Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, 62, 3353-3367.

Diagnosing subtropical humidity dynamics using tracers of last saturation

Joseph Galewsky
Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University, New York, NY.

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

Isaac M. Held
Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, NJ.


A technique for diagnosing the mechanisms that control the humidity in a general circulation model (GCM) or observationally derived meteorological analysis data set is presented. The technique involves defining a large number of tracers, each of which represents air which has last been saturated in a particular region of the atmosphere. The time-mean tracer fields show the typical pathways that air parcels take between one occurrence of saturation and the next. The tracers provide useful information about how different regions of the atmosphere influence the humidity elsewhere. Because saturation vapor pressure is a function only of temperature, and because mixing ratio is conserved for unsaturated parcels, these tracer fields can also be used together with the temperature field to reconstruct the water vapor field. The technique is first applied to an idealized GCM in which the dynamics are dry and forced using the Held-Suarez thermal relaxation, but the model carries a passive water-like tracer which is emitted at the surface and lost due to large-scale condensation with zero latent heat release and no condensate retained. The technique provides an accurate reconstruction of the simulated water vapor field. In this model, the dry air in the subtropical troposphere is produced primarily by isentropic transport, and is moistened somewhat by mixing with air from lower levels which has not been saturated since last contact with the surface. The technique is then applied to the NCEP/NCAR reanalysis data from DJF 2001-2002, using the offline tracer transport model MATCH. The results show that the dryness of the subtropical troposphere is primarily controlled by isentropic transport of very dry air by midlatitude eddies, and that diabatic descent from the tropical upper troposphere plays a secondary role in controlling the dryness of the subtropics.