Outsize Influence of Central American Orography on Global Climate


Global Climate Models (GCMs) exhibit substantial biases in their simulation of tropical climate. One particularly problematic bias exists in GCMs' simulation of the tropical rainband known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Much of the precipitation on Earth falls within the ITCZ, which plays a key role in setting Earth’s temperature by affecting global energy transports, and partially dictates dynamics of the largest interannual mode of climate variability: the El Ni~no-Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Most GCMs fail to simulate the mean state of the ITCZ correctly, often exhibiting a "double ITCZ bias", with rainbands both north and south rather than just north of the equator. These tropical mean state biases limit confidence in climate models' simulation of projected future and paleoclimate states, and reduce the utility of these models for understanding present climate dynamics. Adjusting GCM parameterizations of cloud processes and atmospheric convection can reduce tropical biases, as can artificially correcting sea surface temperatures (SSTs) through modifications to air-sea fluxes (i.e. "flux adjustment"). Here we argue that a significant portion of these rainfall and circulation biases are rooted in orographic height being biased low due to assumptions made in fitting observed orography onto GCM grids. We demonstrate that making different, and physically defensible, assumptions that raise the orographic height significantly improves model simulation of climatological features such as the ITCZ and North American rainfall as well as the simulation of ENSO. These findings suggest a simple, physically-based, and computationally inexpensive method that can improve climate models and projections of future climate.