Tropical precipitation, SSTs and the surface energy budget: A zonally symmetric perspective

Sarah M. Kang, Isaac M. Held

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


The relative importance of sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and the surface energy budget to tropical precipitation is examined by comparing models with zonally symmetric climates, both fixed SST and coupled to a slab mixed layer ocean. Two models are considered with differing surface flux formulations and in each case solutions that are symmetric about the equator are perturbed to create interhemispheric asymmetry. When SSTs are prescribed in the two models with different flux formulations, the magnitude of tropical precipitation response to identical SST anomalies is significantly different, but the differences can be understood in terms of the altered surface fluxes. In contrast, when the net surface energy fluxes are constrained to be identical in mixed layer simulations of the two different models, the response of tropical precipitation to perturbations in the surface energy balance is very similar. Both perspectives predict qualitatively the same precipitation response, but the energy budget better predicts the magnitude of the precipitation response. Thus, we argue that the atmospheric energy budget, controlled in these experiments primarily by the surface energy budget, is more fundamental to the control of tropical precipitation than the SSTs, in these simulations with axisymmetric climates. We touch briefly on a complication in the interpretation of the model results due to the fact that fixed SST and slab-ocean versions of the model can produce different Hadley cell strengths for the same SSTs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1917-1924
Number of pages8
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number9-10
StatePublished - May 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • Atmospheric energy budget
  • Sea surface temperatures
  • Tropical precipitation
  • Zonally symmetric


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