Climate as a complex, self-regulating system
Abstract. This paper explores whether climate is complicated or complex by examining the performance of a heat engine in the tropical Pacific, the Pacific Ocean heat engine, which is linked to a teleconnected network of circulation and oscillations. Sustained radiative forcing is widely expected to produce gradual change but instead produces step-wise regime shifts. The engine is a heat pump with cold-to-hot circulation maintained by kinetic energy produced by the Coriolis Effect. It is a fundamental response of a coupled ocean-atmosphere system to asymmetric circulation. This paper surveys emergent behaviours in climate models linked to such shifts. It explores how well models represent the heat engine, compares regime changes in models and observations, and examines how geostrophic controls on meridional heat transport set critical boundary conditions. The results reinforce the description of climate as a self-regulating system governed by the principle of least action. Teleconnected steady-state regimes are physically-induced by the need to maintain boundary-limited dissipation rates between the hemispheres, the equator and the poles. A sufficient imbalance of energy at the planetary surface produces regime shifts that switch between slow and fast dissipation pathways. The strength of coupling measured via heat engine characteristics is weaker in models than in the observed climate, failing to distinguish clearly between free and forced modes. The capacity of the coupled ocean-atmosphere system to maintain homeostasis allows Earth’s climate to be classified physically rather than statistically, the basic unit of climate being the steady-state regime.
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