We examine 800-year time series of internally generated variability in both a coupled ocean-atmosphere model where water vapor anomalies are not allowed to interact with longwave radiation and one where they are. The ENSO-like phenomenon in the experiment without water vapor feedback is drastically suppressed both in amplitude and geographic extent relative to the experiment with water vapor feedback. Surprisingly, the reduced amplitude of ENSO-related sea surface temperature anomalies in the model without water vapor feedback cannot be attributed to greater longwave damping of sea surface temperature, (Differences between the two experiments in radiative feedback due to clouds counterbalance almost perfectly the differences in radiative feedback due to water vapor.) Rather, the interaction between water vapor anomalies and longwave radiation affects the ENSO-like phenomenon through its influence on the vertical structure of radiative heating: Because of the changes in water vapor associated with it, a given warm equatorial Pacific sea surface temperature anomaly is associated with a radiative heating profile that is much more gravitationally unstable when water vapor feedback is present. The warm sea surface temperature anomaly therefore results in more convection in the experiment with water vapor feedback. The increased convection, in turn, is related to a larger westerly wind-stress anomaly, which creates a larger decrease in upwelling of cold water, thereby enhancing the magnitude of the original warm sea surface temperature anomaly. In this manner, the interaction between water vapor anomalies and longwave radiation magnifies the air-sea interactions at the heart of the ENSO phenomenon; without this interaction, the coupling between sea surface temperature and wind stress is effectively reduced, resulting in smaller amplitude ENSO episodes with a more limited geographical extent.
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