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The General Circulation of the Tropical Atmosphere and Climate Changes


Merlis, Timothy Moore (2012) The General Circulation of the Tropical Atmosphere and Climate Changes. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/DH11-0926.


I examine the general circulation of the tropical atmosphere and climate changes. First, the response of the zonal surface temperature gradients and zonally asymmetric tropical overturning circulations (Walker circulations) to substantial changes in the longwave optical depth of the atmosphere in an idealized general circulation model (GCM) is compared with scaling theories. Second, the response of the hydrological cycle and monsoonal Hadley circulations to changes in top-of-atmosphere insolation associated with orbital precession is examined in an idealized GCM.

Zonal surface temperature gradients and Walker circulations are examined over a wide range of climates simulated by varying the optical thickness in an idealized atmospheric GCM with a climate-invariant zonally asymmetric ocean energy flux. The tropical zonal surface temperature gradient and Walker circulation generally decrease as the climate warms in the GCM simulations. A scaling relationship based on a two-term balance in the surface energy budget accounts for the changes in the zonally asymmetric component of the GCM-simulated surface temperature gradients. A scaling estimate for the Walker circulation based on differential changes (precipitation rates and saturation specific humidity) in the hydrological cycle accounts for the GCM simulations provided locally averaged quantities are used in the estimate.

The results of atmospheric GCM simulations with varied top-of-atmosphere insolation are analyzed to constrain orbitally-forced changes in the tropical atmospheric circulations and precipitation. When the perihelion is varied between solstices, there is more annual-mean precipitation in the hemisphere in which perihelion occurs during the summer solstice. In aquaplanet simulations, this is primarily associated with thermodynamic changes: there is a correlation between the seasonal cycle of the perturbed water vapor and the seasonal cycle of the Hadley circulation convergence. The monsoonal Hadley circulation does not respond to insolation gradients in a simple manner, as the atmosphere’s energy stratification changes. An idealized continent that has a simple treatment of land surface hydrology and inhomogeneous heat capacity allows an assessment of how land-sea contrasts can mediate the response to orbital precession. In these simulations, the response of precipitation to orbital precession depends on changes in the atmospheric circulation, which strengthens when perihelion occurs in the summer of the hemisphere with the land region. The changes in atmospheric circulation are related to changes in both the top-of-atmosphere energy balance and the thermodynamic properties of the surface.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:atmospheric dynamics; climate dynamics; tropical meteorology; orbital precession; Hadley circulation; Walker circulation
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Environmental Science and Engineering
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Schneider, Tapio
Thesis Committee:
  • Ingersoll, Andrew P. (chair)
  • Adkins, Jess F.
  • Bordoni, Simona
  • Schneider, Tapio
  • Thompson, Andrew F.
Defense Date:7 July 2011
Funding AgencyGrant Number
NSF Graduate Research FellowshipUNSPECIFIED
National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate FellowshipUNSPECIFIED
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:07012011-191902511
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:6533
Deposited By: Timothy Merlis
Deposited On:15 Aug 2011 23:36
Last Modified:03 Oct 2019 23:52

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