• Convection;
  • Dynamics;
  • Organization;
  • Patchiness


A two-column model of the tropical atmosphere is developed. The two columns are kept in buoyancy equilibrium by mass exchange driven by the inter-column pressure gradient, and diabatic processes are parametrized by highly simplified schemes. This model is used to investigate whether spontaneous large-scale circulations will develop in the tropical atmosphere when (he sea surface temperature and solar radiative forcing are uniform. Such circulations do indeed develop in the model, with ascent in one column and descent in the other, when one of the columns is slightly perturbed from the initial state of radiative-convective equilibrium. A key element of the circulation dynamics is that increased equivalent potential temperature in a column leads to enhanced convection and rainfall in that column, which further increases the equivalent potential temperature there. The latter effect arises because convection enhances surface heat fluxes and decreases outgoing long-wave radiation by virtue of the increase in stratiform cloudiness. These results form an attractive explanation for the observed patchiness of deep convection over warm tropical oceans and suggest that further modelling and observational work be directed towards understanding the budget of equivalent potential temperature in the tropical atmosphere and its relationship to rainfall.