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Differential heating in the Indian Ocean differentially modulates precipitation in the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins

October 28, 2016

Indo-Pacific sea surface temperature dynamics play a prominent role in Asian summer monsoon variability. Two interactive climate modes of the Indo-Pacific-the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Indian Ocean dipole mode-modulate the amount of precipitation over India, in addition to precipitation over Africa, Indonesia, and Australia. However, this modulation is not spatially uniform. The precipitation in southern India is strongly forced by the Indian Ocean dipole mode and ENSO. In contrast, across northern India, encompassing the Ganges and Brahmaputra basins, the climate mode influence on precipitation is much less. Understanding the forcing of precipitation in these river basins is vital for food security and ecosystem services for over half a billion people. Using 28 years of remote sensing observations, we demonstrate that (i) the tropical west-east differential heating in the Indian Ocean influences the Ganges precipitation and (ii) the north-south differential heating in the Indian Ocean influences the Brahmaputra precipitation. The El Nino phase induces warming in the warm pool of the Indian Ocean and exerts more influence on Ganges precipitation than Brahmaputra precipitation. The analyses indicate that both the magnitude and position of the sea surface temperature anomalies in the Indian Ocean are important drivers for precipitation dynamics that can be effectively summarized using two new indices, one tuned for each basin. These new indices have the potential to aid forecasting of drought and flooding, to contextualize land cover and land use change, and to assess the regional impacts of climate change.