Variability in the Characteristics of Precipitation Systems in the Tropical Pacific. Part I: Spatial Structure

Hirohiko Masunaga, Tristan S. L’Ecuyer, and Christian D. Kummerow

Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado


Regional and temporal variability in the vertical and horizontal characteristics of tropical precipitating clouds are investigated using the Precipitation Radar (PR) and the Visible and Infrared Scanner (VIRS) on board the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite. The present study focuses on the three oceanic regions (west, central, and east Pacific) together with two continental regions for comparison and the two separate time periods (February 1998 and February 2000) under different phases of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in order to examine regional and ENSO-related variations. The height spectrums of storms are investigated in terms of radar echo-top height and infrared brightness temperature. The variability in the spectrum clearly correlates with the large-scale circulation and its ENSO-related change. On the basis of the height spectrum, storm systems are classified into the four categories of shallow, cumulus congestus, deep stratiform, and deep convective. The deep stratiform and deep convective categories, both of which have very cold cloud tops, are differentiated by radar echo-top heights so that deep convective systems are accompanied with an appreciable amount of large frozen particles aloft. While shallow events are dominant in the probability of occurrence over relatively cold oceans, deep convective systems take their place for warmer sea surface temperatures (SSTs). The turnover occurs at the SST threshold of 28°–29°C for all the oceanic regions and years investigated except the west Pacific in 2000, for which deep convective systems prevail over the entire range of SST. Rain correlation-scale length (RCSL) and cloud correlation-scale length (CCSL) are introduced as statistical indicators of the horizontal scale of storms. While the RCSL is 8–18 km for shallow- and cumulus congestus–type clouds without significant regional and temporal variations, the RCSL and CCSL associated with deep stratiform and deep convective systems consistently exceed 100 km and exhibit a systematic variability. The RCSL and CCSL in the central and east Pacific, particularly, increase significantly in the El Niño year.