Thermodynamic and dynamic mechanisms for large-scale changes in the hydrological cycle in response to global warming

Richard Seager, Naomi Naik, Gabriel Andres Vecchi

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689 Scopus citations


The mechanisms of changes in the large-scale hydrological cycle projected by 15 models participating in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project phase 3 and used for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report are analyzed by computing differences between 2046 and 2065 and 1961 and 2000. The contributions to changes in precipitation minus evaporation, P-E, caused thermodynamically by changes in specific humidity, dynamically by changes in circulation, and by changes in moisture transports by transient eddies are evaluated. The thermodynamic and dynamic contributions are further separated into advective and divergent components. The nonthermodynamic contributions are then related to changes in the mean and transient circulation. The projected change in P-E involves an intensification of the existing pattern of P-E with wet areas [the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) and mid-to high latitudes] getting wetter and arid and semiarid regions of the subtropics getting drier. In addition, the subtropical dry zones expand poleward. The accentuation of the twentieth-century pattern of P-E is in part explained by increases in specific humidity via both advection and divergence terms. Weakening of the tropical divergent circulation partially opposes the thermodynamic contribution by creating a tendency to decreased P-E in the ITCZ and to increased P-E in the descending branches of the Walker and Hadley cells. The changing mean circulation also causes decreased P-E on the poleward flanks of the subtropics because the descending branch of the Hadley Cell expands and the midlatitude meridional circulation cell shifts poleward. Subtropical drying and poleward moistening are also contributed to by an increase in poleward moisture transport by transient eddies. The thermodynamic contribution to changing P-E, arising from increased specific humidity, is almost entirely accounted for by atmospheric warming under fixed relative humidity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4651-4668
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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