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Title: Observations and Simulated Mechanisms of Elevation-Dependent Warming over the Tropical Andes

Many mountain regions around the world are exposed to enhanced warming when compared to their surroundings, threatening key environmental services provided by mountains. Here we investigate this effect, known as elevation-dependent warming (EDW), in the Andes of Ecuador, using observations and simulations with the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) Model. EDW is discernible in observations of mean and maximum temperature in the Andes of Ecuador, but large uncertainties remain due to considerable data gaps in both space and time. WRF simulations of present-day (1986–2005) and future climate (RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 for 2041–60) reveal a very distinct EDW signal, with different rates of warming on the eastern and western slopes. This EDW effect is the combined result of multiple feedback mechanisms that operate on different spatial scales. Enhanced upper-tropospheric warming projects onto surface temperature on both sides of the Andes. In addition, changes in the zonal mean midtropospheric circulation lead to enhanced subsidence and warming over the western slopes at high elevation. The increased subsidence also induces drying, reduces cloudiness, and results in enhanced net surface radiation receipts, further contributing to stronger warming. Finally, the highest elevations are also affected by the snow-albedo feedback, due to significant reductions in snow more » cover by the middle of the twenty-first century. While these feedbacks are more pronounced in the high-emission scenario RCP8.5, our results indicate that high elevations in Ecuador will continue to warm at enhanced rates in the twenty-first century, regardless of emission scenario.

Significance Statement

Mountains are often projected to experience stronger warming than their surrounding lowlands going forward, a phenomenon known as elevation-dependent warming (EDW), which can threaten high-altitude ecosystems and lead to accelerated glacier retreat. We investigate the mechanisms associated with EDW in the Andes of Ecuador using both observations and model simulations for the present and the future. A combination of factors amplify warming at mountain tops, including a stronger warming high in the atmosphere, reduced cloudiness, and a reduction of snow and ice at high elevations. The latter two factors also favor enhanced absorption of sunlight, which promotes warming. The degree to which this warming is enhanced at high elevations in the future depends on the greenhouse gas emission pathway.

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Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Journal of Climate
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
p. 1021-1044
American Meteorological Society
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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