The zonal wind in the tropical stratosphere switches between prevailing easterlies and westerlies with a period of about 28 months. In the lowermost stratosphere, the vertical structure of this quasibiennial oscillation (QBO) is linked to the mean upwelling, which itself is a key factor in determining stratospheric composition. Evidence for changes in the QBO have until now been equivocal, raising questions as to the extent of stratospheric circulation changes in a global warming context. Here we report an analysis of near-equatorial radiosonde observations for 1953–2012, and reveal a long-term trend of weakening amplitude in the zonal wind QBO in the tropical lower stratosphere. The trend is particularly notable at the 70-hectopascal pressure level (an altitude of about 19 kilometres), where the QBO amplitudes dropped by roughly one-third over the period. This trend is also apparent in the global warming simulations of the four models in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5) that realistically simulate the QBO. The weakening is most reasonably explained as resulting from a trend of increased mean tropical upwelling in the lower stratosphere. Almost all comprehensive climate models have projected an intensifying tropical upwelling in global warming scenarios, but attempts to estimate changes in the upwelling by using observational data have yielded ambiguous, inconclusive or contradictory results. Our discovery of a weakening trend in the lower-stratosphere QBO amplitude provides strong support for the existence of a long-term trend of enhanced upwelling near the tropical tropopause.
Nature 497 478 doi: 10.1038/nature12140
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