A Positive Low Cloud–Sea Surface Temperature Feedback in the East Asian Marginal Seas during El Niño Mature Winters and Their Following Spring

Journal Article
Journal of Climate, vol. 35, iss. 24, pp. 8169-8187, 2022
Zhun Guo, Kalli Furtado, Tianjun Zhou, Vincent E. Larson, Ling Zhang
Abstract During the winter and subsequent spring of an El Niño year, the East Asian marginal sea (EAMS) exhibits positive sea surface temperature anomalies (SSTAs) and fewer low clouds, while the western North Pacific experiences negative SSTAs. In this study, we suggest that the positive SSTAs in EAMS are maintained by a positive low cloud–SST feedback. In neutral winters and springs, the EAMS is covered by low clouds, which have a cooling effect on surface temperatures. During an El Niño year, a western North Pacific anomalous anticyclone is established, and along its northwestern flank, there are favorable conditions for convergence of moisture and weaker surface latent heat flux over the EAMS. Once a positive SSTA has been established, a further reduction of turbulent mixing results in less low cloud and enhanced solar heating of the ocean mixed layer; this reinforces and maintains both the positive SSTA and the lack of low cloud via a positive feedback mechanism. The concurrent increase of low cloud–SST feedback and anticyclone circulation strengths is evident in the coupled-model simulations from phase 6 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project. Furthermore, sensitivity experiments, performed with the atmospheric components of Community Earth System Model (CESM2), reveal that a positive SSTA helps to maintain the western North Pacific anomalous anticyclone. Four pacemaker-coupled experiments by CESM2, with sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific restored to the observational anomalies plus the model climatology and altered low cloud feedback over EAMS, suggest that the low cloud–SST feedback results in more than the maintenance of a positive SSTA over the EAMS: the positive feedback is also a previously overlooked mechanism for the maintenance of the western North Pacific anomalous anticyclone. Significance Statement The East Asian marginal sea (EAMS) and western North Pacific are important areas that bridge El Niño and the climate of East Asia. Unlike the cold sea surface temperature anomaly (SSTA) over the western North Pacific during El Niño, the positive SSTA over EAMS, which is covered by winter low cloud, has received less attention. We suggest that a “low cloud–SST” feedback—namely, one in which decreasing low-level clouds allows more sunlight to strike the ocean surface and favors higher SST—maintains the positive SSTA over EAMS. We also configure a widely used atmospheric model with a set of preset SSTA patterns that mimic different climate patterns. Our experiments with different climate patterns and CMIP6 historical runs show that the low cloud–SST feedback (through the positive SSTA) is a possible supplementary mechanism for reinforcing the WNP anomalous anticyclone.