Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
In my previous post, “Does This Analysis Make My Tropics Look Big?“I discussed a paper called “Recent Northern Hemisphere tropical expansion primarily driven by black carbon and tropospheric ozone”, by Robert Allen et al, hereinafter A2012. They use several metrics to measure the width of the tropics—the location of the jet stream (JET), the mean meridional circulation (MMC), the minimum precipitation (PMIN), the cloud cover minimum (CMIN), and the precipitation minus evaporation (P-E) balance. Since writing that post, I’ve looked at what the Argo dataset says about the P-E balance, which is the precipitation minus the evaporation. Figure 1 shows the global Argo results regarding the salt concentration (salinity) in the surface of the ocean, which is a proxy for precipitation minus evaporation.
We can use the salinity of the ocean in the tropical and temperate regions as a very good proxy for the balance of precipitation and evaporation. In the deep meteorological tropics, just north of the equator, is the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or the ITCZ. In the ITCZ, the precipitation predominates. As a result, in that area there is more fresh-water rain than evaporation, and that makes the ocean less salty (blue).
On the other hand, at about 30° north and south of the Equator are the descending dry air branches of the Hadley cells. These create the global desert belts. Figure 2 shows a cross-section through the atmosphere illustrating the circulation of the great Hadley cells:
Figure 2. The descending branch of the Hadley cells is dry because the water has been rained out in the deep tropics. In the Northern Hemisphere this dry descending air creates the arid belts of the Sonoran desert in Northern Mexico / Southwest US as well as the Sahara, Middle Eastern, and Gobi regions. In the Southern Hemisphere, it encompasses the Atacama (South America), Kalahari (Africa), and Australian deserts.
In these arid regions, the evaporation is much greater than the precipitation and as a result the ocean is saltier in these areas. And once again this is reflected in the salinity, specifically in the areas of high salinity (red) around thirty degrees north and south of the Equator, as shown in Figure 1.
Now let me refresh people’s memory regarding the claims of the A2012 paper. Figure 3 shows their Northern Hemisphere results discussed in my previous paper:
FIGURE 3. ORIGINAL CAPTION: Figure 2 | Observed and modelled 1979–1999 Northern Hemisphere tropical expansion based on five metrics. a, Annual mean poleward displacement of each metric, as well as the combined ALL metric. … CMIP3 models are grouped into nine that included time-varying black carbon and ozone (red); three that included time-varying ozone only (green); and six that included neither time-varying black carbon nor ozone (blue). Boxes show the mean response within each group (centre line) and its 2s uncertainty. Observations are in black. In the case of one observational data set, trend uncertainty (whiskers) is estimated as the 95% confidence level according to a standard t-test.
I was interested in the P-E record (precipitation minus evaporation). The P-E results in the A2012 paper (Figure 3 above) show a net change of 0.75 degrees of latitude in twenty years in the latitude of the Northern Hemisphere maximum salinity, or about 0.36 degrees per decade. Southern Hemisphere P-E results (not shown) are about half that size, at 0.17 degrees per decade.
So I took a look year by year in the various oceanic basins to examine the natural variability in the salinity, which is our best proxy for P-E. Here are the results for the Pacific Ocean (120°E to 100°W longitude) from the Argo data. Figure 4 shows the variability, along with the decadal observational changes reported in A2012.
Figure 4. Year by year changes in the latitudinal salinity in the Pacific. Circles show the annual Southern Hemisphere peak salinities at about 30°S, the Equatorial lows in salinity, and the annual peaks in the Northern Hemisphere salinity at about 30°N. Distance between the two vertical black lines in the upper right illustrates the amount of the decadal Northern Hemisphere tropical expansion claimed in A2012 (0.38°/decade). Two vertical black lines (so close they appear as one line) in the upper left illustrates the amount of the decadal Southern Hemisphere tropical expansion claimed in A2012 (0.16°/decade). There is insufficient data in the years 2002-2003 to plot the Southern Hemisphere peaks.
There are a few things of interest here. First, in the Pacific the location of the minimum salinity at the ITCZ just north of the Equator is relatively stable. The location of the Pacific ITCZ doesn’t drift north or south too much. The Southern Hemisphere peak is more variable in latitude, and the Northern Hemisphere is more variable yet. All of them move around much, much more than the amount of the estimated decadal year trend. Bear in mind that according to A2012 this tropical expansion is driven by black carbon and ozone … note also the relative sizes of the expansion claimed in A2012, shown by the vertical black lines. [As an aside, I was surprised by the difference in the widths of the northern and southern Tropics, with the southern Tropics being twice as wide as the northern Tropics. It suggests that the outer edges of the tropics, the areas of peak salinity, are controlled by physical rather than meteorological considerations ... but I digress.]
Figure 5 shows the corresponding data for the Indian Ocean (20°E to 120°E longitude). The Indian Ocean doesn’t go far enough north to experience a minimum, so the Southern Hemisphere peak and the low at the ITCZ are shown.
Figure 5. Year by year changes in the latitudinal salinity in the Indian Ocean. Circles show the annual Southern Hemisphere peak salinities at about 30°S, and the Equatorial lows in salinity. Two vertical black lines (so close they appear as one line) in the upper left illustrates the amount of the decadal Southern Hemisphere tropical expansion claimed in A2012 (0.16°/decade).
In the Indian Ocean, the situation is reversed. Unlike in the Pacific, the peak salinity is stable, but the location of the low salinity at the ITCZ is greatly variable. In addition, the ITCZ appears to have moved generally southwards over the decade.
Finally, the Atlantic Ocean takes the tropical variability prize, as shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6. Year by year changes in the latitudinal salinity in the Atlantic. Circles show the annual Southern Hemisphere peak salinities at about 30°S, the Equatorial lows in salinity, and the peaks in the Northern Hemisphere salinity at about 30°N. Distance between the two vertical black lines in the upper right illustrates the amount of the decadal Northern Hemisphere tropical expansion claimed in A2012 (0.38°/decade). Two vertical black lines (so close they appear as one line) in the upper left illustrates the amount of the decadal Southern Hemisphere tropical expansion claimed in A2012 (0.16°/decade).
As mentioned above, the Atlantic results are all over the map, with all areas varying greatly in both salinity and distance from the Equator.
The obvious conclusion that I draw from all of this is that a trend can be significant without being meaningful. The trends in tropical expansion shown in the A2012 paper are tiny compared to the natural variations in the system. The width of the meteorological tropics varies up to eight degrees in a single year. In such a system, a few tenths of a degree of expansion per decade, even if it turns out to be both accurate and statistically significant, is trivially small.
Finally, I wanted to investigate the relationship between temperature rise and precipitation. So I took a look, for each individual Argo float, at the differences in temperature and salinity (again as a proxy for rainfall minus evaporation) in successive cycles of each float. I then plotted the ratio of the changes globally. Figure 7 shows that result:
Figure 7. Change in rainfall with temperature, as indicated by the proxy of the change in salinity with temperature. Blue areas are where the rainfall increases as the temperature increases, and red areas are where the rainfall goes down as temperatures rise.
This was an interesting result, as it shows a more complex and nuanced pattern than the usual mantra of “a warmer world is a wetter world”. It is also interesting in that there is only a small relationship, albeit statistically significant, between salinity and temperature. For each degree of temperature rise, the salinity goes up by only 0.04 PSU, a tiny amount (although the p-value is 2e-16).
Finally, here’s the strange part. Averaged over the entire globe, since salinity goes up with temperature, globally the Argo data says precipitation goes down fractionally with increasing temperature. In the tropics, the relationship is as expected, rainfall increasing with temperature. But globally, it goes the other way, rainfall decreases with increasing temperature … and there is only a minuscule effect. I didn’t expect that at all. [UPDATE—see below for why I didn't expect it]
That’s the beauty of climate science being settled … there are so many surprising results.
[UPDATE] Global estimates of the water cycle are on the general order of this one:
Thanks to commenters in the thread below, I see now that my expectation of the direction of change in the global oceanic P-E with increasing temperature was mistaken. The basic equation for the ocean mass balance says that precipitation plus additions from the rivers (including ice melt and groundwater extraction) minus evaporation from the ocean gives mass balance change.
Now, the ice melt and groundwater extraction don’t vary much year to year. So if the ocean mass is roughly constant, we can take the basic equation as being evaporation from the ocean equals rain into the ocean plus net rain over land … what goes up must come down.
My mistake was in thinking that the actual value of the oceanic P-E overall was positive. It is not. From the data given in the table above, we can see that P-E is about – 35,000 cubic kilometres per year.
And that means that if we increase the speed of the hydrological cycle by say 10%, and we assume that all of the proportions remain the same, the value of P-E becomes more negative, not more positive as I had assumed.
In other words, I should have expected that if the temperature increased the value of P-E should go down, not up as I thought. In that regard, it appears that my finding, that oceanic P-E decreases with increasing temperature, is consonant with expectations.
Always more to learn …