The Role of the Cloud Radiative Effect in the Sensitivity of the Intertropical Convergence Zone to Convective Mixing


Talib, J., S.J. Woolnough, N.P. Klingaman, and C.E. Holloway, 2018: The Role of the Cloud Radiative Effect in the Sensitivity of the Intertropical Convergence Zone to Convective Mixing. J. Climate, 31, 6821–6838,

Rainfall in the tropics is commonly associated with the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a discontinuous line of convergence collocated at the ascending branch of the Hadley circulation, where strong moist convection leads to high rainfall. What controls the location and intensity of the ITCZ remains a fundamental question in climate science.

Figure 1: Annual-mean, zonal-mean tropical precipitation (mm day-1) from Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP, observations, solid black line) and CMIP5 (current coupled models) output. Dashed line indicates CMIP5 ensemble mean.

In current and previous generations of climate models, the ITCZ is too intense in the Southern Hemisphere, resulting in two annual-mean, zonal-mean tropical precipitation maxima, one in each hemisphere (Figure 1).  Even if we take the same atmospheric models and couple them to a world with only an ocean surface (aquaplanets) with prescribed sea surface temperatues (SSTs), different models simulate different ITCZs (Blackburn et al., 2013).

Within a climate model parameterisations are used to replace processes that are too small-scale or complex to be physically represented in the model. Parameterisation schemes are used to simulate a variety of processes including processes within the boundary layer, radiative fluxes and atmospheric chemistry. However my work, along with a plethora of others, shows that the representation of the ITCZ is sensitive to the convective parameterisation scheme (Figure 2a). The convective parameterisation scheme simulates the life cycle of clouds within a model grid-box.

Our method of showing that the simulated ITCZ is sensitive to the convective parameterisation scheme is by altering the convective mixing rate in prescribed-SST aquaplanet simulations. The convective mixing rate determines the amount of mixing a convective parcel has with the environmental air, therefore the greater the convective mixing rate, the quicker a convective parcel will become similar to the environmental air, given fixed convective parcel properties.

Figure 2: Zonal-mean, time-mean (a) precipitation rates (mm day-1}$) and (b) AEI (W m-2) in simulations where the convective mixing rate is varied.

In our study, the structure of the simulated ITCZ is sensitive to the convective mixing rate. Low convective mixing rates simulate a double ITCZ (two precipitation maxima, orange and red lines in Figure 2a), and high convective mixing rates simulate a single ITCZ (blue and black lines).

We then associate these ITCZ structures to the atmospheric energy input (AEI). The AEI is the amount of energy left in the atmosphere once considering the top of the atmosphere and surface energy budgets. We conclude, similar to Bischoff and Schneider, 2016, that when the AEI is positive (negative) at the equator, a single (double) ITCZ is simulated (Figure 2b). When the AEI is negative at the equator, energy is needed to be transported towards the equator for equilibrium. From a mean circulation perspective, this take place in a double ITCZ scenario (Figure 3). A positive AEI at the equator, is associated with poleward energy transport and a single ITCZ.

Figure 3: Schematic of a single (left) and double ITCZ (right). Blue arrows denote energy transport. In a single ITCZ scenario more energy is transported in the upper branches of the Hadley circulation, resulting in a net-poleward energy transport. In a double ITCZ scenario, more energy is transport equatorward than poleward at low latitudes, leading to an equatorward energy transport.

In our paper, we use this association between the AEI and ITCZ to hypothesize that without the cloud radiative effect (CRE), atmospheric heating due to cloud-radiation interactions, a double ITCZ will be simulated. We also hypothesize that prescribing the CRE will reduce the sensitivity of the ITCZ to convective mixing, as simulated AEI changes are predominately due to CRE changes.

In the rest of the paper we perform simulations with the CRE removed and prescribed to explore further the role of the CRE in the sensitivity of the ITCZ. We conclude that when removing the CRE a double ITCZ becomes more favourable and in both sets of simulations the ITCZ is less sensitive to convective mixing. The remaining sensitivity is associated with latent heat flux alterations.

My future work following this publication explores the role of coupling in the sensitivity of the ITCZ to the convective parameterisation scheme. Prescribing the SSTs implies an arbitary ocean heat transport, however in the real world the ocean heat transport is sensitive to the atmospheric circulation. Does this sensitivity between the ocean heat transport and atmospheric circulation affect the sensitivity of the ITCZ to convective mixing?

Thanks to my funders, SCENARIO NERC DTP, and supervisors for their support for this project.


Blackburn, M. et al., (2013). The Aqua-planet Experiment (APE): Control SST simulation. J. Meteo. Soc. Japan. Ser. II, 91, 17–56.

Bischoff, T. and Schneider, T. (2016). The Equatorial Energy Balance, ITCZ Position, and Double-ITCZ Bifurcations. J. Climate., 29(8), 2997–3013, and Corrigendum, 29(19), 7167–7167.


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