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Stationary Eddies and the Zonal Asymmetry of Net Precipitation and Ocean Freshwater Forcing

By Robert C. Wills and Tapio Schneider


Transport of water vapor in the atmosphere generates substantial spatial variability of net precipitation (precipitation minus evaporation). Over half of the total spatial variability in annual-mean net precipitation is accounted for by deviations from the zonal mean. Over land, these regional differences determine differences in surface water availability. Over oceans, they account, for example, for the Pacific–Atlantic difference in sea surface salinity, with implications for the deep overturning circulation. This study analyzes the atmospheric-water budget in reanalyses from ERA-Interim and MERRA, to investigate which physical balances lead to zonal variation in net precipitation. It is found that the leading-order contribution is zonal variation in stationary-eddy vertical motion. Transient eddies modify the pattern of zonally anomalous net precipitation by moving moisture from the subtropical and tropical oceans onto land and poleward across the Northern Hemisphere storm tracks. Zonal variation in specific humidity and stationary-eddy horizontal advection play a secondary role. The dynamics leading to net precipitation via vertical motion in stationary eddies can be understood from a lower-tropospheric vorticity budget. The large-scale variations of vertical motion are primarily described by Sverdrup balance and Ekman pumping, with some modification by transient eddies. These results suggest that it is important to understand changes in stationary eddies and their influence on the zonal variation of transient eddy fluxes, in order to understand regional changes in net precipitation. They highlight the relative importance of different atmospheric mechanisms for the freshwater forcing of the North Pacific and North Atlantic

Publisher: 'American Meteorological Society'
Year: 2015
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