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Influence of anthropogenic aerosols and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation on tropical belt width


The tropical belt has widened by several degrees latitude since 1979, as evidenced by shifts in atmospheric circulation and climate zones1,2,3,4,5. Global climate models also simulate tropical belt widening, but less so than observed6,7. Reasons for this discrepancy and the mechanisms driving the expansion are uncertain. Here we analyse multidecadal variability in tropical belt width since 1950 using the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 climate model runs and find that simulated rates of tropical expansion over the past 30 years—particularly in the Northern Hemisphere—are in better agreement with observations than previous models. We find that models driven by observed sea surface temperatures over this interval yield the largest rate of tropical expansion. We link the tropical expansion in the Northern Hemisphere to the leading pattern of sea surface temperature variability in the North Pacific, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. We also find, both from models and observations, that the tropical belt contracted in the Northern Hemisphere from 1950 to 1979, coincident with the reversal of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation trend. In both time periods, anthropogenic aerosols act to modify the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and therefore contribute to the width of the tropical belt. We conclude that tropical expansion and contraction are influenced by multidecadal sea surface temperature variability associated with both the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and anthropogenic aerosols.

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Figure 1: 1979–2009 annual mean tropical expansion in CMIP5 experiments and observations.
Figure 2: 1979–2009 Northern Hemisphere tropical expansion and the PDO.
Figure 3: 1979–2009 annual mean tropical expansion after removal of the PDO and ENSO.
Figure 4: 1950–2009 PDO time series in 20CEN/ALL and AER experiments.

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This study was financially supported by NASA grant number NNX13AC06G. We acknowledge the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the U.S. DOE’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

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R.J.A. conceived the project, designed the study, carried out most of the data analysis and wrote the manuscript. J.R.N. advised on methods and interpretation, and assisted in the writing of the manuscript. M.K. assisted with data analysis.

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Correspondence to Robert J. Allen.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Allen, R., Norris, J. & Kovilakam, M. Influence of anthropogenic aerosols and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation on tropical belt width. Nature Geosci 7, 270–274 (2014).

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