Influence of anthropogenic aerosols and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation on tropical belt width

Friday, 19 December 2014: 8:30 AM
Robert Allen1, Joel R Norris2 and Mahesh Kovilakam3, (1)University of California Riverside, Riverside, CA, United States, (2)University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA, United States, (3)University of California Riverside, Chino, CA, United States
The tropical belt has widened by several degrees latitude since 1979, as evidenced by shifts in atmospheric circulation and climate zones. Global climate models also simulate tropical belt widening, but less so than observed. Reasons for this discrepancy and the mechanisms driving the expansion are uncertain. Here we analyse multidecadal variability in tropical belt width since 1950 using the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 climate model runs and find that simulated rates of tropical expansion over the past 30 years—particularly in the Northern Hemisphere—are in better agreement with observations than previous models. We find that models driven by observed sea surface temperatures over this interval yield the largest rate of tropical expansion. We link the tropical expansion in the Northern Hemisphere to the leading pattern of sea surface temperature variability in the North Pacific, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. We also find, both from models and observations, that the tropical belt contracted in the Northern Hemisphere from 1950 to 1979, coincident with the reversal of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation trend. In both time periods, anthropogenic aerosols act to modify the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and therefore contribute to the width of the tropical belt. We conclude that tropical expansion and contraction are influenced by multidecadal sea surface temperature variability associated with both the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and anthropogenic aerosols.