Equatorial planetary waves and their signature in atmospheric variability

Kevin M. Grise, David W. J. Thompson

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Equatorial planetary waves are a fundamental component of the tropical climate system. Previous studies have examined their structure in the climatological-mean circulation, their role in the climatological-mean momentum balance of the tropics, and their contribution to the climatological-mean upwelling across the tropical tropopause. In this study, the authors focus on the contribution of the equatorial planetary waves to variability in the tropical circulation about its climatological-mean state.

The equatorial planetary waves that dominate the climatological mean exhibit considerable variability on intraseasonal and interannual time scales. Variability in the amplitude of the equatorial planetary waves is associated with a distinct pattern of equatorially symmetric climate variability that also emerges from empirical orthogonal function analysis of various tropical dynamical fields. Variability in the equatorial planetary waves is characterized by variations in 1) convection in the deep tropics, 2) eddy momentum flux convergence and zonal-mean zonal wind in the tropical upper troposphere, 3) the mean meridional circulation of the tropical and subtropical troposphere, 4) temperatures in the tropical lower stratosphere and subtropical troposphere of both hemispheres, and 5) the amplitude of the upper tropospheric anticyclones over the western tropical Pacific Ocean.

It is argued that pulsation of the equatorial planetary waves provides an alternative framework for interpreting the response of the tropical circulation to a range of climate phenomena. Pulsation of the equatorial planetary waves is apparent in association with opposing phases of El Niño–Southern Oscillation and select phases of the Madden–Julian oscillation. Pulsation of the equatorial planetary waves also contributes to variability in measures of the width of the tropical belt.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)857–874
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of the Atmospheric Sciences
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2012


  • Planetary waves
  • Transport
  • Madden-Julian oscillation
  • Climate variability
  • Tropical variabilty

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