The lightness of water vapor buffers climate warming in the tropics.
Conventional knowledge has it that warm air rises while cold air sinks. But a study from the University of California, Davis, found that in the tropical atmosphere, cold air rises due to an overlooked effect — the lightness of water vapor. This effect helps to stabilize tropical climates and buffer some of the impacts of a warming climate.
The study, published today (May 6, 2020) in the journal Science Advances, is among the first to show the profound implications water vapor buoyancy has on Earth’s climate and energy balance.
The study found that the lightness of water vapor increases Earth’s thermal emission by about 1-3 watts per square meter over the tropics. That value compares with the amount of energy captured by doubling carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“It’s well-known that water vapor is an important greenhouse gas that warms the planet,” said senior author Da Yang, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at UC Davis and a joint faculty scientist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “But on the other hand, water vapor has a buoyancy effect which helps release the heat of the atmosphere to space and reduce the degree of warming. Without this lightness of water vapor, the climate warming would be even worse.”
Humid air is lighter than dry air under the same temperature and pressure conditions. This is called the vapor buoyancy effect. This study discovered this effect allows cold, humid air to rise, forming clouds and thunderstorms in Earth’s tropics. Meanwhile, warm, dry air sinks in clear skies. Earth’s atmosphere then emits more energy to space than it otherwise would without vapor buoyancy.
Here is the abstract from the paper which can be found here.
Moist air is lighter than dry air at the same temperature, pressure, and volume because the molecular weight of water is less than that of dry air. We call this the vapor buoyancy effect. Although this effect is well documented, its impact on Earth’s climate has been overlooked. Here, we show that the lightness of water vapor helps to stabilize tropical climate by increasing the outgoing longwave radiation (OLR). In the tropical atmosphere, buoyancy is horizontally uniform. Then, the vapor buoyancy in the moist regions must be balanced by warmer temperatures in the dry regions of the tropical atmosphere. These higher temperatures increase tropical OLR. This radiative effect increases with warming, leading to a negative climate feedback. At a near present-day surface temperature, vapor buoyancy is responsible for a radiative effect of 1 W/m2 and a negative climate feedback of about 0.15 W/m2 per kelvin.