Influence of Global-Scale Variability on the Subtropical Ridge over Southeast Australia

Wenju Cai*, Peter van Rensch, Tim Cowan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In recent decades, southeast Australia (SEA) has experienced a severe rainfall decline, with a maximum reduction in the austral autumn season. The cause(s) of this decline remain unclear. This study examines the interaction between remote large-scale climate modes and an atmospheric phenomenon known as the subtropical ridge (STR) at the local scale. A focus is placed on the utility of using the STR as a bridge for understanding how these remote climate drivers influence SEA rainfall through a response in local atmospheric conditions. Using observational data since 1979, it is found that a strong seasonality exists in the impact of the STR on SEA rainfall. In austral autumn, because SEA rainfall is poorly correlated with the STR intensity (STRI) and STR position (STRP) on an interannual basis, it follows that most of the autumn rainfall reduction cannot be explained by the STRI changes in this season. There is also no clear relationship between the autumn STR and known remote modes of variability. Reductions in SEA rainfall have occurred in the austral winter and spring seasons; however, neither is significant. During winter, although El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) has little impact on the STR, there is a significant influence from the Indian Ocean dipole (IOD) and the southern annular mode (SAM). The IOD impact is conducted through equivalent-barotropic Rossby wave trains stemming from the eastern Indian Ocean in response to the IOD-induced anomalous convection and divergence. These wave trains modify the intensity and position of the ridge over SEA. The impact from the SAM is similarly projected onto the STR I and STRP. The STR trend accounts for the entire observed decline in SEA winter rainfall, 80% of which is contributed by the upward trend of the IOD; the SAM exhibits virtually no trend over the 30-yr period in this season. In spring, SEA rainfall shows strong interannual variability and is well correlated with the STRI; the ridge itself is influenced by the IOD and ENSO but not by the SAM. The Indian Ocean is a major pathway for ENSO's impact on SEA rainfall in this season, which is conducted by two wave trains emanating from the east and west poles of the IOD. These wave train patterns share an anomalously high surface pressure center south of Australia, which does not align with the STR over SEA. As such, only a small portion of the STRI variance is accounted for by fluctuations in ENSO and the IOD. Long-term changes in the STR I account for about 90% of the observed decline in SEA spring rainfall, all of which are due to a recent increased frequency in the number of positive IOD events (upward IOD trend); ENSO shows no long-term trend over the 30-yr period. In summary, variability and change in winter and spring rainfall across SEA can be understood through the impact of remote climate modes, such as ENSO, the IOD, and the SAM, on the STR. This approach, however, offers no utility for understanding what drives the long-term SEA autumn rainfall decline, the dynamics of which remain elusive.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6035-6053
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number23
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • ENSO
  • Southern Hemisphere

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