Interannual variability of sea surface temperature in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean and Central American rainfall

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Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science
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College Park
University of Maryland
College Park

Sea surface temperature (SST) in the east Pacific warm pool (EPWP) plays a potentially important role in Central American rainfall, tropical cyclogenesis, ocean biology, large-scale tropical heating, and the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The first part of this dissertation is aimed at understanding what processes govern the interannual variability of SST in the EPWP. Interannual wind stress, shortwave radiation, and precipitation were used as forcing to an ocean general circulation model. Shortwave heating was identified as the primary driver of the interannual SST tendency in the EPWP. The high correlation between the EPWP and the equatorial Pacific Ocean is explained by the fact that equatorial SST anomalies modify the distribution of atmospheric vertical motions and therefore cloud cover and shortwave heating. In a parallel set of experiments, the low-frequency variability of the Tehuantepec gap winds was also shown to have a considerable effect on that of SST in the EPWP. Motivated by the results of the first part of this dissertation, the second part offers significant improvements to the mean state of the equatorial Pacific Ocean in a climatology ocean model experiment by including the Galápagos Islands in the model topography. In this context, the equatorial cold bias is reduced. Furthermore, when the ocean model is coupled to the atmosphere through zonal wind stress, the problem of an excessively regular and biennial ENSO is also reduced. The change in ENSO timescale is a result of the same dynamics operating on a different mean state. The third part of this dissertation is aimed at understanding the role of the interannual variability of SST in the EPWP in that of Central American rainfall. An anomalously warm EPWP can trigger a rapid enhancement of the east Pacific intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) in rainy seasons following peak ENSO events, which leads to a rainfall anomaly over Central America. Moreover, the timing and amplitude of the SST-enhanced ITCZ depends on the persistence of the ENSO event. The longer the equatorial SST anomaly persists, the longer the EPWP is subject to anomalous shortwave heating and thus the greater the subsequent SST enhancement of the ITCZ.


Advisor: Antonio J. Busalacchi