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The role of hydrological processes in ocean-atmosphere interactions


  • Peter J. Webster


Earth is unique among the planets of the solar system in possessing a full hydrological cycle. The role of water in the evolution of planetary atmospheres is discussed. As the atmospheres of the planets developed and modified the early climates of the planets, only the climate trajectory of Earth intercepted the water phase transitions near the triple point of water, thus allowing the full gamut of water forms to coexist. As a result, transitions between the water phases pervade the entire system and probably are responsible for the creation of a unique climate state. The interactions between the components of the climate system are enriched by the nonlinearity of the water phase transitions. The nonlinear character of the phase transitions of water suggests that the climate should be particularly sensitive to hydrological processes, especially in the tropics. Signatures of the nonlinearity are found in both the structure of the oceans and the atmosphere. Specific processes that determine the character of ocean-atmosphere interaction, including the role of ambient water vapor and clouds, the selective absorption of radiation by the ocean, the distribution of total heating in the ocean-atmosphere system, and the role of the flux of freshwater, are discussed in detail. Models of the ocean and atmospheric and oceanic data and models of the coupled system are used to perform systematic analyses of hydrological processes and their role in system interaction. The analysis is extended to consider the role of hydrological processes in the basic dynamics and thermodynamics of oceanic and atmospheric systems. The role hydrological processes play in determining the scale of the major atmospheric circulation patterns is investigated. Explanations are offered as to why large-scale convection in the tropical atmosphere is constrained to lie within the 28°C sea surface temperature contour and how hydrological processes are involved in interannual climate variability. The relative roles of thermal and haline forcing of the oceanic thermohaline circulation are discussed. Hydrological processes are considered in a global context by the development of a conceptual model of a simple planetary system. The constancy and maintenance of the very warm tropical sea surface temperatures are seen to be critical for the stability of climate. However, within the confines of the simplicity of the theory, the climate system, dominated by hydrological processes, conspires to maintain the temperature of the tropical warm pools.

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