The Response of a Zonally Symmetric Atmosphere to Subtropical Thermal Forcing: Threshold Behavior

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  • 1 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • | 2 NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland
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Abstract

We consider the response of a zonally symmetric atmosphere to a thermal forcing that is localized in the subtropics. Specifically, the equilibrium temperature distribution has a local subtropical peak and is flat elsewhere, including at the equator. On the basis of inviscid steady-state theory, it is argued that the response to such forcing is one of two distinct types. Below a threshold forcing the atmosphere adopts a steady state of thermal equilibrium with no meridional flow. With supercritical forcing, this state breaks down and a strong meridional circulation is predicted. The threshold forcing value is that at which the absolute vorticity of the zonal flow (in gradient balance with the equilibrium temperatures) vanishes at the upper boundary. These inviscid predictions are tested in a zonally symmetric numerical model; while the model viscosity shifts the threshold and otherwise modifies the response, the threshold is clearly evident in the model behavior.

Abstract

We consider the response of a zonally symmetric atmosphere to a thermal forcing that is localized in the subtropics. Specifically, the equilibrium temperature distribution has a local subtropical peak and is flat elsewhere, including at the equator. On the basis of inviscid steady-state theory, it is argued that the response to such forcing is one of two distinct types. Below a threshold forcing the atmosphere adopts a steady state of thermal equilibrium with no meridional flow. With supercritical forcing, this state breaks down and a strong meridional circulation is predicted. The threshold forcing value is that at which the absolute vorticity of the zonal flow (in gradient balance with the equilibrium temperatures) vanishes at the upper boundary. These inviscid predictions are tested in a zonally symmetric numerical model; while the model viscosity shifts the threshold and otherwise modifies the response, the threshold is clearly evident in the model behavior.

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