Letter | Published:

Positive water vapour feedback in climate models confirmed by satellite data


CHIEFamong the mechanisms thought to amplify the global climate response to increased concentrations of trace gases is the atmospheric water vapour feedback. As the oceans and atmosphere warm, there is increased evaporation, and it has been generally thought that the additional moisture then adds to the greenhouse effect by trapping more infrared radiation. Recently, it has been suggested that general circulation models used for evaluating climate change overestimate this response, and that increased convection in a warmer climate would actually dry the middle and upper troposphere by means of associated compensatory subsidence1. We use some new satellite-generated water vapour data to investigate this question. From a comparison of summer and winter moisture values in regions of the middle and upper troposphere that have previously been difficult to observe with confidence, we find that, as the hemispheres warm, increased convection leads to increased water vapour above 500 mbar in approximate quantitative agreement with the results from current climate models. The same conclusion is reached by comparing the tropical western and eastern Pacific regions. Thus, we conclude that the water vapour feedback is not overestimated in models and should amplify the climate response to increased trace-gas concentrations.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Lindzen, R. S. Bull. Am. met. Soc. 71, 288–299 (1990).

  2. 2

    Hansen, J. et al. Climate Processes and Climate Sensitivity (eds Hansen, J. & Takahashi, T.) 130–163 (Am. Geophys. Un., Washington, DC, 1984).

  3. 3

    Raval, A. & Ramanathan, V. Nature 342, 758–761 (1989).

  4. 4

    Mauldin, L. E. III, Zaun, N. H., McCormick, M. P., Guy, J. H. & Vaughn, W. R. Opt. Engng 24, 307–312 (1985).

  5. 5

    Rind, D. et al. J. geophys. Res. (submitted).

  6. 6

    Reeves, R., Williams, S., Rasmusson, E., Acheson, D., Carpenter, T. & Rasmussen, J. NOAA tech. rep., EDS 20 (US Dept of Commerce, Washington, D.C., 1976).

  7. 7

    Schutz, C. & Gates, W. L. Rand Rep. R-915-ARPA, R.-1029-ARPA, Santa Monica, California, 1971, 1972.

  8. 8

    Cess, R. D. Nature 342, 736–737 (1989).

  9. 9

    Rind, D., Goldberg, R., Hansen, J., Rosenzweig, C. & Ruedy, R. J. geophys. Res. 95, 9983–10004 (1990).

  10. 10

    Houze, R. A. Jr & Bates, A. K. Rev. Geophys. Space Phys. 19, 541–576 (1981).

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.