skip to main content

Title: Robust atmospheric river response to global warming in idealized and comprehensive climate models
Abstract Atmospheric rivers (ARs), narrow intense moisture transport, account for much of the poleward moisture transport in midlatitudes. While studies have characterized AR features and the associated hydrological impacts in a warming climate in observations and comprehensive climate models, the fundamental dynamics for changes in AR statistics (e.g., frequency, length, width) are not well understood. Here we investigate AR response to global warming with a combination of idealized and comprehensive climate models. To that end, we developed an idealized atmospheric GCM with Earth-like global circulation and hydrological cycle, in which water vapor and clouds are modeled as passive tracers with simple cloud microphysics and precipitation processes. Despite the simplicity of model physics, it reasonably reproduces observed dynamical structures for individual ARs, statistical characteristics of ARs, and spatial distributions of AR climatology. Under climate warming, the idealized model produces robust AR changes similar to CESM large ensemble simulations under RCP8.5, including AR size expansion, intensified landfall moisture transport, and an increased AR frequency, corroborating previously reported AR changes under global warming by climate models. In addition, the latitude of AR frequency maximum shifts poleward with climate warming. Further analysis suggests the thermodynamic effect (i.e., an increase in water vapor) dominates the more » AR statistics and frequency changes while both the dynamic and thermodynamic effects contribute to the AR poleward shift. These results demonstrate that AR changes in a warming climate can be understood as passive water vapor and cloud tracers regulated by large-scale atmospheric circulation, whereas convection and latent heat feedback are of secondary importance. « less
; ; ; ;
Award ID(s):
Publication Date:
Journal Name:
Journal of Climate
Page Range or eLocation-ID:
1 to 52
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract The response of zonal-mean precipitation minus evaporation ( P − E ) to global warming is investigated using a moist energy balance model (MEBM) with a simple Hadley cell parameterization. The MEBM accurately emulates zonal-mean P − E change simulated by a suite of global climate models (GCMs) under greenhouse gas forcing. The MEBM also accounts for most of the intermodel differences in GCM P − E change and better emulates GCM P − E change when compared to the “wet-gets-wetter, dry-gets-drier” thermodynamic mechanism. The intermodel spread in P − E change is attributed to intermodel differences in radiative feedbacks, which account for 60%–70% of the intermodel variance, with smaller contributions from radiative forcing and ocean heat uptake. Isolating the intermodel spread of feedbacks to specific regions shows that tropical feedbacks are the primary source of intermodel spread in zonal-mean P − E change. The ability of the MEBM to emulate GCM P − E change is further investigated using idealized feedback patterns. A less negative and narrowly peaked feedback pattern near the equator results in more atmospheric heating, which strengthens the Hadley cell circulation in the deep tropics through an enhanced poleward heat flux. This pattern also increasesmore »gross moist stability, which weakens the subtropical Hadley cell circulation. These two processes in unison increase P − E in the deep tropics, decrease P − E in the subtropics, and narrow the intertropical convergence zone. Additionally, a feedback pattern that produces polar-amplified warming partially reduces the poleward moisture flux by weakening the meridional temperature gradient. It is shown that changes to the Hadley cell circulation and the poleward moisture flux are crucial for understanding the pattern of GCM P − E change under warming. Significance Statement Changes to the hydrological cycle over the twenty-first century are predicted to impact ecosystems and socioeconomic activities throughout the world. While it is broadly expected that dry regions will get drier and wet regions will get wetter, the magnitude and spatial structure of these changes remains uncertain. In this study, we use an idealized climate model, which assumes how energy is transported in the atmosphere, to understand the processes setting the pattern of precipitation and evaporation under global warming. We first use the idealized climate model to explain why comprehensive climate models predict different changes to precipitation and evaporation across a range of latitudes. We show this arises primarily from climate feedbacks, which act to amplify or dampen the amount of warming. Ocean heat uptake and radiative forcing play secondary roles but can account for a significant amount of the uncertainty in regions where ocean circulation influences the rate of warming. We further show that uncertainty in tropical feedbacks (mainly from clouds) affects changes to the hydrological cycle across a range of latitudes. We then show how the pattern of climate feedbacks affects how the patterns of precipitation and evaporation respond to climate change through a set of idealized experiments. These results show how the pattern of climate feedbacks impacts tropical hydrological changes by affecting the strength of the Hadley circulation and polar hydrological changes by affecting the transport of moisture to the high latitudes.« less
  2. Precipitation changes in a warming climate have been examined with a focus on either mean precipitation or precipitation extremes, but changes in the full probability distribution of precipitation have not been well studied. This paper develops a methodology for the quantile-conditional column moisture budget of the atmosphere for the full probability distribution of precipitation. Analysis is performed on idealized aquaplanet model simulations under 3-K uniform SST warming across different horizontal resolutions. Because the covariance of specific humidity and horizontal mass convergence is much reduced when conditioned onto a given precipitation percentile range, their conditional averages yield a clear separation between the moisture (thermodynamic) and circulation (dynamic) effects of vertical moisture transport on precipitation. The thermodynamic response to idealized climate warming can be understood as a generalized “wet get wetter” mechanism, in which the heaviest precipitation of the probability distribution is enhanced most from increased gross moisture stratification, at a rate controlled by the change in lower-tropospheric moisture rather than column moisture. The dynamic effect, in contrast, can be interpreted by shifts in large-scale atmospheric circulations such as the Hadley cell circulation or midlatitude storm tracks. Furthermore, horizontal moisture advection, albeit of secondary role, is important for regional precipitation change. Althoughmore »similar mechanisms are at play for changes in both mean precipitation and precipitation extremes, the thermodynamic contributions of moisture transport to increases in high percentiles of precipitation tend to be more widespread across a wide range of latitudes than increases in the mean, especially in the subtropics.

    « less
  3. Extratropical eddy-driven jets are predicted to shift poleward in a warmer climate. Recent studies have suggested that cloud radiative effects (CRE) may enhance the amplitude of such shifts. But there is still considerable uncertainty about the underlying mechanisms, whereby CRE govern the jet response to climate change. This study provides new insights into the role of CRE in the jet response to climate change by exploiting the output from six global warming simulations run with and without atmospheric CRE (ACRE). Consistent with previous studies, it is found that the magnitude of the jet shift under climate change is substantially increased in simulations run with ACRE. It is hypothesized that ACRE enhance the jet response to climate change by increasing the upper-tropospheric baroclinicity due to the radiative effects of rising high clouds. The lifting of the tropopause and high clouds in response to surface warming arises from the thermodynamic constraints placed on water vapor concentrations. Hence, the influence of ACRE on the jet shift in climate change simulations may be viewed as an additional “robust” thermodynamic constraint placed on climate change by the Clausius–Clapeyron relation. The hypothesis is tested in simulations run with an idealized dry GCM, in which the modelmore »is perturbed with a thermal forcing that resembles the ACRE response to surface warming. It is demonstrated that 1) the enhanced jet shifts found in climate change simulations run with ACRE are consistent with the atmospheric response to the radiative warming associated with rising high clouds, and 2) the amplitude of the jet shift scales linearly with the amplitude of the ACRE forcing.

    « less
  4. Abstract Do changes in ocean heat transport (OHT) that occur with CO 2 forcing, impact climate sensitivity in Earth system models? Changes in OHT with warming are ubiquitous in model experiments: when forced with CO 2 , such models exhibit declining poleward OHT in both hemispheres at most latitudes, which can persist over multicentennial time scales. To understand how changes in OHT may impact how the climate system responds to CO 2 forcing, particularly climate sensitivity, we perform a series of Earth system model experiments in which we systematically perturb OHT (in a slab ocean, relative to its preindustrial control climatology) while simultaneously doubling atmospheric CO 2 . We find that equilibrium climate sensitivity varies substantially with OHT. Specifically, there is a 0.6 K decrease in global mean surface warming for every 10% decline in poleward OHT. Radiative feedbacks from CO 2 doubling, and the warming attributable to each of them, generally become more positive (or less negative) when poleward OHT increases. Water vapor feedback differences account for approximately half the spread in climate sensitivity between experiments, while differences in the lapse rate and surface albedo feedbacks account for the rest. Prescribed changes in OHT instigate opposing changes in atmosphericmore »energy transport and the general circulation, which explain differences in atmospheric water vapor and lapse rate between experiments. Our results show that changes in OHT modify atmospheric radiative feedbacks at all latitudes, thereby driving changes in equilibrium climate sensitivity. More broadly, they demonstrate that radiative feedbacks are not independent of the coupled (atmosphere and ocean) dynamic responses that accompany greenhouse gas forcing.« less
  5. Recent analyses of global climate models suggest that uncertainty in the coupling between midlatitude clouds and the atmospheric circulation contributes to uncertainty in climate sensitivity. However, the reasons behind model differences in the cloud–circulation coupling have remained unclear. Here, we use a global climate model in an idealized aquaplanet setup to show that the Southern Hemisphere climatological circulation, which in many models is biased equatorward, contributes to the model differences in the cloud–circulation coupling. For the same poleward shift of the Hadley cell (HC) edge, models with narrower climatological HCs exhibit stronger midlatitude cloud-induced shortwave warming than models with wider climatological HCs. This cloud-induced radiative warming results predominantly from a subsidence warming that decreases cloud fraction and is stronger for narrower HCs because of a larger meridional gradient in the vertical velocity. A comparison of our aquaplanet results with comprehensive climate models suggests that about half of the model uncertainty in the midlatitude cloud–circulation coupling stems from this impact of the circulation on the large-scale temperature structure of the atmosphere, and thus could be removed by improving the climatological circulation in models. This illustrates how understanding of large-scale dynamics can help reduce uncertainty in clouds and their response to climatemore »change.

    « less