National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2007

Decadal variability of the shallow Pacific meridional overturning circulation: Relation to tropical sea surface temperatures in observations and climate change models

Zhang, D., and M.J. McPhaden

Ocean Model., 15(3–4), 250–273, doi: 10.1016/j.ocemod.2005.12.005 (2006)

In this study, we use existing observational datasets to evaluate 20th century climate simulations of the tropical Pacific. The emphasis of our work is decadal variability of the shallow meridional overturning circulation, which links the tropical and subtropical Pacific Ocean. In observations, this circulation is characterized by equatorward geostrophic volume transport convergence in the interior ocean pycnocline across 9°N and 9°S. Historical hydrographic data indicate that there has been a decreasing trend in this convergence over the period 1953–2001 of about 11 Sverdrup (1 Sv = 106 m3 s-1), with maximum decade-to-decade variations of 7–11 Sv. The transport time series is highly anti-correlated with sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies in the central and eastern tropical Pacific, implying that variations in meridional overturning circulation are directly linked to decadal variability and trends in tropical SST. These relationships are explored in 18 model simulations of 20th century climate from 14 state-of-the-art coupled climate models. Significant correlation exists between meridional volume transport convergence and tropical SST in the majority of the models over the last half century. However, the magnitude of transport variability on decadal time scales in the models is underestimated while at the same time modeled SST variations are more sensitive to that transport variability than in the observations. The effects of the meridional overturning circulation on SST trends in most the models is less clear. Most models show no trend in meridional transport convergence and underestimate the trend in eastern tropical Pacific SST. The eddy permitting MIROCH model is the only model that reasonably reproduces the observed trends in transport convergence, tropical Pacific SST, and SST gradient along the equator over the last half century. If the observed trends and those simulated in the MIROCH model are ultimately related to greenhouse gas forcing, these results suggest that the Bjerknes feedback, by affecting pycnocline transport convergences, may enhance warming that arises from anthropogenic forcing in the eastern tropical Pacific.

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