Tropical widening: From global variations to regional impacts

Published in Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 2020

ABSTRACT: Over the past 15 years, numerous studies have suggested that the sinking branches of Earth’s Hadley circulation and the associated subtropical dry zones have shifted poleward over the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. Early estimates of this tropical widening from satellite observations and reanalyses varied from 0.25° to 3° latitude per decade, while estimates from global climate models show widening at the lower end of the observed range. In 2016, two working groups, the U.S. Climate Variability and Predictability (CLIVAR) working group on the Changing Width of the Tropical Belt and the International Space Science Institute (ISSI) Tropical Width Diagnostics Intercomparison Project, were formed to synthesize current understanding of the magnitude, causes, and impacts of the recent tropical widening evident in observations. These working groups concluded that the large rates of observed tropical widening noted by earlier studies resulted from their use of metrics that poorly capture changes in the Hadley circulation, or from the use of reanalyses that contained spurious trends. Accounting for these issues reduces the range of observed expansion rates to 0.25°–0.5° latitude decade–1 —within the range from model simulations. Models indicate that most of the recent Northern Hemisphere tropical widening is consistent with natural variability, whereas increasing greenhouse gases and decreasing stratospheric ozone likely played an important role in Southern Hemisphere widening. Whatever the cause or rate of expansion, understanding the regional impacts of tropical widening requires additional work, as different forcings can produce different regional patterns of widening.

Download paper: journal website

Staten, Paul W., Kevin M. Grise, Sean M. Davis, Kristopher B. Karnauskas, Darryn W. Waugh, Amanda Maycock, Qiang Fu, Kerry Cook, Ori Adam, Isla R. Simpson, Robert J Allen, Karen Rosenlof, Gang Chen, Caroline C. Ummenhofer, Xiao-Wei Quan, James P. Kossin, Nicholas A. Davis and Seok-Woo Son, 2020: Tropical widening: From global variations to regional impacts, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, preprint, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-19-0047.1.