Detectability of summer dryness caused by greenhouse warming

R. T. Wetherald, Syukuro Manabe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

84 Scopus citations


This study investigates the temporal and spatial variation of soil moisture associated with global warming as simulated by long-term integrations of a coupled ocean-atmosphere model conducted earlier. Starting from year 1765, integrations of the coupled model for 300 years were performed for three scenarios: increasing greenhouse gases only, increasing sulfate-aerosol loading only and the combination of both radiative forcings. The integration with the combined radiative forcings reproduces approximately the observed increases of global mean surface air temperature during the 20th century. Analysis of this integration indicates that both summer dryness and winter wetness occur in middle-to-high latitudes of North America and southern Europe. These features were identified in earlier studies. However, in the southern part of North America where the percentage reduction of soil moisture during summer is quite large, soil moisture is decreased for nearly the entire annual cycle in response to greenhouse warming. A similar observation applies to other semi-arid regions in subtropical to middle latitudes such as central Asia and the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. On the other hand, annual mean runoff is greatly increased in high latitudes because of increased poleward transport of moisture in the warmer model atmosphere. An analysis of the central North American and southern European regions indicates that the time when the change of soil moisture exceeds one standard deviation about the control integration occurs considerably later than that of surface air temperature for a given experiment because the ratio of forced change to natural variability is much smaller for soil moisture compared with temperature. The corresponding lag time for runoff change is even greater than that of either precipitation or soil moisture for the same reason. Also according to the above criterion, the inclusion of the effect of sulfate aerosols in the greenhouse warming experiment delays the noticeable change of soil moisture by several decades. It appears that observed surface air temperature is a better indicator of greenhouse warming than hydrologic quantities such as precipitation, runoff and soil moisture. Therefore, we are unlikely to notice definitive CO2-induced continental summer dryness until several decades into the 21st century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)495-511
Number of pages17
JournalClimatic Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Atmospheric Science


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