The Characteristics of the Torrid Zone.
General: Climate and Weather.—The dominant characteristic of the torrid zone is the simplicity and uniformity of its climatic features. The tropics lack the proverbial uncertainty and changeableness of the weather of higher latitudes. Weather and climate are essentially synonymous terms. Periodic phenomena, depending upon the daily and annual march of the sun, are dominant. Non-periodic weather changes are wholly subordinate. In special regions only, and at special seasons, is the regular sequence of weather temporarily interrupted by an occasional tropical cyclone. These cyclones, although comparatively infrequent, are notable features of the climate of the areas in which they occur, generally bringing very heavy rains. The devastation produced by one of these storms often affects the economic condition of the people in the district of its occurrence for many years.
Temperature.—The mean temperature is high, and very uniform over the whole zone. There is little variation during the year. The mean annual isotherm of 68° is a rational limit at the polar margins of the zone, and the mean annual isotherm of 80° encloses the greater portion of the land areas, as well as much of the tropical oceans. The warmest latitude circle for the year is not the equator, but latitude 10° N. The highest mean annual temperatures, shown by the isotherm of 85°, are in Central Africa, in India, the north of Australia and Central America, but, with the exception of the first, these areas are small. The temperatures average highest where there is little rain. In June, July and August there are large districts in the south of Asia and north of Africa with temperatures over 90°.
Over nearly all of the zone the mean annual range of temperature is less than 10°, and over much of it, especially on the oceans, it is less than 5°. Even near the margins of the zone the ranges are less than 25°, as at Calcutta, Hong-Kong, Río de Janeiro and Khartum. The mean daily range is usually larger than the mean annual. It has been well said that “night is the winter of the tropics.” Over an area covering parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Arabia to the Caroline Islands and from Zanzibar to New Guinea, as well as on the Guiana coast, the minimum temperatures do not normally fall below 68°. Towards the margins of the zone, however, the minima on the continents fall to or even below 32°. Maxima of 115° and even over 120° occur over the deserts of northern Africa. A district where the mean maxima exceed 113° extends from the western Sahara to north-western India, and over Central Australia. Near the equator the maxima are therefore not as high as those in many so-called “temperate” climates. The tropical oceans show remarkably small variations in temperature. The “Challenger” results on the equator showed a daily range of hardly 0.7° in the surface water temperature, and P. G. Schott determined the annual range as 4.1° on the equator, 4.3° at latitude 10°, and 6.5° at latitude 20°.
The Seasons.—In a true tropical climate the seasons are not classified according to temperature, but depend on rainfall and the prevailing winds. The life of animals and plants in the tropics, and of man himself, is regulated very largely, in some cases almost wholly, by rainfall. Although the tropical rainy season is characteristically associated with a vertical sun, that season is not necessarily the hottest time of the year. It often goes by the name of winter for this reason. Towards the margins of the zone, with increasing annual ranges of temperature, seasons in the extra-tropical sense gradually appear.
Physiological Effects of Heat and Humidity.—Tropical heat is associated with high relative humidity except over deserts and in dry seasons. The air is therefore muggy and oppressive. The high temperatures are disagreeable and hard to bear. The “hot-house air” has an enervating effect. Energetic physical and mental action are often difficult or even impossible. The tonic effect of a cold winter is lacking. The most humid districts in the tropics are the least desirable for persons from higher latitudes; the driest are the healthiest. The most energetic natives are the desert-dwellers. The monotonously enervating heat of the humid tropics makes man sensitive to slight temperature changes. The intensity of direct insolation, as well as of radiation from the earth’s surface, may produce heat prostration and sunstroke. “Beware of the sun” is a good rule in the tropics.
Pressure.—The uniform temperature distribution in the tropics involves uniform pressure distribution. Pressure gradients are weak. The annual fluctuations are slight, even on the continents. The diurnal variation of the barometer is so regular and so marked that, as von Humboldt said, the time of day can be told within about twenty minutes if the reading of the barometer be known.
Winds and Rainfall.—Along the barometric equator, where the pressure gradients are weakest, is the equatorial belt of calms, variable winds and rains—the doldrums. This belt offers exceptionally favourable conditions for abundant rainfall, and is one of the rainiest regions of the world, averaging probably about 100 in. Here the sky is prevailingly cloudy; the air is hot and oppressive; heavy showers and thunderstorms are frequent, chiefly in the afternoon and evening. Here are the dense tropical forests of the Amazon and of equatorial Africa. This belt of calms and rains shifts north and south of the equator after the sun. In striking contrast are the easterly trade winds, blowing between the tropical high pressure belts and the equatorial belt of low pressure. Of great regularity, and contributing largely to the uniformity of tropical climates, the trades have long been favourite sailing routes because of the steadiness of the wind, the infrequency of storms, the brightness of the skies and the freshness of the air. The trades are subject to many variations. Their northern and southern margins shift north and south after the sun; at certain seasons they are interrupted, often over wide areas near their equatorward margins, by the migrating belt of equatorial rains and by monsoons; near lands they are often interfered with by land and sea breezes; in certain regions they are invaded by violent cyclonic storms. The trades, except where they blow on to windward coasts or over mountains, are drying winds. They cause the deserts of northern Africa and of the adjacent portions of Asia; of Australia, South Africa and southern South America. The monsoons on the southern and eastern coasts of Asia are the best known winds of their class. In the northern summer the south-west monsoon, warm and sultry, blows over the latitudes from about 10° N. to and beyond the northern tropic, between Africa and the Philippines, giving rains over India, the East Indian archipelago and the eastern coasts of China. In winter, the north-east monsoon, the normal cold-season outflow from Asia combined with the north-east trade, and generally cool and dry, covers the same district, extending as far north as latitude 30°. Crossing the equator, these winds reach northern Australia and the western islands of the South Pacific as a north-west rainy monsoon, while this region in the opposite season has the normal south-east trade. Other monsoons are found in the Gulf of Guinea and in equatorial Africa. Wherever they occur, they control the seasonal changes.
Tropical rains are in the main summer rains, coming when the normal trade gives way to the equatorial belt of rains, or when the summer monsoon sets in. There are, however, many cases of a rainy season when the sun is low,on windward coasts in the trades. Tropical rains come usually in the form of heavy downpours and with a well-marked diurnal period, the maximum varying with the locality between noon and midnight. Local influences are, however, very important, and in many places night rainfall maxima are found.
Land and Sea Breezes.—The sea breeze is an important climatic feature on many tropical coasts. With its regular occurrence, and its cool, clean air, it serves to make many districts habitable for white settlers, and has deservedly won the name of “the doctor.” On not a few coasts, the sea breeze is a true prevailing wind. The location of dwellings is often determined by the exposure of a site to the sea breeze.
Thunderstorms.—Local thunderstorms are frequent in the humid portions of the tropics. They have a marked diurnal periodicity, find their best opportunity in the equatorial belt