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Theses Doctoral

The Interaction of the Madden-Julian Oscillation and the Quasi-Biennial Oscillation in Observations and a Hierarchy of Models

Martin, Zane Karas

The Madden-Julian oscillation (MJO) and the quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO) are two key modes of variability in the tropical atmosphere. The MJO, characterized by propagating, planetary-scale signals in convection and winds, is the main source of subseasonal variability and predictability in the tropics. The QBO is a ~28-month cycle in which the tropical stratospheric zonal winds alternate between easterly and westerly regimes. Via thermal wind balance these winds induce temperature anomalies, and both wind and temperature signals reach the tropopause.

Recent observational results show a remarkably strong link between the MJO and the QBO during boreal winter: the MJO is stronger and more predictable when QBO winds in the lower stratosphere are easterly than when winds are westerly. Despite its important implications for MJO theory and prediction, the physical processes driving the MJO-QBO interaction are not well-understood.

In this thesis, we use a hierarchy of models – including a cloud-resolving model, a forecast model, and a global climate model – to examine whether models can reproduce the MJO-QBO link, and better understand the possible mechanisms driving the connection. Based in part on our modeling findings, we further explore observed QBO temperature signals thought to be important for the MJO-QBO link.

After providing necessary background and context in the first two chapters, the third chapter looks at the MJO-QBO link in a small-domain, cloud-resolving model. The model successfully simulates convection associated with two MJO events that occurred during the DYNAMO field campaign. To examine the effect of QBO, we add various QBO temperature and wind anomalies into the model. We find that QBO temperature anomalies alone, without wind anomalies, qualitatively affect the model MJO similarly to the observed MJO-QBO connection. QBO wind anomalies have no clear effect on the modeled MJO. We note however that the MJO response is quite sensitive to the vertical structure of the QBO temperature anomalies, and for realistic temperature signals the model response is very small.

In the fourth chapter, we look at the MJO-QBO link in a state-of-the-art global forecast model with a good representation of the MJO. We conduct 84 hind-cast experiments initialized on dates across winters from 1989-2017. For each of these dates, we artificially impose an easterly and a westerly QBO in the stratospheric initial conditions, and examine the resulting changes to the simulated MJO under different stratospheric states. We find that the effect of the QBO on the model MJO is of the same sign as observations, but is much smaller. A large sample size is required to capture any QBO signal, and tropospheric initial conditions seem more important than the stratosphere in determining the behavior of the simulated MJO. Despite the weak signal, we find that simulations with stronger QBO temperature anomalies have a stronger MJO response.

In the fifth chapter, we conduct experiments in recent versions of a NASA general circulation model. We find that a version with a high vertical resolution generates a reasonable QBO and MJO, but has no MJO-QBO link. However, this model has weaker-than-observed QBO temperature anomalies, which may explain the lack of an MJO impact. To explore this potential bias, we impose the QBO by nudging the model stratospheric winds towards reanalysis, leading to more realistic simulation of QBO temperature anomalies. Despite this, the model still fails to show a strong MJO-QBO link across several ensemble experiments and sensitivity tests. We conclude with discussion of possible reasons why the model fails to capture the MJO-QBO connection.

The sixth chapter examines QBO temperature signals in a range of observational and reanalysis datasets. In particular, we are motivated by two elements of the MJO-QBO relationship which are especially puzzling: the seasonality (i.e. that the MJO-QBO link is only significant in boreal winter) and long-term trend (i.e. that the MJO-QBO link seems to have only emerged since the 1980s). By examining QBO temperature signals around the tropopause, we highlight changes to the strength and structure of QBO temperature anomalies both in boreal winter and in recent decades. Whether these changes are linked to the MJO-QBO relationship, and what more generally might explain them, is not presently clear.

Overall, we demonstrate that capturing the MJO-QBO relationship in a variety of models is a difficult task. The majority of evidence indicates that QBO-induced temperature anomalies are a plausible pathway through which the QBO might modulate the MJO, but the theoretical description of precisely how these temperature anomalies may impact convection is lacking and likely more nuanced than the literature to date suggests. Most models show only a weak modulation of the MJO associated with changes in upper-tropospheric temperatures, and even when those temperature signals are artificially enhanced, comprehensive GCMs still fail to show a significant MJO-QBO connection. Our observational study indicates that temperature anomalies associated with the QBO show striking modulations on various timescales of relevance to the MJO-QBO link, but do not conclusively demonstrate a clear connection to the MJO. This difficulty simulating a strong MJO-QBO connection suggests that models may lack a key process in driving the MJO and coupling the tropical stratosphere and troposphere. It is further possible that the observed link may be in some regards different than is currently theorized -- for example statistically not robust, due to non-stratospheric processes, or driven by some mechanism that has not been suitably explored.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics
Thesis Advisors
Sobel, Adam H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 24, 2020