2002 Annual

Tuesday, 15 January 2002
Sensitivity of the tropical atmospheric energy balance to ENSO-related SST changes: Comparison of climate model simulations to observed responses
Franklin R. Robertson, NASA/MSFC, Huntsville, AL; and D. Fitzjarrald, S. Marshall, R. Oglesby, and J. Roads
This paper focuses on how fresh water and radiative fluxes over the tropical oceans change during ENSO warm and cold events and how these changes affect the tropical energy balance. At present, ENSO remains the most prominent known mode of natural variability at interannual time scales. While this natural perturbation to climate is quite distinct from possible anthropogenic changes in climate, adjustments in the tropical water and energy budgets during ENSO may give insight into feedback processes involving water vapor and cloud feedbacks.

Although great advances have been made in understanding this phenomenon and realizing prediction skill over the past decade, our ability to document the coupled water and energy changes observationally and to represent them in climate models seems far from settled (Soden, 2000 J Climate). In a companion paper we have presented observational analyses, based principally on space-based measurements which document systematic changes in rainfall, evaporation, and surface and top-of-atmosphere (TOA) radiative fluxes. Here we analyze several contemporary climate models run with observed SSTs over recent decades and compare SST-induced changes in radiation, precipitation, evaporation, and energy transport to observational results. Among these are the NASA / NCAR Finite Volume Model, the NCAR Community Climate Model, the NCEP Global Spectral Model, and the NASA NSIPP Model.

Key disagreements between model and observational results noted in the recent literature are shown to be due predominantly to observational shortcomings. A reexamination of the Langley 8-Year Surface Radiation Budget data reveals errors in the SST surface longwave emission due to biased SSTs. Subsequent correction allows use of this data set along with ERBE TOA fluxes to infer net atmospheric radiative heating. Further analysis of recent rainfall algorithms provides new estimates for precipitation variability in line with interannual evaporation changes inferred from the da Silva, Young, Levitus COADS analysis. The overall results from our analysis suggest an increase (decrease) of the hydrologic cycle during ENSO warm (cold) events at the rate of about 5 Wm-2 per K of SST change. Model results agree reasonably well with this estimate of sensitivity. This rate is slightly less than that which would be expected for constant relative humidity over the tropical oceans. There remain, however, significant quantitative uncertainties in cloud forcing changes in the models as compared to observations. These differences are examined in relationship to model convection and cloud parameterizations Analysis of the possible sampling and measurement errors compared to systematic model errors is also presented.

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