The hydrologic cycle in deep-time climate problems

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Hydrology refers to the whole panoply of effects the water molecule has on climate and on the land surface during its journey there and back again between ocean and atmosphere. On its way, it is cycled through vapour, cloud water, snow, sea ice and glacier ice, as well as acting as a catalyst for silicate–carbonate weathering reactions governing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Because carbon dioxide affects the hydrologic cycle through temperature, climate is a pas des deux between carbon dioxide and water, with important guest appearances by surface ice cover.

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Figure 1: Northward heat flux in the atmosphere, broken down into moist and dry contributions.
Figure 2: Characteristic temperature determining the relative importance of latent heat flux as a function of surface temperature.
Figure 3: Regime diagrams showing effects of cloud cover and clear-sky relative humidity on initiation and termination of the snowball Earth state.
Figure 4: Relation between precipitation and temperature.


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I am indebted to K. Trenberth, M. Huber and C. Poulsen for providing data used in this review, and for much other valuable assistance. P. Hoffman and D. Schrag introduced me to the snowball Earth problem, and our discussions on this subject have continued over the years; insofar as I understand anything at all about the phenomenon, much credit is due to them. I also benefited from comments by R. Alley, T. Schneider and S. Warren. I had the further advantage of meetings and discussions carried out as part of my participation in the NOAA Panel on Abrupt Climate Change, for which the support of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Raymond T. Pierrehumbert.

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Pierrehumbert, R. The hydrologic cycle in deep-time climate problems. Nature 419, 191–198 (2002) doi:10.1038/nature01088

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