Climate Dynamics

, Volume 50, Issue 5–6, pp 2217–2237 | Cite as

Simple physical-empirical model of the precipitation distribution based on a tropical sea surface temperature threshold and the effects of climate change

  • Yakelyn R. JaureguiEmail author
  • Ken Takahashi


The observed nonlinear relationship between tropical sea surface temperature (\(T_s\)) and precipitation (P) on climate timescales, by which a threshold (\(T_c\)) must be exceeded by \(T_s\) in order for deep convection to occur, is the basis of a physical-empirical model (PEM) that we fitted to observational data and CMIP5 climate model output and used to show that, with essentially only two constant parameters (\(T_c\) and the sensitivity \(a_1\) of P to \(T_s>T_c\)), it provides a useful first-order description of the climatological and interannual variability of the large-scale distribution of tropical P given \(T_s\), as well as of the biases of the Global Climate Models (GCMs). A substantial limitation is its underestimation of the peak P in the convergence zones, as the necessary processes associated with the atmospheric circulation are not considered. The pattern of the intermodel correlation between the mean \(T_s-T_c\) for each GCM and the average P distribution is in agreement with the double ITCZ bias, featuring roughly zonally-symmetric off-equatorial maxima, rather than being regionally or hemispherically restricted. The inter-comparison of GCMs indicates a relationship between \(T_c\) with the near-equatorial low-level (850 hPa) tropospheric temperature, consistent with the interpretation that it is a measure of the convective inhibition (CIN). The underestimation of \(T_c\) is linked to the cold free tropospheric bias in the GCMs. However, the discrepancy among the observational datasets is a limitation for assessing the GCM biases from the PEM framework quantitatively. Under the RCP4.5 climate change scenario, \(T_c\) increases slightly more than the mean tropical \(T_s\), implying a stabilizing trend consistent with the amplified free tropospheric warming relative to the surface. However, since \(a_1\) increases by 10–50%/\(^\circ\)C with the surface warming, its effect dominates and results in generally positive precipitation change (\(\Delta P\)) in the equatorial regions. In the equatorial eastern-central Pacific cold tongue, \(\Delta (T_s-T_c)\) is positive, but the absolute \(T_s-T_c\) remains small, which explains the double band pattern of \(\Delta P\) along the equatorial flanks of the spuriously strong double ITCZs. When the GCM biases are corrected in the PEM, the positive \(\Delta P\) in the southeast Pacific and Atlantic oceans is substantially reduced.


Double ITCZ Critical temperature Convective inhibition Climate change 



The data used in this study were provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD (GPCP, CMAP, OI SST, ERSST;, Goddard Space Flight Center Distributed Active Archive Center (TRMM 3B43 V7;, the Hadley Centre Sea Ice and Sea Surface Temperature data set (HadISST;, ECMWF (ERA Interim reanalysis;, Atmospheric Infrared Sounder project at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (AIRS; We also acknowledge the World Climate Research Programs (WCRP) Working Group on Coupled Modeling (WGCM), which is responsible for Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), and the U.S. Department of Energys Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI), which provides coordinating support and leads development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank the climate modeling groups around the world listed in Table 2 of this paper for producing and making available their model output. This study was supported by the PPR 068 “Reducción de Vulnerabilidad y Atención de Emergencias por Desastres” and the project “Impacts of Climate Variability and Climate Change on the Mangrove Ecosystem in Tumbes, Peru” (IDRC 106714).


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto Geofísico del PerúLimaPeru

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