Why the ITCZ is mostly north of the equator

S. G.H. Philander, D. Gu, D. Halpern, G. Lambert, N. C. Lau, T. Li, R. C. Pacanowski

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Although the distribution of sunshine is symmetrical about the equator, the earth's climate is not. Climatic asymmetries are prominent in the eastern tropical Pacific and Atlantic Oceans where the regions of maximum sea surface temperature, convective cloud cover, and rainfall are north of the equator. This is the result of two sets of factors: interactions between the ocean and atmosphere that are capable of converting symmetry into asymmetry, and the geometries of the continents that determine in which longitudes the interactions are effective and in which hemisphere the warmest waters and the intertropical convergence zone are located. The ocean-atmosphere interactions are most effective where the thermocline is shallow because the winds can readily affect sea surface temperatures in such regions. The thermocline happens to shoal in the eastern equatorial Pacific and Atlantic, but not in the eastern Indian Ocean, because easterly trade winds prevail over the tropical Atlantic and Pacific whereas monsoons, with a far larger meridional component, are dominant over the Indian Ocean. That is how the global distribution of the continents, by determining the large-scale wind patterns, causes climatic asymmetries to be prominent in some bands of longitude but not others. The explanation for asymmetries that favor the Northern rather than Southern Hemisphere with the warmest waters and the ITCZ involves the details of the local coastal geometries: the bulge of western Africa to the north of the Gulf of Guinea and the slope of the western coast of the Americas relative to meridians. Low-level stratus clouds over cold waters are crucial to the maintenance of the asymmetries.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2958-2972
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1996

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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