Solomon, A., and D. Zhang, 2006: Pacific Subtropical Cell Variability in coupled climate model simulations of the late 19th-20th Century. Journal of Ocean Modelling, 2006.04.003.


Observational studies of the Pacific basin since the 1950s have demonstrated that a decrease (increase) in tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures (SSTs) is significantly correlated with a spin-up (slow-down) of the Pacific Subtropical Cells (STCs). STCs are shallow wind-driven overturning circulations that provide a pathway by which extratropical atmospheric variability can impact the equatorial Pacific thermocline and, through upwelling in the eastern equatorial Pacific, tropical Pacific SSTs. Recent studies have shown that this observed relationship between SSTs and STCs is absent in coupled climate model simulations of the late 19th-20th centuries. In this paper we investigate what causes this relationship to breakdown and to what extent this limits the models' ability to simulate observed climate change in the equatorial Pacific since the late 19th century. To provide insight into these questions we first show that the NCAR Community Climate System Model's simulation of observed climate change since the 1970s has a robust signal in the equatorial Pacific that bears a close resemblance to observations. Strikingly, absent is a robust signal in the equatorial thermocline. Our results suggest that the coupled model may be reproducing the observed local ocean response to changes in forcing but inadequately reproducing the remote STC-forcing of the tropical Pacific due to the underestimate of extratropical winds that force these ocean circulations. These conclusions are found to be valid in five different coupled climate model simulations of the late 19th–20th centuries (CCSM3, GISS EH, GFDL CM2.1, CSIRO-Mk3, and HadCM3).