Atmospheric moisture residence times and cycling: Implications for rainfall rates and climate change

  • Trenberth K
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New estimates of the moistening of the atmosphere through evaporation at the surface and of the drying through precipitation are computed. Overall, the e-folding residence time of atmospheric moisture is just over 8 days. New estimates are also made of how much moisture that precipitates out comes from horizontal transport versus local evaporation, referred to as 'recycling'. The results depend greatly on the scale of the domain under consideration and global maps of the recycling for annual means are produced for 500 km scales for which global recycling is 9.6%, consisting of 8.9% over land and 9.9% over the oceans. Even for 1000 km scales, less than 20% of the annual precipitation typically comes from evaporation within the domain. While average overall atmospheric moisture depletion and restoration must balance, precipitation falls only a small fraction of the time. Thus precipitation rates are also examined. Over the United States, one hour intervals with 0.1 mm or more are used to show that the frequency of precipitation ranges from over 30% in the Northwest, to about 20% in the Southeast and less than 4% just east of the continental divide in winter, and from less than 2% in California to over 20% in the Southeast in summer. In midlatitudes precipitation typically falls about 10% of the time, and so rainfall rates, conditional on when rain is falling, are much larger than evaporation rates. The mismatches in the rates of rainfall versus evaporation imply that precipitating systems of all kinds feed mostly on the moisture already in the atmosphere. Over North America, much of the precipitation originates from moisture advected from the Gulf of Mexico and subtropical Atlantic or Pacific a day or so earlier. Increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere produce global warming through an increase in downwelling infrared radiation, and thus not only increase surface temperatures but also enhance the hydrological cycle, as much of the heating at the surface goes into evaporating surface moisture. Global temperature increases signify that the water-holding capacity of the atmosphere increases and, together with enhanced evaporation, this means that the actual atmospheric moisture should increase. It follows that naturally-occurring droughts are likely to be exacerbated by enhanced potential evapotranspiration. Further, globally there must be an increase in precipitation to balance the enhanced evaporation but the processes by which precipitation is altered locally are not well understood. Observations confirm that atmospheric moisture is increasing in many places, for example at a rate of about 5% per decade over the United States. Based on the above results, we argue that increased moisture content of the atmosphere therefore favors stronger rainfall or snowfall events, thus increasing risk of flooding, which is a pattern observed to be happening in many parts of the world. Moreover, because there is a disparity between the rates of increase of atmospheric moisture and precipitation, there are implied changes in the frequency of precipitation and/or efficiency of precipitation (related to how much moisture is left behind in a storm). However, an analysis of linear trends in the frequency of precipitation events for the United States corresponding to thresholds of 0.1 and 1 mm/h shows that the most notable statistically significant trends are for increases in the southern United States in winter and decreases in the Pacific Northwest from November through January, which may be related to changes in atmospheric circulation and storm tracks associated with El Nino-Southern Oscillation trends. It is suggested that as the physical constraints on precipitation apply only globally, more attention should be paid to rates in both observations and models as well as the frequency of occurrence.

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  • Kevin E. Trenberth

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