-term warming are analysed using purely observational techniques. Using linearly independent components of SST variability with reanalysis datasets, the statistical relationship between Pacific variability and Hadley cell extent is quantified by timescale. There is a strong correlation between North Pacific decadal SST variability and Southern Hemisphere Hadley cell extent. Conversely, there is a weaker observed relation between the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Hadley cell extent when low-frequency variability is filtered out of the ENSO signal. The observed linear sensitivity of Hadley cell width to long-termwarming agrees with coupled general circulation model experiments when accounting for uncertainties, and there is a statistically significant relationship between Northern Hemisphere Hadley cell extent and long-term warming during boreal autumn.

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Matthew Henry and Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

The Stefan–Boltzmann law governs the temperature dependence of the blackbody emission of radiation: . A consequence of this nonlinearity is that a cold object needs a greater increase in temperature than a hot object in order to reach the same increase in radiation emitted. Therefore, this nonlinearity potentially has an impact on the structure of radiatively forced atmospheric temperature change in both the horizontal and vertical directions. For example, it has previously been argued to be a cause of polar amplification (PA) of surface air warming. Here, the role of this nonlinearity is investigated by 1) assessing the magnitude of its effect on PA compared to spatial variations in CO2’s radiative forcing for Earth’s atmosphere and 2) linearizing in a gray radiation atmospheric general circulation model (GCM) with an interactive hydrological cycle. Estimates for Earth’s atmosphere show that the combination of the Planck feedback and forcing from CO2 would produce a tropically amplified warming if they were the only means of changing the Earth’s energy balance. Contrary to expectations, climate change simulations with linearized radiation do not have reduced polar amplification of surface air warming relative to the standard GCM configuration. However, simulations with linearized radiation consistently show less warming in the upper troposphere and more warming in the lower troposphere across latitudes. The lapse rate feedbacks from pure radiative and radiative–convective configurations of the model are used to show that the “cold-altitudes-warm-more” effect of the nonlinearity carries across this model hierarchy.

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Timothy M. Merlis and Tapio Schneider

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Variations in zonal surface temperature gradients and zonally asymmetric tropical overturning circulations (Walker circulations) are examined over a wide range of climates simulated with an idealized atmospheric general circulation model (GCM). The asymmetry in the tropical climate is generated by an imposed ocean energy flux, which does not vary with climate. The range of climates is simulated by modifying the optical thickness of an idealized longwave absorber (representing greenhouse gases).

The zonal surface temperature gradient in low latitudes generally decreases as the climate warms in the idealized GCM simulations. A scaling relationship based on a two-term balance in the surface energy budget accounts for the changes in the zonally asymmetric component of the GCM-simulated surface temperature.

The Walker circulation weakens as the climate warms in the idealized simulations, as it does in comprehensive simulations of climate change. The wide range of climates allows a systematic test of energetic arguments that have been proposed to account for these changes in the tropical circulation. The analysis shows that a scaling estimate based on changes in the hydrological cycle (precipitation rate and saturation specific humidity) accounts for the simulated changes in the Walker circulation. However, it must be evaluated locally, with local precipitation rates. If global-mean quantities are used, the scaling estimate does not generally account for changes in the Walker circulation, and the extent to which it does is the result of compensating errors in changes in precipitation and saturation specific humidity that enter the scaling estimate.

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Nicole Feldl, Simona Bordoni, and Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

The response of atmospheric heat transport to anthropogenic warming is determined by the anomalous meridional energy gradient. Feedback analysis offers a characterization of that gradient and hence reveals how uncertainty in physical processes may translate into uncertainty in the circulation response. However, individual feedbacks do not act in isolation. Anomalies associated with one feedback may be compensated by another, as is the case for the positive water vapor and negative lapse rate feedbacks in the tropics. Here a set of idealized experiments are performed in an aquaplanet model to evaluate the coupling between the surface albedo feedback and other feedbacks, including the impact on atmospheric heat transport. In the tropics, the dynamical response manifests as changes in the intensity and structure of the overturning Hadley circulation. Only half of the range of Hadley cell weakening exhibited in these experiments is found to be attributable to imposed, systematic variations in the surface albedo feedback. Changes in extratropical clouds that accompany the albedo changes explain the remaining spread. The feedback-driven circulation changes are compensated by eddy energy flux changes, which reduce the overall spread among experiments. These findings have implications for the efficiency with which the climate system, including tropical circulation and the hydrological cycle, adjusts to high-latitude feedbacks over climate states that range from perennial or seasonal ice to ice-free conditions in the Arctic.

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Cécile L. Defforge and Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

Recent studies have reaffirmed a global threshold sea surface temperature (SST) of 26°C for tropical cyclone (TC) genesis. However, it is well understood that other thermodynamic variables influence TC genesis and that high SST in isolation is not a sufficient criterion for genesis. Here, a basin-by-basin analysis of the SST distributions in the five most active ocean basins is performed, which shows that there is no global SST threshold for TC genesis. The distributions of genesis SST show substantial variations between basins. Furthermore, analysis of the conditional probability of genesis for a given TC season main development region SST suggests that the SST bounds for TC genesis are largely determined by the climatological bounds of the basin and that the SST values within this environmental range have similar probabilities of genesis. The distribution of relative SST (the difference between local and tropical mean) and tropical cyclone potential intensity at TC genesis are more distinct from those of the TC season environment, consistent with their utility in TC genesis indices.

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Eric Bembenek, David N. Straub, and Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

The effects of moisture on the energetics of a statistically stationary, baroclinically unstable jet representing the midlatitude atmosphere are examined using a two-layer, β-plane shallow-water model. Flow is driven by a relaxation of the interface between the two layers to a baroclinically unstable profile. Moisture is input to the lower layer by evaporation. When supersaturation occurs, precipitation is triggered and the related latent heat release drives a mass transfer between the two layers. A comparison between dry and moist reference atmospheres shows that precipitation reduces eddy kinetic energy. This is related to the meridional distribution of precipitation, which occurs on the poleward side of the jet (where the interface field is raised). This latitudinal structure of precipitation is related to a correlation between poleward flow and ascent, which is analyzed using a shallow-water analog to the ω equation. The precipitation effect on the energy budget is predominately due to zonal- and time-averaged terms. Because of this, dry simulations in which the thermal forcing is modified to mimic the effect of zonally averaged precipitation are carried out and compared with their precipitating counterparts. These simulations show a similar reduction of baroclinic eddy kinetic energy; however, the barotropic eddy kinetic energy response shows a larger difference.

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Malte F. Jansen, Louis-Philippe Nadeau, and Timothy M. Merlis

Abstract

Much of the existing theory for the ocean’s overturning circulation considers steady-state equilibrium solutions. However, Earth’s climate is not in a steady state, and a better understanding of the ocean’s nonequilibrium response to changes in the surface climate is urgently needed. Here, the time-dependent response of the deep-ocean overturning circulation to atmospheric warming is examined using a hierarchy of idealized ocean models. The transient response to surface warming is characterized by a shoaling and weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC)—consistent with results from coupled climate simulations. The initial shoaling and weakening of the AMOC occurs on decadal time scales and is attributed to a rapid warming of northern-sourced deep water. The equilibrium response to warming, in contrast, is associated with a deepening and strengthening of the AMOC. The eventual deepening of the AMOC is argued to be associated with abyssal density changes and driven by modified surface fluxes in the Southern Ocean, following a reduction of the Antarctic sea ice cover. Full equilibration of the AMOC requires a diffusive adjustment of the abyss and takes many millennia. The equilibration time scale is much longer than most coupled climate model simulations, highlighting the importance of considering integration time and initial conditions when interpreting the deep-ocean circulation in climate models. The results also show that past climates are unlikely to be an adequate analog for changes in the overturning circulation during the coming decades or centuries.

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