LIVERMORE, Calif. — The rain in Spain may lie mainly on the plain, but the location and intensity of that rain is changing not only in Spain but around the globe.
A new study by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists shows that observed changes in global (ocean and land) precipitation are directly affected by human activities and cannot be explained by natural variability alone. The research appears in the Nov. 11 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Emissions of heat-trapping and ozone-depleting gases affect the distribution of precipitation through two mechanisms. Increasing temperatures are expected to make wet regions wetter and dry regions drier (thermodynamic changes); and changes in atmospheric circulation patterns will push storm tracks and subtropical dry zones toward the poles.
“Both these changes are occurring simultaneously in global precipitation and this behavior cannot be explained by natural variability alone,” said LLNL’s lead author Kate Marvel. “External influences such as the increase in greenhouse gases are responsible for the changes.”
The team compared climate model predications with the Global Precipitation Climatology Project’s global observations, which span from 1979-2012, and found that natural variability (such as El Niños and La Niñas) does not account for the changes in global precipitation patterns. While natural fluctuations in climate can lead to either intensification or poleward shifts in precipitation, it is very rare for the two effects to occur together naturally.
“In combination, manmade increases in greenhouse gases and stratospheric ozone depletion are expected to lead to both an intensification and redistribution of global precipitation,” said Céline Bonfils, the other LLNL author. “The fact that we see both of these effects simultaneously in the observations is strong evidence that humans are affecting global precipitation.”
Marvel and Bonfils identified a fingerprint pattern that characterizes the simultaneous response of precipitation location and intensity to external forcing.
“Most previous work has focused on either thermodynamic or dynamic changes in isolation. By looking at both, we were able to identify a pattern of precipitation change that fits with what is expected from human-caused climate change,” Marvel said.
By focusing on the underlying mechanisms that drive changes in global precipitation and by restricting the analysis to the large scales where there is confidence in the models’ ability to reproduce the current climate, “we have shown that the changes observed in the satellite era are externally forced and likely to be from man,” Bonfils said.
Identifying external influences on global precipitation
Edited by Kerry A. Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, and approved October 18, 2013 (received for review July 30, 2013)
This study provides evidence that human activities are affecting precipitation over land and oceans. Anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases and stratospheric ozone depletion are expected to lead to a latitudinal intensification and redistribution of global precipitation. However, detecting these mechanisms in the observational record is complicated by strong climate noise and model errors. We establish that the changes in land and ocean precipitation predicted by theory are indeed present in the observational record, that these changes are unlikely to arise purely due to natural climate variability, and that external influences, probably anthropogenic in origin, are responsible.
Changes in global (ocean and land) precipitation are among the most important and least well-understood consequences of climate change. Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations are thought to affect the zonal-mean distribution of precipitation through two basic mechanisms. First, increasing temperatures will lead to an intensification of the hydrological cycle (“thermodynamic” changes). Second, changes in atmospheric circulation patterns will lead to poleward displacement of the storm tracks and subtropical dry zones and to a widening of the tropical belt (“dynamic” changes). We demonstrate that both these changes are occurring simultaneously in global precipitation, that this behavior cannot be explained by internal variability alone, and that external influences are responsible for the observed precipitation changes. Whereas existing model experiments are not of sufficient length to differentiate between natural and anthropogenic forcing terms at the 95% confidence level, we present evidence that the observed trends result from human activities.