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Gust or Bust: Blustery Winds Important for Modeling Tropical Rainfall
Published: March 12, 2018
Posted: July 02, 2018

Researchers find surface evaporation drives circulation and summer precipitation in the Tropical West Pacific.

The Science 
Wind gusts beneath rain storms over the ocean increase surface evaporation, but how this process influences tropical circulations—a key component of the global climate system—and precipitation remains unclear. A research team led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that the additional surface evaporation is an important energy source for driving tropical circulations that create rainfall in areas with weak surface winds, such as the Tropical West Pacific.

The Impact
In the northern Tropical West Pacific, a region with very strong rainfall and weak surface winds, summertime precipitation is often underestimated in Earth system models compared to observations. Researchers found that accounting for surface wind gusts in models beneath rain storms over the ocean produced simulations with a more realistic rainfall pattern.

Summary
Earth system models struggle to represent some aspects of tropical circulations, leading to biases (offsets from observations) in tropical rainfall. In particular, models often underestimate summer rainfall in the northern Tropical West Pacific. The simulated rain shortage is related to the low amount of evaporation arising from light surface winds in the region. General circulation models typically neglect wind gusts generated below evaporating rain, but these gusts are known to create circulations that increase surface evaporation. Using the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM), researchers diagnosed that the increased surface evaporation from these “gusty winds” acts as a local source of moist energy to the atmosphere. This energy intensifies the circulation and total surface rainfall amount. Clarifying the role that surface evaporation plays in increasing rainfall has improved understanding of tropical circulations.

Contacts (BER PM)
Dorothy Koch
Earth System Modeling
Dorothy.Koch@science.doe.gov

(PI Contact)
Philip Rasch
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Philip.Rasch@pnnl.gov

Funding
This research was supported as part of the Energy Exascale Earth System Model (E3SM) project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research. The research used computational resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), a DOE Office of Science user facility.

Publication
Harrop, B.E., P.-L. Ma, P.J. Rasch, R.B. Neale, C. Hannay. “The Role of Convective Gustiness in Reducing Seasonal Precipitation Biases in the Tropical West Pacific.” Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems 10(4): 961-970 (2018). [DOI: 10.1002/2017MS001157]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling

Division: SC-33.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER

 

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