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Stationary Eddies and Zonal Variations of the Global Hydrological Cycle in a Changing Climate


Wills, Robert Christopher (2016) Stationary Eddies and Zonal Variations of the Global Hydrological Cycle in a Changing Climate. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z91V5BX8.


This thesis advances our physical understanding of the sensitivity of the hydrological cycle to global warming. Specifically, it focuses on changes in the longitudinal (zonal) variation of precipitation minus evaporation (P - E), which is predominantly controlled by planetary-scale stationary eddies. By studying idealized general circulation model (GCM) experiments with zonally varying boundary conditions, this thesis examines the mechanisms controlling the strength of stationary-eddy circulations and their role in the hydrological cycle. The overarching goal of this research is to understand the cause of changes in regional P - E with global warming. An understanding of such changes can be useful for impact studies focusing on water availability, ecosystem management, and flood risk.

Based on a moisture-budget analysis of ERA-Interim data, we establish an approximation for zonally anomalous P - E in terms of surface moisture content and stationary-eddy vertical motion in the lower troposphere. Part of the success of this approximation comes from our finding that transient-eddy moisture fluxes partially cancel the effect of stationary-eddy moisture advection, allowing divergent circulations to dominate the moisture budget. The lower-tropospheric vertical motion is related to horizontal motion in stationary eddies by Sverdrup and Ekman balance. These moisture- and vorticity-budget balances also hold in idealized and comprehensive GCM simulations across a range of climates.

By examining climate changes in the idealized and comprehensive GCM simulations, we are able to show the utility of the vertical motion P - E approximation for splitting changes in zonally anomalous P - E into thermodynamic and dynamic components. Shifts in divergent stationary-eddy circulations dominate changes in zonally anomalous P - E. This limits the local utility of the "wet gets wetter, dry gets drier” idea, where existing P - E patterns are amplified with warming by the increase in atmospheric moisture content, with atmospheric circulations held fixed. The increase in atmospheric moisture content manifests instead in an increase in the amplitude of the zonally anomalous hydrological cycle as measured by the zonal variance of P - E. However, dynamic changes, particularly the slowdown of divergent stationary-eddy circulations, limit the strengthening of the zonally anomalous hydrological cycle. In certain idealized cases, dynamic changes are even strong enough to reverse the tendency towards "wet gets wetter, dry gets drier” with warming.

Motivated by the importance of stationary-eddy vertical velocities in the moisture budget analysis, we examine controls on the amplitude of stationary eddies across a wide range of climates in an idealized GCM with simple topographic and ocean-heating zonal asymmetries. An analysis of the thermodynamic equation in the vicinity of topographic forcing reveals the importance of on-slope surface winds, the midlatitude isentropic slope, and latent heating in setting the amplitude of stationary waves. The response of stationary eddies to climate change is determined primarily by the strength of zonal surface winds hitting the mountain. The sensitivity of stationary-eddies to this surface forcing increases with climate change as the slope of midlatitude isentropes decreases. However, latent heating also plays an important role in damping the stationary-eddy response, and this damping becomes stronger with warming as the atmospheric moisture content increases. We find that the response of tropical overturning circulations forced by ocean heat-flux convergence is described by changes in the vertical structure of moist static energy and deep convection. This is used to derive simple scalings for the Walker circulation strength that capture the monotonic decrease with warming found in our idealized simulations.

Through the work of this thesis, the advances made in understanding the amplitude of stationary-waves in a changing climate can be directly applied to better understand and predict changes in the zonally anomalous hydrological cycle.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Hydrological cycle, stationary wave, precipitation, general circulation, climate dynamics, climate change
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:
  • Thompson, Andrew F. (chair)
  • Bordoni, Simona
  • Adkins, Jess F.
  • Lamb, Michael P.
  • Schneider, Tapio
Defense Date:9 December 2015
Non-Caltech Author Email:robbwills (AT)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:01202016-022601840
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription adapted for ch. 2
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:9536
Deposited By: Robert Wills
Deposited On:09 Feb 2016 22:50
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:11

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