Why are there tropical warm pools?

  • Clement A
  • Seager R
  • Murtugudde R
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Tropical warm pools appear as the primary mode in the distribution of tropical sea surface temperature (SST). Most previous studies have focused on the role of atmospheric processes in homogenizing temperatures in the warm pool and establishing the observed statistical SST distribution. In this paper, a hierarchy of models is used to illustrate both oceanic and atmospheric mechanisms that contribute to the establishment of tropical warm pools. It is found that individual atmospheric processes have competing effects on the SST distribution: atmospheric heat transport tends to homogenize SST, while the spatial structure of atmospheric humidity and surface wind speeds tends to remove homogeneity. The latter effects dominate, and under atmosphere- only processes there is no warm pool. Ocean dynamics counter this effect by homogenizing SST, and it is argued that ocean dynamics is fundamental to the existence of the warm pool. Under easterly wind stress, the thermocline is deep in the west and shallow in the east. Because of this, poleward Ekman transport of water at the surface, compensated by equatorward geostrophic flow below and linked by equatorial upwelling, creates a cold tongue in the east but homogenizes SST in the west, creating a warm pool. High clouds may also homogenize the SST by reducing the surface solar radiation over the warmest water, but the strength of this feedback is quite uncertain. Implications for the role of these processes in climate change are discussed.

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  • Amy C. Clement

  • Richard Seager

  • Raghu Murtugudde

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