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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The tropical climate could be closer than expected (and wanted)

Earth's tropical belt seems to have expanded a couple hundred miles over the past quarter century, which could mean more arid weather for some already dry subtropical regions, new climate research shows.
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Geographically, the tropical region is a wide swath around Earth's middle stretching from the Tropic of Cancer, just south of Miami, to the Tropic of Capricorn, which cuts Australia almost in half. It's about one-quarter of the globe and generally thought of as hot, steamy and damp, but it also has areas of brutal desert.

To meteorologists, however, the tropics region is defined by long-term climate and what's happening in the atmosphere. Recent studies show changes that indicate an expansion of the tropical atmosphere.

The newest study, published Sunday in the new scientific journal Nature Geoscience, shows that by using the weather definition, the tropics are expanding toward Earth's poles more than predicted. And that means more dry weather is moving to the edges of the tropics in places like the U.S. Southwest.

Independent teams using four different meteorological measurements found that the tropical atmospheric belt has grown by anywhere between 2 and 4.8 degrees latitude since 1979. That translates to a total north and south expansion of 140 to 330 miles.

One key determination of the tropical belt is called the Hadley circulation, which is essentially prevailing rivers of wind that move vertically as well as horizontally, carrying lots of moisture to rainy areas while drying out arid regions on the edges of the tropics. That wind is circulating over a larger area than a couple decades ago.

SETH BORENSTEIN
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