Global warming pattern formation: Sea surface temperature and rainfall

Shang Ping Xie, Clara Deser, Gabriel Andres Vecchi, Jian Ma, Haiyan Teng, Andrew T. Wittenberg

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917 Scopus citations


Spatial variations in sea surface temperature (SST) and rainfall changes over the tropics are investigated based on ensemble simulations for the first half of the twenty-first century under the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission scenario A1B with coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation models of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) and National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Despite a GHG increase that is nearly uniform in space, pronounced patterns emerge in both SST and precipitation. Regional differences in SST warming can be as large as the tropical-mean warming. Specifically, the tropical Pacific warming features a conspicuous maximum along the equator and a minimum in the southeast subtropics. The former is associated with westerly wind anomalies whereas the latter is linked to intensified southeast trade winds, suggestive of wind-evaporation-SST feedback. There is a tendency for a greater warming in the northern subtropics than in the southern subtropics in accordance with asymmetries in trade wind changes. Over the equatorial Indian Ocean, surface wind anomalies are easterly, the thermocline shoals, and the warming is reduced in the east, indicative of Bjerknes feedback. In the midlatitudes, ocean circulation changes generate narrow banded structures in SST warming. The warming is negatively correlated with wind speed change over the tropics and positively correlated with ocean heat transport change in the northern extratropics. A diagnostic method based on the ocean mixed layer heat budget is developed to investigate mechanisms for SST pattern formation. Tropical precipitation changes are positively correlated with spatial deviations of SST warming from the tropical mean. In particular, the equatorial maximum in SST warming over the Pacific anchors a band of pronounced rainfall increase. The gross moist instability follows closely relative SST change as equatorial wave adjustments flatten upper-tropospheric warming. The comparison with atmospheric simulations in response to a spatially uniform SST warming illustrates the importance of SST patterns for rainfall change, an effect overlooked in current discussion of precipitation response to global warming. Implications for the global and regional response of tropical cyclones are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)966-986
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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