CR 47:123-138 (2011)  -  doi:10.3354/cr00953

Changes in precipitation with climate change

Kevin E. Trenberth*

National Center for Atmospheric Research, Box 3000, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA

ABSTRACT: There is a direct influence of global warming on precipitation. Increased heating leads to greater evaporation and thus surface drying, thereby increasing the intensity and duration of drought. However, the water holding capacity of air increases by about 7% per 1°C warming, which leads to increased water vapor in the atmosphere. Hence, storms, whether individual thunderstorms, extratropical rain or snow storms, or tropical cyclones, supplied with increased moisture, produce more intense precipitation events. Such events are observed to be widely occurring, even where total precipitation is decreasing: ‘it never rains but it pours!’ This increases the risk of flooding. The atmospheric and surface energy budget plays a critical role in the hydrological cycle, and also in the slower rate of change that occurs in total precipitation than total column water vapor. With modest changes in winds, patterns of precipitation do not change much, but result in dry areas becoming drier (generally throughout the subtropics) and wet areas becoming wetter, especially in the mid- to high latitudes: the ‘rich get richer and the poor get poorer’. This pattern is simulated by climate models and is projected to continue into the future. Because, with warming, more precipitation occurs as rain instead of snow and snow melts earlier, there is increased runoff and risk of flooding in early spring, but increased risk of drought in summer, especially over continental areas. However, with more precipitation per unit of upward motion in the atmosphere, i.e. ‘more bang for the buck’, atmospheric circulation weakens, causing monsoons to falter. In the tropics and subtropics, precipitation patterns are dominated by shifts as sea surface temperatures change, with El Niño a good example. The volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 led to an unprecedented drop in land precipitation and runoff, and to widespread drought, as precipitation shifted from land to oceans and evaporation faltered, providing lessons for possible geoengineering. Most models simulate precipitation that occurs prematurely and too often, and with insufficient intensity, resulting in recycling that is too large and a lifetime of moisture in the atmosphere that is too short, which affects runoff and soil moisture.

KEY WORDS:Climate change · Precipitation · Storms · Drought · Extremes · Floods · Geoengineering · Climate models

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Cite this article as: Trenberth KE (2011) Changes in precipitation with climate change. Clim Res 47:123-138

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