Aerosol versus Greenhouse Gas Effects on Tropical Cyclone Potential Intensity and the Hydrologic Cycle

Sobel, Adam H.; Camargo, Suzana J.; Previdi, Michael

Aerosol cooling reduces tropical cyclone (TC) potential intensity (PI) more strongly, by about a factor of 2 per degree of sea surface temperature change, than greenhouse gas warming increases it. This study analyzes single-forcing and historical experiments from phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, aiming to understand the physical mechanisms behind this difference. Calculations are done for the tropical oceans of each hemisphere during the relevant TC seasons, emphasizing multimodel means. PI theory is used to interpret the difference in the PI response to aerosol and greenhouse gas forcings in terms of three factors. The net surface turbulent heat flux (sum of the latent and sensible heat fluxes) explains half of the difference, thermodynamic efficiency explains at most a small fraction, and surface wind speed does not explain the remainder, perhaps because of the use of monthly mean data. Changes in turbulent surface heat fluxes are interpreted as responses to surface radiative flux changes in the context of the energy balance of the ocean mixed layer. Radiative kernels are used to estimate what fractions of the surface radiative flux changes are feedbacks due to temperature and water vapor changes. The greater effect of aerosol forcing occurs because shortwave forcing has a greater direct, temperature-independent component at the surface than does longwave forcing, for a forcing amplitude that provokes the same SST change. This conclusion recalls prior work on the response of precipitation to radiative forcing, and the similarities and differences between precipitation and potential intensity in this regard are discussed.


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Journal of Climate