Reorganization of tropical climate during El Niño: A weak temperature gradient approach

Benjamin R. Lintner, John C.H. Chiang

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8 Scopus citations


The applicability of a weak temperature gradient (WTG) formulation for the reorganization of tropical climate during El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events is investigated. This idealized dynamical framework solves for the divergent portion of the tropical circulation by assuming a spatially homogeneous perturbation temperature profile and a mass balance constraint applied over the tropical belt. An intermediate-level complexity model [the Quasi-Equilibrium Tropical Circulation Model (QTCM)] configured with the WTG assumptions is used to simulate El Niño conditions and is found to yield an appropriate level of tropospheric warming, a plausible pattern of precipitation anomalies in the tropical Pacific source region of El Niño, and a gross precipitation deficit over the Tropics outside the Pacific (hereafter the "remote Tropics"). Additional tests of the WTG framework with La Niña forcing conditions and enhanced greenhouse gas concentrations support its applicability. However, the ENSO response under the WTG framework fails in some respects when compared to the standard QTCM: in particular, some regional features of the anomalous precipitation response, especially in the remote Tropics, differ markedly between the two model versions. These discrepancies appear to originate in part from the lack of anomalous tropospheric temperature gradients (and circulations) in the framework presented here. Nevertheless, the WTG approach appears to be a useful lowest-order model for the tropical climate adjustment to ENSO. The WTG framework is also used to argue that El Niño may not represent a good proxy for tropical rainfall changes under greenhouse gas warming scenarios because the large-scale subsidence occurring with the tropospheric warming in the El Niño scenario has an effect on rainfall that is distinct from the effect of increased tropospheric temperatures common to both the greenhouse gas warming and El Niño scenarios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5312-5329
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 15 2005
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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