Publication Date



Open access

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PHD)


Meteorology and Physical Oceanography (Marine)

Date of Defense


First Committee Member

Amy Clement

Second Committee Member

Gabriel Vecchi

Third Committee Member

Brian Soden

Fourth Committee Member

Ben Kirtman

Fifth Committee Member

Sang-Ki Lee


Mechanisms of tropical Pacific climate variability and change are studied in numerical experiments of future anthropogenic global warming (AGW), the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) 21,000 years ago, and decadal variability (PDV). According to these mechanisms the equatorial Pacific does not become either El Niño- or La Niña-like as the tropics warm up in response to increasing greenhouse gases. Because humidity increases much faster than precipitation as the tropical atmosphere warms up, theory and models anticipate a slowing-down of the Walker circulation in order to keep a balanced flow of water vapor into areas of convection. On long time scales characteristic of climate change, ocean dynamics oppose these changes in the Walker circulation. First, equatorial adjustment theory indicates that changes in the Walker circulation are not amplified via the Bjerknes feedback, as during El Niño or La Niña events. Second, during AGW, the ocean becomes more thermally stratified resulting in enhanced cooling of the equatorial cold tongue opposing the warming there. These ideas can be applied to interpret proxies of the LGM for which El Niño and La Niña analogies have been made. However, the LGM tropics are not an opposite analogue to future AGW because the Walker circulation is also sensitive to changes in the geography of the Maritime continent associated with lower sea level. Models simulate a stronger Walker circulation when the tropics cool in order to compensate for the decrease in moisture due to a cooler/drier atmosphere. However, this response is opposed by a weakening of the ascending branch of the Walker circulation because convection is suppressed over vast areas of the Maritime Continent exposed due to lower sea level. In general, the patterns of warming or cooling for AGW and LGM are not El Niño- or La Niña-like because of the opposing mechanisms presented here. As such, adherence to an ENSO analogy for interpreting tropical Pacific climate change can lead to serious misconceptions. However, proxies of the thermocline tilt can provide unequivocal evidence of changes in the Walker circulation because the pressure gradient associated with the thermocline tilt has to be in balance with the trade winds at all timescales.


global warming, ENSO, tropical Pacific