Researchers Pin Slowdown in Tropical Pacific Flow on Climate Change
4 May 2006
|The Walker Circulation spans almost half the circumference of the Earth. Click to enlarge. Source: Gabriel Vecchi, UCAR|
The Walker circulation—a vast loop of winds that drives climate and ocean behavior across the tropical Pacific—has weakened by 3.5% since the mid-1800s, and may weaken another 10% by 2100, according to a study led by University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) scientist Gabriel Vecchi.
Based on on their modeling, the researchers conclude that the slowdown is largely due to human-induced climate change. The findings are published in the 4 May issue of Nature.
The Walker circulation spans almost half the circumference of Earth and pushes the Pacific Ocean’s trade winds from east to west, generating massive rains near Indonesia, and nourishing marine life across the equatorial Pacific and off the South American coast. Changes in the circulation, which varies in tandem with El Niño and La Niña events, can have far–reaching effects.
|Another view of the Walker Flow. Click to enlarge. Source: Gabriel Vecchi, UCAR|
The Walker circulation takes the shape of a loop with rising air in the western tropical Pacific, sinking air in the eastern tropical Pacific, west-to-east winds a few miles high, and east-to-west trade winds at the surface. The trade winds also steer ocean currents. Any drop in winds produces an even larger reduction in wind-forced ocean flow—roughly twice as much in percentage terms for both the observed and projected changes, says Vecchi.
Several theoretical studies have shown that an increase in greenhouse gases should produce a weakening of the Walker circulation. As temperatures rise and more water evaporates from the ocean, water vapor in the lower atmosphere increases rapidly. But physical processes prevent precipitation from increasing as quickly as water vapor. Since the amount of water vapor brought to the upper atmosphere must remain in balance with precipitation, the rate at which moist air is brought from the lower to the upper atmosphere slows down to compensate. This leads to a slowing of the atmospheric circulation.
Based on observations since the mid-1800s, the paper reports a 3.5% slowdown in the Walker circulation, which corresponds closely to the number predicted by theory. To establish whether human-induced climate change is at work, Vecchi and colleagues analyzed 11 simulations using the latest version of the GFDL climate model spanning the period 1861 to 2000.
Some of the simulations included the observed increase in greenhouse gases; others included just the natural climate-altering factors of volcanic eruptions and solar variations. Only the simulations that included an increase in greenhouse gases showed the Walker circulation slowing, and they did so at a rate consistent with the observations.
Based on the theoretical considerations, and extrapolating from their 1861–2000 analysis as well as from other simulations for the 21st century, the authors conclude that by 2100 the Walker circulation could slow by an additional 10%. This means the steering of ocean flow by trade winds could decrease by close to 20%.
This could have important effects on ocean ecosystems. The ocean currents driven by the trade winds supply vital nutrients to the near-surface ocean ecosystems across the equatorial Pacific, which is a major fishing region.—Gabriel Vecchi
Simulation results depend on the assumptions and conditions within different models. However, the agreement of theory, observations, and models for the past 150 years lends support to this outlook, say the authors.
The study sends mixed signals on the future of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation—the system of ocean-atmosphere linkages that produces the worldwide weather of El Niño and its counterpart, La Niña.
The circulation has been tending to a more El Niño-like state since the 1860s. However, the dynamics involved here are distinct from those of El Niño.—Gabriel Vecchi
“Weakening of tropical Pacific atmospheric circulation due to anthropogenic forcing”; Gabriel A. Vecchi, Brian J. Soden, Andrew T. Wittenberg, Isaac M. Held, Ants Leetmaa and Matthew J. Harrison; Nature 441, 73-76 (4 May 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04744
UCAR Fact Sheet: El Niño and La Niña
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