Equilibrium atmospheric response to north Atlantic SST anomalies

Yochanan Kushnir, Isaac M. Held

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153 Scopus citations


The equilibrium general circulation model (GCM) response to sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the western North Atlantic region is studied. A coarse resolution GCM, with realistic lower boundary conditions including topography and climalological SST distribution, is integrated in perpetual January and perpetual October modes, distinguished from one another by the strength of the midlatitude westerlies. An SST anomaly with a maximum of 4°C is added to the climatological SST distribution of the model with both positive and negative polarity. These anomaly runs are compared to one another, and to a control integration, to determine the atmospheric response. In all cases warming (cooling) of the midlatitude ocean surface yields a warming (cooling) of the atmosphere over and to the east of the SST anomaly center. The atmospheric temperature change is largest near the surface and decreases upward. Consistent with this simple thermal response, the geopotential height field displays a baroclinic response with a shallow anomalous low somewhat downstream from the warm SST anomaly. The equivalent barotropic, downstream response is weak and not robust. To help interpret the results, the realistic GCM integrations are compared with parallel idealized model runs. The idealized model has full physics and a similar horizontal and vertical resolution, but an all-ocean surface with a single, permanent zonal asymmetry. The idealized and realistic versions of the GCM display compatible response patterns that are qualitatively consistent with stationary, linear, quasigeostrophic theory. However, the idealized model response is stronger and more coherent. The differences between the two model response patterns can be reconciled based on the size of the anomaly, the model treatment of cloud-radiation interaction, and the static stability of the model atmosphere in the vicinity of the SST anomaly. Model results are contrasted with other GCM studies and observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1208-1220
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1996
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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