Climate Dynamics Group
at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Revisiting the surface-energy-flux perspective on the sensitivity of global precipitation to climate change

RESEARCH PAPER on 25 Jul 2018
updates ↓

07/25/18 Siler, N., G. H. Roe, K. C. Armour, N. Feldl (2019), Climate Dynamics, 52, doi:10.1007/s00382-018-4359-0.

Climate models simulate an increase in global precipitation at a rate of approximately 1–3% per Kelvin of global surface warming. This change is often interpreted through the lens of the atmospheric energy budget, in which the increase in global precipitation is mostly offset by an increase in net radiative cooling. Other studies have provided different interpretations from the perspective of the surface, where evaporation represents the turbulent transfer of latent heat to the atmosphere. Expanding on this surface perspective, here we derive a version of the Penman–Monteith equation that allows the change in ocean evaporation to be partitioned into a thermodynamic response to surface warming, and additional diagnostic contributions from changes in surface radiation, ocean heat uptake, and boundary-layer dynamics/relative humidity.

In this framework, temperature is found to be the primary control on the rate of increase in global precipitation within model simulations of greenhouse gas warming, while the contributions from changes in surface radiation and ocean heat uptake are found to be secondary. The temperature contribution also dominates the spatial pattern of global evaporation change, leading to the largest fractional increases at high latitudes. In the surface energy budget, the thermodynamic increase in evaporation comes at the expense of the sensible heat flux, while radiative changes cause the sensible heat flux to increase. These tendencies on the sensible heat flux partly offset each other, resulting in a relatively small change in the global mean, and contributing to an impression that global precipitation is radiatively constrained.