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Nature. 2006 May 4;441(7089):73-6.

Weakening of tropical Pacific atmospheric circulation due to anthropogenic forcing.

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  • 1NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey 08540-6649, USA.


Since the mid-nineteenth century the Earth's surface has warmed, and models indicate that human activities have caused part of the warming by altering the radiative balance of the atmosphere. Simple theories suggest that global warming will reduce the strength of the mean tropical atmospheric circulation. An important aspect of this tropical circulation is a large-scale zonal (east-west) overturning of air across the equatorial Pacific Ocean--driven by convection to the west and subsidence to the east--known as the Walker circulation. Here we explore changes in tropical Pacific circulation since the mid-nineteenth century using observations and a suite of global climate model experiments. Observed Indo-Pacific sea level pressure reveals a weakening of the Walker circulation. The size of this trend is consistent with theoretical predictions, is accurately reproduced by climate model simulations and, within the climate models, is largely due to anthropogenic forcing. The climate model indicates that the weakened surface winds have altered the thermal structure and circulation of the tropical Pacific Ocean. These results support model projections of further weakening of tropical atmospheric circulation during the twenty-first century.

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