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Influence of the Andes Mountains on South American moisture transport, convection, and precipitation

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Abstract

Mountain ranges are known to have a first-order control on mid-latitude climate, but previous studies have shown that the Andes have little effect on the large-scale circulation over South America. We use a limited-domain general circulation model (RegCM3) to evaluate the effect of the Andes on regional-scale atmospheric dynamics and precipitation. We present experiments in which Andean heights are specified at 250 m, and 25, 50, 75, and 100% of their modern values. Our experiments indicate that the Andes have a significant influence on moisture transport between the Amazon Basin and the central Andes, deep convective processes, and precipitation over much of South America through mechanical forcing of the South American low-level jet (LLJ) and topographic blocking of westerly flow from the Pacific Ocean. When the Andes are absent, the LLJ is absent and moisture transport over the central Andes is mainly northeastward. As a result, deep convection is suppressed and precipitation is low along the Andes. Above 50% of the modern elevation, a southward flowing LLJ develops along the eastern Andean flanks and transports moisture from the tropics to the subtropics. Moisture drawn from the Amazon Basin provides the latent energy required to drive convection and precipitation along the Andean front. Large northerly moisture flux and reduced low-level convergence over the Amazon Basin leads to a reduction in precipitation over much of the basin. Our model results are largely consistent with proxy evidence of Andean climate change, and have implications for the timing and rate of Andean surface uplift.

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Acknowledgment

Support for this research was provided by grants to C. Poulsen and T. Ehlers from the University of Michigan’s Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute and from the US National Science Foundation (EAR Award 0738822). We thank two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Nadja Insel.

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Insel, N., Poulsen, C.J. & Ehlers, T.A. Influence of the Andes Mountains on South American moisture transport, convection, and precipitation. Clim Dyn 35, 1477–1492 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-009-0637-1

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