Progress during TOGA in understanding and modeling global teleconnections associated with tropical sea surface temperatures


  • Kevin E. Trenberth,

  • Grant W. Branstator,

  • David Karoly,

  • Arun Kumar,

  • Ngar-Cheung Lau,

  • Chester Ropelewski


The primary focus of this review is tropical-extratropical interactions and especially the issues involved in determining the response of the extratropical atmosphere to tropical forcing associated with sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies. The review encompasses observations, empirical studies, theory and modeling of the extratropical teleconnections with a focus on developments over the Tropical Oceans-Global Atmosphere (TOGA) decade and the current state of understanding. In the tropical atmosphere, anomalous SSTs force anomalies in convection and large-scale overturning with subsidence in the descending branch of the local Hadley circulation. The resulting strong upper tropospheric divergence in the tropics and convergence in the subtropics act as a Rossby wave source. The climatological stationary planetary waves and associated jet streams, especially in the northern hemisphere, can make the total Rossby wave sources somewhat insensitive to the position of the tropical heating that induces them and thus can create preferred teleconnection response patterns, such as the Pacific-North American (PNA) pattern. However, a number of factors influence the dispersion and propagation of Rossby waves through the atmosphere, including zonal asymmetries in the climatological state, transients, and baroclinic and nonlinear effects. Internal midlatitude sources can amplify perturbations. Observations, modeling, and theory have clearly shown how storm tracks change in response to changes in quasi-stationary waves and how these changes generally feedback to maintain or strengthen the dominant perturbations through vorticity and momentum transports. The response of the extratropical atmosphere naturally induces changes in the underlying surface, so that there are changes in extratropical SSTs and changes in land surface hydrology and moisture availability that can feedback and influence the total response. Land surface processes are believed to be especially important in spring and summer. Anomalous SSTs and tropical forcing have tended to be strongest in the northern winter, and teleconnections in the southern hemisphere are weaker and more variable and thus more inclined to be masked by natural variability. Occasional strong forcing in seasons other than winter can produce strong and identifiable signals in the northern hemisphere and, because the noise of natural variability is less, the signal-to-noise ratio can be large. The relative importance of tropical versus extratropical SST forcings has been established through numerical experiments with atmospheric general circulation models (AGCMs). Predictability of anomalous circulation and associated surface temperature and precipitation in the extratropics is somewhat limited by the difficulty of finding a modest signal embedded in the high level of noise from natural variability in the extratropics, and the complexity and variety of the possible feedbacks. Accordingly, ensembles of AGCM runs and time averaging are needed to identify signals and make predictions. Strong anomalous tropical forcing provides opportunities for skillful forecasts, and the accuracy and usefulness of forecasts is expected to improve as the ability to forecast the anomalous SSTs improves, as models improve, and as the information available from the mean and the spread of ensemble forecasts is better utilized.