Geophysical Research Letters

Relationships between tropical sea surface temperature and top-of-atmosphere radiation



[1] To assess climate sensitivity from Earth radiation observations of limited duration and observed sea surface temperatures (SSTs) requires a closed and therefore global domain, equilibrium between the fields, and robust methods of dealing with noise. Noise arises from natural variability in the atmosphere and observational noise in precessing satellite observations. This paper explores the meaning of results that use only the tropical region. We compute correlations and regressions between tropical SSTs and top-of-atmosphere (TOA) longwave, shortwave and net radiation using a variety of methods to test robustness of results. The main changes in SSTs throughout the tropics are associated with El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events in which the dominant changes in energy into an atmospheric column come from ocean heat exchange through evaporation, latent heat release in precipitation, and redistribution of that heat through atmospheric winds. These changes can be an order of magnitude larger than the net TOA radiation changes, and their effects are teleconnected globally, and especially into the subtropics. Atmospheric model results are explored and found to be consistent with observations. From 1985 to 1999 the largest perturbation in TOA radiative fluxes was from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and clearly models which do not include that forcing will not simulate the effects. Consequently, regressions of radiation with SSTs in the tropics may have nothing to say about climate sensitivity.