Interannual Variability of Caribbean Rainfall, ENSO, and the Atlantic Ocean

Abstract The large-scale ocean–atmosphere patterns that influence the interannual variability of Caribbean–Central American rainfall are examined. The atmospheric circulation over this region is shaped by the competition between the North Atlantic subtropical high sea level pressure system and the eastern Pacific ITCZ, which influence the convergence patterns on seasonal and interannual timescales. The authors find the leading modes of interannual sea level pressure (SLP) and SST variability associated with Caribbean rainfall, as selected by canonical correlation analysis, to be an interbasin mode, linking the eastern Pacific with the tropical Atlantic, and an Atlantic mode. North Atlantic SLP affects Caribbean rainfall directly, by changing the patterns of surface flow over the region, and indirectly, through SST anomalies. Anomalously high SLP in the region of the North Atlantic high translates into stronger trade winds, hence cooler SSTs, and less Caribbean rainfall. The interbasin mode, which manifests itself as a zonal seesaw in SLP between the tropical Atlantic and the eastern equatorial Pacific, is correlated with ENSO. When SLP is low in the eastern equatorial Pacific, it is high in the tropical Atlantic: the surface atmospheric flow over the basin is divergent, to the west, toward the eastern Pacific ITCZ, and to the east, toward the tropical North Atlantic. A weakened meridional SLP gradient in the tropical North Atlantic signifies weaker trade winds and the opportunity for SSTs to warm up, reaching peak intensity 2–4 months after the mature phase of an ENSO event. This SST anomaly is particularly evident in the Caribbean–western Atlantic basin. The tendency is for drier-than-average conditions when the divergent atmospheric flow dominates, during the rainy season preceding the mature phase of a warm ENSO event. The dry season that coincides with the mature phase of ENSO is wetter than average over the northwestern section of the basin, that is, Yucatan, the Caribbean coast of Honduras, and Cuba, and drier than average over the rest of the basin, that is, Costa Rica and northern South America. The following spring, as the atmospheric circulation transitions to normal conditions, the positive SST anomaly that has built up in the basin takes over, favoring convection. The positive precipitation anomaly spreads southeastward, from the northwest to the entire basin. At the start of a new rainy season, it is especially strong over the Greater Antilles.

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