The eastward shift of the Walker Circulation in response to global warming and its relationship to ENSO variability

Abstract

This study investigates the global warming response of the Walker Circulation and the other zonal circulation cells (represented by the zonal stream function), in CMIP3 and CMIP5 climate models. The changes in the mean state are presented as well as the changes in the modes of variability. The mean zonal circulation weakens in the multi model ensembles nearly everywhere along the equator under both the RCP4.5 and SRES A1B scenarios. Over the Pacific the Walker Circulation also shows a significant eastward shift. These changes in the mean circulation are very similar to the leading mode of interannual variability in the tropical zonal circulation cells, which is dominated by El Niño Southern Oscillation variability. During an El Niño event the circulation weakens and the rising branch over the Maritime Continent shifts to the east in comparison to neutral conditions (vice versa for a La Niña event). Two-thirds of the global warming forced trend of the Walker Circulation can be explained by a long-term trend in this interannual variability pattern, i.e. a shift towards more El Niño-like conditions in the multi-model mean under global warming. Further, interannual variability in the zonal circulation exhibits an asymmetry between El Niño and La Niña events. El Niño anomalies are located more to the east compared with La Niña anomalies. Consistent with this asymmetry we find a shift to the east of the dominant mode of variability of zonal stream function under global warming. All these results vary among the individual models, but the multi model ensembles of CMIP3 and CMIP5 show in nearly all aspects very similar results, which underline the robustness of these results. The observed data (ERA Interim reanalysis) from 1979 to 2012 shows a westward shift and strengthening of the Walker Circulation. This is opposite to what the results in the CMIP models reveal. However, 75 % of the trend of the Walker Circulation can again be explained by a shift of the dominant mode of variability, but here towards more La Niña-like conditions. Thus in both climate change projections and observations the long-term trends of the Walker Circulation seem to follow to a large part the pre-existing dominant mode of internal variability.

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Acknowledgments

We acknowledge the World Climate Research Program’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, the individual modeling groups of the Climate Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3 and CMIP5) and ECMWF for providing the data sets. This work was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) through project DO1038/5-1, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science (CE110001028), the ARC project “Beyond the linear dynamics of the El Nino Southern Oscillation” (DP120101442), the RACE Project of BMBF, the NACLIM Project of the European Union and the Australian Climate Change Science Program. We thank Hanh Nguyen for providing the code to calculate the zonal stream function and Hardi Bordbar, Sabine Haase and the anonymous reviewers for discussion and useful comments.

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Correspondence to Tobias Bayr.

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Bayr, T., Dommenget, D., Martin, T. et al. The eastward shift of the Walker Circulation in response to global warming and its relationship to ENSO variability. Clim Dyn 43, 2747–2763 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-014-2091-y

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Keywords

  • Global warming
  • Walker Circulation
  • Zonal atmospheric circutlation
  • ENSO variability
  • Asymmetry of ENSO
  • Changes in the modes of variability