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Does Global Warming Cause Intensified Interannual Hydroclimate Variability?

Seager, Richard; Naik, Naomi H.; Vogel, Laura

The idea that global warming leads to more droughts and floods has become commonplace without clear indication of what is meant by this statement. Here, the authors examine one aspect of this problem and assess whether interannual variability of precipitation P minus evaporation E becomes stronger in the twenty-first century compared to the twentieth century, as deduced from an ensemble of models participating in Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 3. It is shown that indeed interannual variability of P − E does increase almost everywhere across the planet, with a few notable exceptions such as southwestern North America and some subtropical regions. The variability increases most at the equator and the high latitudes and least in the subtropics. Although most interannual P − E variability arises from internal atmosphere variability, the primary potentially predictable component is related to the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). ENSO-driven interannual P − E variability clearly increases in amplitude in the tropical Pacific, but elsewhere the changes are more complex. This is not surprising in that ENSO-driven P − E anomalies are primarily caused by circulation anomalies combining with the climatological humidity field. As climate warms and the specific humidity increases, this term leads to an intensification of ENSO-driven P − E variability. However, ENSO-driven circulation anomalies also change, in some regions amplifying but in others opposing and even overwhelming the impact of rising specific humidity. Consequently, there is sound scientific basis for anticipating a general increase in interannual P − E variability, but the predictable component will depend in a more complex way on both thermodynamic responses to global warming and on how tropically forced circulation anomalies alter.


Also Published In

Journal of Climate

More About This Work

Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Ocean and Climate Physics
Published Here
August 30, 2021