Articles | Volume 16, issue 15
Research article
11 Aug 2016
Research article |  | 11 Aug 2016

Changes in the width of the tropical belt due to simple radiative forcing changes in the GeoMIP simulations

Nicholas A. Davis, Dian J. Seidel, Thomas Birner, Sean M. Davis, and Simone Tilmes

Abstract. Model simulations of future climates predict a poleward expansion of subtropical arid climates at the edges of Earth's tropical belt, which would have significant environmental and societal impacts. This expansion may be related to the poleward shift of the Hadley cell edges, where subsidence stabilizes the atmosphere and suppresses precipitation. Understanding the primary drivers of tropical expansion is hampered by the myriad forcing agents in most model projections of future climate. While many previous studies have examined the response of idealized models to simplified climate forcings and the response of comprehensive climate models to more complex climate forcings, few have examined how comprehensive climate models respond to simplified climate forcings. To shed light on robust processes associated with tropical expansion, here we examine how the tropical belt width, as measured by the Hadley cell edges, responds to simplified forcings in the Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project (GeoMIP). The tropical belt expands in response to a quadrupling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and contracts in response to a reduction in the solar constant, with a range of a factor of 3 in the response among nine models. Models with more surface warming and an overall stronger temperature response to quadrupled carbon dioxide exhibit greater tropical expansion, a robust result in spite of inter-model differences in the mean Hadley cell width, parameterizations, and numerical schemes. Under a scenario where the solar constant is reduced to offset an instantaneous quadrupling of carbon dioxide, the Hadley cells remain at their preindustrial width, despite the residual stratospheric cooling associated with elevated carbon dioxide levels. Quadrupled carbon dioxide produces greater tropical belt expansion in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern Hemisphere. This expansion is strongest in austral summer and autumn. Ozone depletion has been argued to cause this pattern of changes in observations and model experiments, but the results here indicate that seasonally and hemispherically asymmetric tropical expansion can be a basic response of the general circulation to climate forcings.

Short summary
In the Hadley cells, air rises at the Equator and sinks over the subtropics, drying the air and creating deserts on land. We investigated simple climate model experiments and found that the Hadley cells expand in response to increasing carbon dioxide. The climate of some models warms more than others, and these models also have greater Hadley cell expansion. This expansion could shift deserts toward more populated areas, with potentially major impacts on water resources and surface climate.
Final-revised paper