Cause of the Intense Tropics-Wide Tropospheric Warming in Response to El Niño

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During El Niño events, a strong tropics-wide warming of the free troposphere is observed (of order 1 K at 300 hPa). This warming plays an important role for the teleconnection processes associated with El Niño but it remains unclear what initiates this warming. Since convective quasi-equilibrium only holds in regions of deep convection, the strong free-tropospheric warming implies that the warmest surface waters (where atmospheric deep convection occurs) must warm during El Niño. We analyze the evolution of the oceanic mixed layer heat budget over El Niño events as function of sea surface temperature (SST). Data from the ERA5 and an unforced simulation of a coupled climate model both confirm that SSTs during an El Niño event increase at the high end of the SST distribution. The data show that this is due to an anomalous heat flux from the atmosphere into the ocean caused by a decrease in evaporation due anomalously weak low-level winds (i.e., relative to the wind speed observed in the domain of deep convection in the climatological base state). It is hypothesized that the more zonally symmetric circulation during El Niño is responsible for the weakening of low-level winds. The result of a substantial heat flux into the ocean in the domain of atmospheric deep convection (the opposite of the canonical heat flux out of the ocean into the atmosphere observed in the cold eastern Pacific) caused by a decrease in low-level wind speed implies that the prominent tropospheric warming results from mechanical forcing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2933-2944
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 15 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • ENSO
  • Energy budget/balance
  • Tropical variability


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