New study finds planet’s southern hemisphere becoming drier

10/04/2012 07:41

AUSTRALIA – A decline in April-May rainfall over south-east Australia is associated with a southward expansion of the subtropical dry-zone according to research published today in Scientific Reports, a primary research journal from the publishers of Nature. CSIRO scientists Wenju Cai, Tim Cowan and Marcus Thatcher explored why autumn rainfall has been in decline across south-eastern Australia since the 1970s, a period that included the devastating Millennium drought from 1997-2009. Previous research into what has been driving the decline in autumn rainfall across regions like southern Australia has pointed the finger at a southward shift in the storm tracks and weather systems during the late 20th century. However, the extent to which these regional rainfall reductions are attributable to the poleward expansion of the subtropical dry-zone has not been clarified before now. Mr. Cowan said rainfall patterns in the subtropics are known to be influenced by the Hadley cell, the large-scale atmospheric circulation that transports heat from the tropics to the sub-tropics. “There has been a southward expansion of the edge of the Hadley cell – also called subtropical dry-zone – over the past 30 years, with the strongest expansion occurring in mid-late autumn, or April to May, ranging from 200 to 400 kilometers,” Mr Cowan said. The CSIRO researchers found that the autumn southward expansion of the subtropical dry-zone is greatest over south-eastern Australia, and to a lesser extent, over the Southern Ocean to the south of Africa. “The Hadley cell is comprised of a number of individual branches, so the impact of a southward shift of the subtropical dry-zone on rainfall is not the same across the different semi-arid regions of the Southern Hemisphere,” says CSIRO’s Dr Wenju Cai.  EP

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