J. Adv. Model Earth Sys., submitted 3/2013.

Response of tropical sea surface temperature, precipitation, and tropical cyclone-related variables to changes in global and local forcing

Kerry A. Emanuel
Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

Adam H. Sobel
Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, NY.


A single-column model is used to estimate the equilibrium response of sea surface temperature, precipitation, and several variables related to tropical cyclone activity to changes in both local and global forcing. Response to local forcing is estimated using the Weak Temperature Gradient (WTG) approximation. The surface temperature is calculated using a thin slab ocean so as to maintain surface energy balance. Forcing is varied by changing the solar constant, atmospheric CO2 concentration, surface wind speed, and the convergence of upper ocean heat flux. These experiments show that precipitation and variables related to tropical cyclone activity are not unique functions of SST on time scales long enough for surface energy balance to be maintained. Precipitation varies inversely with SST in experiments in which the surface wind speed is varied. At low wind speed, the WTG experiments reveal a regime of high relative SST and low precipitation, which is maintained by increased transmission of longwave radiation from the surface directly to space through a dry troposphere. In general, tropical cyclone potential intensity and genesis potential vary much more rapidly with SST in response to varying surface wind speed than in response to other forcings. Local changes in tropical cyclone potential intensity are highly correlated with local changes in SST, showing that relative SST is a good proxy for potential intensity when forcing is strictly local, but it cannot capture potentially important changes in potential intensity that arise from global-scale changes in forcing.