The Effects of Orography on Midlatitude Northern Hemisphere Dry Climates

A. J. Broccoli Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboralory/N0AA, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

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S. Manabe Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboralory/N0AA, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

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Abstract

The role of mountains in maintaining extensive midlatitude arid regions in the Northern Hemisphere was investigated using simulations from the GFDL Global Climate Model with and without orography. In the integration with mountains, dry climates were simulated over central Asia and the interior of North America, in good agreement with the observed climate. In contrast, moist climates were simulated in the same regions in the integration without mountains. During all season but summer, large amplitude stationary waves occur in response to the Tibetan Plateau and Rocky Mountains. The midlatitude dry regions are located upstream of the troughs of these waves, where general subsidence and relatively infrequent storm development occur and precipitation is thus inhibited. In summer, this mechanism contributes to the dryness of interior North America as a stationary wave trough remains east of the Rockies, but is not effective in Eurasia due to seasonal changes in the atmospheric circulation. The dryness of interior Eurasia in summer results, in part, from the south Asian monsoon circulation induced by the Tibetan Plateau. Its rising branch is centered above the southeastern Tibetan Plateau, and its salient features are a cyclonic flow at low levels (the “south Asian low”) and an anticyclonic flow in the upper troposphere. This circulation is associated with a northward displacement of the storm track and a flow of relatively dry, subsiding air across much of central Asia. In addition, land surface–atmosphere feedback contributes to the dryness of all midlatitude dry regions. Although the effect of this feedback is small in winter, it is responsible for more than half of the reduction in summer precipitation. Orography also substantially reduces the moisture transport across the continental interiors. The results from this experiment suggest that midlatitude dryness is largely due to the existence of orography. This is an alternative to the traditional explanation that distance from oceanic moisture sources, accentuated locally by the presence of mountain barriers upwind, is the major cause of midlatitude dry regions. Paleoclimatic evidence of less aridity during the late Tertiary, before substantial uplift of the Rocky Mountains and Tibetan Plateau is believed to have occurred, supports this possibility.

Abstract

The role of mountains in maintaining extensive midlatitude arid regions in the Northern Hemisphere was investigated using simulations from the GFDL Global Climate Model with and without orography. In the integration with mountains, dry climates were simulated over central Asia and the interior of North America, in good agreement with the observed climate. In contrast, moist climates were simulated in the same regions in the integration without mountains. During all season but summer, large amplitude stationary waves occur in response to the Tibetan Plateau and Rocky Mountains. The midlatitude dry regions are located upstream of the troughs of these waves, where general subsidence and relatively infrequent storm development occur and precipitation is thus inhibited. In summer, this mechanism contributes to the dryness of interior North America as a stationary wave trough remains east of the Rockies, but is not effective in Eurasia due to seasonal changes in the atmospheric circulation. The dryness of interior Eurasia in summer results, in part, from the south Asian monsoon circulation induced by the Tibetan Plateau. Its rising branch is centered above the southeastern Tibetan Plateau, and its salient features are a cyclonic flow at low levels (the “south Asian low”) and an anticyclonic flow in the upper troposphere. This circulation is associated with a northward displacement of the storm track and a flow of relatively dry, subsiding air across much of central Asia. In addition, land surface–atmosphere feedback contributes to the dryness of all midlatitude dry regions. Although the effect of this feedback is small in winter, it is responsible for more than half of the reduction in summer precipitation. Orography also substantially reduces the moisture transport across the continental interiors. The results from this experiment suggest that midlatitude dryness is largely due to the existence of orography. This is an alternative to the traditional explanation that distance from oceanic moisture sources, accentuated locally by the presence of mountain barriers upwind, is the major cause of midlatitude dry regions. Paleoclimatic evidence of less aridity during the late Tertiary, before substantial uplift of the Rocky Mountains and Tibetan Plateau is believed to have occurred, supports this possibility.

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