Anthropogenic weakening of the tropical circulation: The relative roles of direct CO2 forcing and sea surface temperature change

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There is a lack of consensus on the physical mechanisms that drive the anthropogenic weakening of tropical circulation. This study investigates the relative roles of direct CO2 forcing, mean SST warming, and the pattern of SST change on the weakening of the tropical circulation using an ensemble of AMIP and aquaplanet simulations. In terms of the mean weakening of the tropical circulation, the SST warming dominates over the direct CO2 forcing through its control over the tropical mean hydrological cycle and tropospheric stratification. In terms of the spatial pattern of circulation weakening, however, the three forcing agents are all important contributors, especially over the ocean. The increasing CO2 weakens convection over ocean directly by stabilizing the lower troposphere and indirectly via the land-sea warming contrast. The mean SST warming drives strong weakening over the centers and edges of convective zones. The pattern of SST warming plays a crucial role on the spatial pattern of circulation weakening over the tropical Pacific. The anthropogenic weakening of the Walker circulation is mostly driven by the mean SST warming. Increasing CO2 strengthens the Walker circulation through its indirect effect on land-sea warming contrast. Changes in the upper-level velocity potential indicate that the pattern of SST warming does not weaken the Walker circulation despite being "El Niño-like." A weakening caused by the mean SST warming also dominates changes in the Hadley circulation in the AMIP simulations. However, this weakening is not simulated in the Southern Hemisphere in coupled simulations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8728-8742
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number22
StatePublished - 2015


  • Atmosphere-ocean interaction
  • Climate change
  • Climate models
  • Convection
  • Hydrologic cycle
  • Walker circulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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