Interpretation of cloud structure anomalies over the tropical Pacific during the 1997/98 El Niño



[1] Cloud structure changes and their associated radiative property changes over the tropical Pacific Ocean during the strong 1997/98 El Niño are studied using a merged satellite data set from the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) project. This one-degree by one-degree gridded data set provides monthly mean values of radiative fluxes at the top of the atmosphere in addition to cloud fraction, cloud top altitude and cloud optical depth for the first eight months of 1998. This time period includes much of the 1997/98 El Niño, which reached peak intensity in March 1998 and essentially subsided by August 1998. The west-to-east shift of the center of convection that occurred during the El Niño resulted in cloud fraction, cloud top altitude and cloud optical depth increasing in the eastern equatorial Pacific while decreasing in the western tropical Pacific. For both regions all three cloud parameters are strongly correlated with each other and contribute to the strong linear relationship between longwave (LW) and shortwave (SW) cloud-radiative forcings (CRFs). This strong El Niño serves as a suitable test case for climate models. Results using the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Atmosphere Model (CAM) 4.0 show many of the observed changes in 500 hPa vertical velocity, cloud-radiative forcing, cloud top altitude and cloud fraction within the tropical Pacific during the El Niño event, but fail to capture the observed relationship between radiation anomalies and cloud optical depth anomalies.