Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Effect of deep convection on the regulation of tropical sea surface temperature


THE distribution of tropical sea surface temperatures (SSTs) is negatively skewed: a 'warm pool' with SSTs greater than 300.5 K covers roughly half the tropical oceans (15° N to 15° S), whereas SSTs as low as 293 K are observed in regions of equatorial and coastal upwelling and persistent stratus cloud cover1. SSTs are thus within 2–3 K of the highest values over a large area of the tropical ocean, leading some authors to suggest that some physical process may act to limit SSTs to below about 303 K. Ramanathan and Collins2 have proposed a 'thermostat' mechanism in which ocean warming produces enhanced deep convection, leading to the formation of extensive cirrus cloud canopies which shield the troposphere and ocean surface from incoming solar radiation. Here I suggest that a mechanism of this sort may not be required to explain the SST distribution. I argue that large-scale dynamical processes will act to maintain uniform tropical tropospheric temperatures to within about 2 K, and that, in the absence of horizontal temperature contrasts in the atmosphere, a negatively skewed SST frequency distribution is bound to develop through equilibration between the atmosphere and spatially varying SSTs. In addition, although cirrus clouds reduce the solar insolation at the Earth's surface in regions of deep convection, they would not necessarily prevent SSTs from exceeding 305 K in the face of extensive greenhouse warming.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. Sadler, J. C. Lander, M. A., Hori, A. M. & Oda, L. K. Tropical Mean Climatic Atlas Vols 1 and 2 UHMET 87-01 and 87-02 (Department of Meteorology, Univ. of Hawaii, 1987).

    Google Scholar 

  2. Ramanathan, V. & Collins, W. Nature 351, 27–32 (1991).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Newell, R. E., Navato, A. R. & Hsiung, J. Pure appl. Geophys. 116, 351–371 (1978).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Schneider, E. K. J. atmos. Sci. 34, 280–297 (1977).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Held, I. M. & Hou, A. Y. J. atmos. Sci. 37, 515–533 (1978).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Lindzen, R. S. & Hou, A. Y. J. atmos. Sci. 45, 2416–2427 (1988).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Sarachik, E. S. Dyn. Atm. Oceans 2, 455–469 (1978).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Japan Meteorological Agency Monthly Report on the Climate System Tech. note 35 (Tokyo. 1992).

  9. Newell, R. E., Kidson, J. W., Vincent, D. G. & Boer, G. J. The General Circulation of the Tropical Atmosphere Vol. I (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Wallace, J. Effect of deep convection on the regulation of tropical sea surface temperature. Nature 357, 230–231 (1992).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing