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Constraints on future changes in climate and the hydrologic cycle

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 15 August 2012


What can we say about changes in the hydrologic cycle on 50-year timescales when we cannot predict rainfall next week? Eventually, perhaps, a great deal: the overall climate response to increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases may prove much simpler and more predictable than the chaos of short-term weather. Quantifying the diversity of possible responses is essential for any objective, probability-based climate forecast, and this task will require a new generation of climate modelling experiments, systematically exploring the range of model behaviour that is consistent with observations. It will be substantially harder to quantify the range of possible changes in the hydrologic cycle than in global-mean temperature, both because the observations are less complete and because the physical constraints are weaker.

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Figure 1: The range of transient climate response (TCR) consistent with recent observed temperature trends, compared to TCRs of some current AOGCMs.
Figure 2: Global-mean temperature and precipitation changes in AOGCM simulations (scatter plots), and probability distributions obtained by requiring consistency with recent observations (curves).
Figure 3: Changes in observed global-mean temperature (a) and land precipitation (b) over the past 55 years compared with a climate model.
Figure 4: Log–log plot of the distribution of an AOGCM's daily precipitation and how it changes around the time of CO2 doubling (J. M. Gregory, personal communication).
Figure 5
Figure 6: Zonal-mean precipitation trends over the 70 years to CO2 doubling in the CMIP-2 ensemble and observed trends in terrestrial precipitation over the past century.


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We are grateful to G. Hegerl and K. Trenberth for thorough reviews; to J. Gregory, C. Forest, J. Mitchell, L. Smith and I. Tracey for helpful suggestions; and to B. Booth, B. Grey and H. Lambert for help with the figures. M. Webster, M. Hulme, P. Stott and J. Gregory kindly provided unpublished data used in Figs 1, 3 and 4, and we thank C. Covey and the CMIP-2 data team for data in Figs 2, 5 and 6. M.R.A. is supported by the UK NERC and US NOAA & DoE, W.J.I. by the UK Government Meteorological Research Programme and D.A.S. by the NERC COAPEC Programme. The programme is funded by the UK NERC, EPSRC and DTI 'e-Science' programmes.

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Allen, M., Ingram, W. Constraints on future changes in climate and the hydrologic cycle. Nature 419, 228–232 (2002).

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