Dynamics of the Tropical Atmosphere and Oceans

Dynamics of the Tropical Atmosphere and Oceans


Reposted from Dr. Judith Curry’s Climate Etc.

Posted on June 9, 2020 by curryja

by Judith Curry

Peter Webster’s magnum opus is now published: Dynamics of the Tropical Atmosphere and Oceans.

From the blurb on amazon.com:

“This book presents a unique and comprehensive view of the fundamental dynamical and thermodynamic principles underlying the large circulations of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system

Dynamics of The Tropical Atmosphere and Oceans provides a detailed description of macroscale tropical circulation systems such as the monsoon, the Hadley and Walker Circulations, El Niño, and the tropical ocean warm pool. These macroscale circulations interact with a myriad of higher frequency systems, ranging from convective cloud systems to migrating equatorial waves that attend the low-frequency background flow.

A comprehensive overview of the dynamics and thermodynamics of large-scale tropical atmosphere and oceans is presented using both a “reductionist” and “holistic” perspectives of the coupled tropical system. The reductionist perspective provides a detailed description of the individual elements of the ocean and atmospheric circulations. The physical nature of each component of the tropical circulation such as the Hadley and Walker circulations, the monsoon, the incursion of extratropical phenomena into the tropics, precipitation distributions, equatorial waves and disturbances described in detail. The holistic perspective provides a physical description of how the collection of the individual components produces the observed tropical weather and climate. How the collective tropical processes determine the tropical circulation and their role in global weather and climate is provided in a series of overlapping theoretical and modelling constructs.

Following a detailed description of tropical phenomenology, the reader is introduced to dynamical and thermodynamical constraints that guide the planetary climate and establish a critical role for the tropics. Equatorial wave theory is developed for simple and complex background flows, including the critical role played by moist processes. The manner in which the tropics and the extratropics interact is then described, followed by a discussion of the physics behind the subtropical and near-equatorial precipitation including arid regions. The El Niño phenomena and the monsoon circulations are discussed, including their covariance and predictability. Finally, the changing structure of the tropics is discussed in terms of the extent of the tropical ocean warm pool and its relationship to the intensity of global convection and climate change.”

The complete table of contents are found here [Table of Contents]

JC remarks

My minor role in this was to help edit the final drafts of the chapters, so I have been through the entire book with a very detailed read.

Here is what stands out for me in the book.

First, the book is ‘old school’ in the sense of integrating observations and theory.  This approach is surprisingly rare these days in climate dynamics, with its heavy reliance on global climate model simulations.  The book has  a very strong foundation in fluid dynamics and wave dynamics.  At the same time, the mathematical developments are sufficiently clear to be followed by students, with additional details in the appendices.

Second, the book presents an underlying  philosophy for approaching the understanding of tropical dynamics, integrating reductionist and holistic approaches.

Third, the book provides historical context for the development of our understanding.  Interesting historical snippets are provided, including biographical notes of key historical scientists.

Fourth, the above three elements integrate to provide insights into the process of the science of climate dynamics, not merely a recitation of our current understanding

Fifth, there are over 300 diagrams/figures in the book, including many originally drawn schematics that are very effective at providing insights and supporting understanding.  An example is provided below:

Figure 14.30 Schematic of the sequence of events in 1997–1998. (a) The climatological alongshore winds off Sumatra (E) and the east African coast (F). The winds observed in the late summers and early autumns are denoted by G and H, respectively. The right-hand panel shows the effect at the equator on the upper ocean induced by increased upwelling in the east and decreased upwelling in the west. Wind into and out of the plane of the page are denoted by the bull’s-eye and cross-hair symbols, respectively. (b) Distribution of the winds resulting from the anomalous SST gradient along the Equator and the changes in the SSH distribution. (c) Formation of the Ekman ridge in the central Indian Ocean and the forcing of westward-propagating downwelling equatorial Rossby waves to the west. The right-hand panel shows the effect on the upper ocean near 5°S. (d) Subsequent cooling of the western Indian Ocean through enhanced mixing and coastal Ekman transports from stronger than average monsoon winds and through circulation changes associated with the weakening of the 1997–1998 El Niño.

The next section provides the complete text from the concluding chapter.

Chapter 19 Some Concluding Remarks

When I entered graduate school in the late 1960s, my advisor at the time had just completed a treatise entitled “Some remaining problems in numerical weather prediction” (Charney 1967). Five problems were described and referred to as:

…. certain islands of resistance which seem to hold out stubbornly in the face of all attacks.…

Broadly speaking these issues were:

  • What is the relationship between the turbulent boundary layer and synoptic scale variability?
  • How can steep gradients associated with fronts and topographic features be handled in models?
  • Do models correctly handle the cascade of energy between scales of motion?
  • How are convective processes and large-scale tropical circulations related?
  • What determines the structure, variability, and location of such preeminent tropical features as the ITCZ organized and maintained?

Charney’s paper deeply depressed me! Here I was, a brand new student in graduate school embarking on a career in tropical meteorology surrounded by bright and eager graduate students, all of whom seemed to know what they were doing, a faculty that was acknowledged as the world leaders in atmospheric science, and only a handful of questions remained. Clearly all of these would be answered by the end of the semester. This made me wonder whether I should have gone to medical school after all.

Now, over 45 years later, many new questions regarding the tropical system have arisen. It is interesting, though, to determine what progress has been made in solving Charney’s list of problems and how we have approached their solution.

Understanding complex natural phenomena has generally been undertaken by following a reductionist approach, whereby a phenomenon’s complex nature is reduced into individual components that are assumed to work together to produce observed structures. Reductionism evolved from Rene Descartes’ “mechanical philosophy,” whereby the universe is thought of as a complicated machine made up of identifiable components. Essentially, reductionism aims to understand the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental components. This implies that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts. Chapters 6 and 7 adopted a reductionist approach in attempting to explain tropical variability in terms of fundamental linear equatorially trapped modes. This modal structure formed the basic explanations of intraseasonal variability (Chapter 15) and the coupled ocean–atmosphere ENSO and Indian Ocean Dipole (Chapter 14). And, to some degree, the behavior of many of these large scale systems circulation systems may be identified as combinations of fundamental components of the ocean–atmosphere system.

However, when it comes to predicting the state of a complex system, we find that the reductionist approach does not help in the prediction of emergent (or unforeseen) phenomena. If the climate system were purely a combination of linear modes, then prediction would be a much simpler endeavor, with the main challenge being to reduce the impact of inaccuracies in the initial fields that may introduce uncertainty into a prediction. Yet extended weather and climate prediction has proven to be universally difficult. For example, even though in Chapter 14 we pointed out that the basic components of ocean–atmosphere interaction are basically understood, each ENSO event (the supposed sum of these parts or components) is very different both in timing, duration, and amplitude. Predictions of whether or not an El Niño or La Niña event will develop following the boreal spring show little skill. Also, it is difficult to assess whether or not a La Niña will be followed by an El Niño or vice versa. Once an ENSO event develops in the early boreal summer, it tends to follow its own trajectory, which may be similar or somewhat different to other El Niño or La Niña events.

Similar differences between the characteristics of individual circulation events exist on subseasonal time scales as well. As with ENSO, much of the structure of intraseasonal events features can be recognized in terms of fundamental equatorial modes whereby convection has been accounted for in some manner. Each MJO has an individual character. Even the canonical MJO, forming in the equatorial Indian Ocean, varies from case to case.

In Chapter 11 (also Chapters 13 to 18), it was argued that a more holistic approach was necessary in order to understand the complex nature of the Earth system. Holism claims that complex systems are inherently irreducible and are more than the sum of their parts, owing to chaos and nonlinearities. Emergent behavior may arise from complex systems that cannot be deduced from consideration of the components of the system alone. Holism leads to “systems thinking” and possesses derivatives such as chaos and complexity. This discussion grew from attempts to understand interactions between the extratropics and the tropics. In Chapter 9 it was argued that extratropical waves had difficulty propagating through zonally symmetric easterlies toward the equator so that more complex explanations were necessary to explain extratropical–tropical interactions. In Chapter 10, it was found that a zonally symmetric Hadley Circulation could not explain fully the influence of the tropics on the extratropics or vice versa. Yet progress was made toward understanding the interaction between the tropics and the extratropics by noting the interaction of two nonlinear systems, one being the divergent circulations transporting PV poleward and the other, the Rossby wave regime, returning the PV to the tropics.

The predictability of complex systems can be described using concepts introduced by Hofstadter (1980). Simply stated, system predictive skill depends on its degree of complexity. Three hierarchies of organization and disorganization are suggested: simple, complex, and tangled, where the simpler the complexity the greater the potential predictability. By extension, the more complex the system, the less predictability the system possesses.

  • A simple system possesses two components, A forcing B or two interacting bodies as in the classical “two-body” problem such as the interaction of a planet and its moon. Variability of the predictive outcome arises only from the uncertainty of describing either A or B. An example of a simple system is the lunar forcing of ocean tides and its high predictability.
  • The introduction of a third component (C) produces a complex system and introduces uncertainty into how the three components (A, B, and C) interact. First, initial conditions require a description of the system now extended to three components instead of two thus adding further uncertainty. Further, the system trajectory may be very different depending on the initial scale of each of the three components or its initial magnitude.
  • The most complex system, tangled, may have multiple interacting components (C, D, …, etc.). The climate system itself is such an example, with interacting oceans, atmosphere, cryosphere, and land systems.

Specific circulation patterns in the climate system may be complex or tangled. The existence of some predictability of an ENSO extrema, once it is initiated, suggests that the system is complex and probably not tangled. Similarly, the wider influence of ENSO is a complex system since some predictability is retained. However, the lack of persistence or predictability across the boreal spring suggests that at longer time horizons, or at certain times of the year, the ENSO system would appear to be tangled and unpredictable. Over the course of an annual cycle, though, the system moves from tangled to complex as it changes from frail to more robust, as discussed in Chapter 14.

Hence predictability of a system depends on a number of factors:

  • The degree to which the initial conditions of the system are known.
  • How well A and B are understood physically and represented by a model (either empirical or numerical).
  • How large and variable is component C (or D and E …)? Are they stochastic? Does one element or one process dominate over all others? For example, the solar system is a complex multi-body system but the Sun’s gravitation makes it (almost) a stable system as it represents 98% of the mass of the solar system and, thus, chaotic motion of the planets is rare.

Given these points, it is tempting to adopt a holistic approach to the prediction of tropical phenomena by resorting to complicated coupled ocean–atmosphere–land models. However, given model formulation and initial data uncertainties, it is necessary to use a probabilistic approach in which the model is perturbed many times to produce an ensemble of forecasts. It is also clear that a hierarchy of methods are needed to increase understanding and predictive capability, including both holistic and reductionist approaches. If the components of a complex system can be identified and it can be determined that component C, for example, is more dominant at some stage of the prediction than another, one may be able to anticipate confidence in the results of the probabilistic forecast.

As discussed above, understanding of the interaction of the tropics and extratropics could only have been developed through a holistic or system approach. The behavior of an individual component (the collective divergent circulations or the recurring Rossby waves families) could not have led to a determination of the synergies between the tropics and extratropics. Instead, we gained an understanding by applying the Haynes and McIntyre impermeability theorem that constrained the advection of a potential vorticity substance between the tropics and the extratropics or, specifically, across a latitude circle. It could be that other difficult problems, such as why there is little difference in annual precipitation (rate or volume) of each hemisphere, will be understood through similar system constraints.

So, what can we say about the problems Charney laid out in 1967? There has been substantial progress in the first two problems. In 1967, the grid point resolution of the earliest numerical weather models was hundreds of kilometers. Now it is closer to 10 km and will possess greater resolutions and become cloud resolving in the near future. The number of vertical levels has increased as well from only a few to over 50 in some operational models. Topographic relief is incorporated directly through use of the sigma-coordinate system. However, Charney’s third and fourth problems remain “islands of resistance” to this day. Simply, we still are uncertain about how equatorial dynamics and convection interact and the degree of their mutual dependency. With respect to the ITCZ, Section 13.1 offered six theories regarding the location of equatorial convection. Although some are stronger than others, their number is an indication that closure on the issue has not yet been reached. In addition, we have unearthed many new mysteries. One is the discovery of enclaves of disturbances existing within tropics made up of families of convection ranging from diurnal through synoptic and biweekly to intraseasonal.

In retrospect, Charney’s tropical problems were not solved by the end of the semester, nor by the end of the decade, and not even in the present time. In fact, investigations of these problems have spawned many new exciting problems. It seems that I was needlessly depressed in 1967 about the future opportunities in tropical meteorology.

Superforest,Climate Change

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