Letter | Published:

Positive water vapour feedback in climate models confirmed by satellite data

Abstract

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.

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