Articles | Volume 12, issue 10
Research article
31 May 2012
Research article |  | 31 May 2012

The equilibrium response to idealized thermal forcings in a comprehensive GCM: implications for recent tropical expansion

R. J. Allen, S. C. Sherwood, J. R. Norris, and C. S. Zender

Abstract. Several recent studies have shown the width of the tropical belt has increased over the last several decades. The mechanisms driving tropical expansion are not well known and the recent expansion is underpredicted by state-of-the art GCMs. We use the CAM3 GCM to investigate how tropical width responds to idealized atmospheric heat sources, focusing on zonal displacement of the tropospheric jets. The heat sources include global and zonally restricted lower-tropospheric warmings and stratospheric coolings, which coarsely represent possible impacts of ozone or aerosol changes. Similar to prior studies with simplified GCMs, we find that stratospheric cooling – particularly at high-latitudes – shifts jets poleward and excites Northern and Southern Annular Mode (NAM/SAM)-type responses. We also find, however, that modest heating of the midlatitude boundary layer drives a similar response; heating at high latitudes provokes a weaker, equatorward shift and tropical heating produces no shift. Over 70 % of the variance in annual mean jet displacements across 27 experiments is accounted for by a newly proposed "Expansion Index", which compares mid-latitude tropospheric warming to that at other latitudes. We find that previously proposed factors, including tropopause height and tropospheric stability, do not fully explain the results. Results suggest recently observed tropical expansion could have been driven not only by stratospheric cooling, but also by mid-latitude heating sources due for example to ozone or aerosol changes.

Final-revised paper