Regional climate model projections of rainfall from U.S. landfalling tropical cyclones

Daniel B. Wright, Thomas R. Knutson, James A. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

62 Scopus citations


The eastern United States is vulnerable to flooding from tropical cyclone rainfall. Understanding how both the frequency and intensity of this rainfall will change in the future climate is a major challenge. One promising approach is the dynamical downscaling of relatively coarse general circulation model results using higher-resolution regional climate models (RCMs). In this paper, we examine the frequency of landfalling tropical cyclones and associated rainfall properties over the eastern United States using Zetac, an 18-km resolution RCM designed for modeling Atlantic tropical cyclone activity. Simulations of 1980–2006 tropical cyclone frequency and rainfall intensity for the months of August–October are compared against results from previous studies and observation-based datasets. The 1980–2006 control simulations are then compared against results from three future climate scenarios: CMIP3/A1B (late twenty-first century) and CMIP5/RCP4.5 (early and late twenty-first century). In CMIP5 early and late twenty-first century projections, the frequency of occurrence of post-landfall tropical cyclones shows little net change over much of the eastern U.S. despite a decrease in frequency over the ocean. This reflects a greater landfalling fraction in CMIP5 projections, which is not seen in CMIP3-based projections. Average tropical cyclone rain rates over land within 500 km of the storm center increase by 8–17 % in the future climate projections relative to control. This is at least as much as expected from the Clausius–Clapeyron relation, which links a warmer atmosphere to greater atmospheric water vapor content. Over land, the percent enhancement of area-averaged rain rates from a given tropical cyclone in the warmer climate is greater for larger averaging radius (300–500 km) than near the storm, particularly for the CMIP3 projections. Although this study does not focus on attribution, the findings are broadly consistent with historical tropical cyclone rainfall changes documented in a recent observational study. The results may have important implications for future flood risks from tropical cyclones.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3365-3379
Number of pages15
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number11-12
StatePublished - Dec 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • Climate impacts
  • Climate modeling
  • Dynamical downscaling
  • Extreme rainfall
  • Floods
  • Tropical cyclones


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