Dynamics of the shallow meridional circulation around intertropical convergence zones

David S. Nolan, Chidong Zhang, Shu Hua Chen

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39 Scopus citations


The generally accepted view of the meridional circulation in the tropical east Pacific is that of a single deep overturning cell driven by deep convective heating in the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), similar to the zonal mean Hadley circulation. However, recent observations of the atmosphere from the tropical eastern Pacific have called this view into question. In several independent datasets, significant meridional return flows out of the ITCZ region were observed, not only at high altitudes, but also at low altitudes, just above the atmospheric boundary layer. This paper presents a theory and idealized simulations to understand the causes and dynamics of this shallow meridional circulation (SMC). Fundamentally, the SMC can be seen as a large-scale sea-breeze circulation driven by sea surface temperature gradients when deep convection is absent in the ITCZ region. A simple model of this circulation is presented. Using observed values, the sea-breeze model shows that the pressure gradient above the boundary can indeed reverse, leading to the pressure force that drives the shallow return flow out of the ITCZ. The Weather Research and Forecast Model (WRF) is used to simulate an idealized Hadley circulation driven by moist convection in a tropical channel. The SMC is reproduced, with reasonable similarity to the circulation observed in the east Pacific. The simulations confirm that the SMC is driven by a reversal of the pressure gradient above the boundary layer, and that the return flow is strongest when deep convection is absent in the ITCZ, and weakest when deep convection is active. The model also shows that moisture transport out of the ITCZ region is far greater in the low-level shallow return flow than in the high-altitude return flow associated with the deep overturning, and that a budget for water transport in and out of the ITCZ region is grossly incomplete without it. Much of the moisture carried in the shallow return flow is recycled into the boundary layer, but does not appear to contribute to enhanced cloudiness in the subtropical stratocumulus poleward of the ITCZ.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2262-2285
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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