Water vapour is the most important contributor to the natural greenhouse effect, and the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is expected to increase under conditions of greenhouse-gas-induced warming, leading to a significant feedback on anthropogenic climate change1,2,3. Theoretical and modelling studies predict that relative humidity will remain approximately constant at the global scale as the climate warms, leading to an increase in specific humidity1,4,5. Although significant increases in surface specific humidity have been identified in several regions6,7,8,9, and on the global scale in non-homogenized data10, it has not been shown whether these changes are due to natural or human influences on climate. Here we use a new quality-controlled and homogenized gridded observational data set of surface humidity, with output from a coupled climate model, to identify and explore the causes of changes in surface specific humidity over the late twentieth century. We identify a significant global-scale increase in surface specific humidity that is attributable mainly to human influence. Specific humidity is found to have increased in response to rising temperatures, with relative humidity remaining approximately constant. These changes may have important implications, because atmospheric humidity is a key variable in determining the geographical distribution11,12,13 and maximum intensity14 of precipitation, the potential maximum intensity of tropical cyclones15, and human heat stress16, and has important effects on the biosphere17 and surface hydrology17,18.
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We thank P. Stott and D. Fereday for help in obtaining HadCM3 control data; B. Santer for advice and discussion; and M. Allen for the use of his optimal detection code. K.M.W. was supported by a CASE studentship from the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the Met Office. N.P.G. and P.D.J. acknowledge support from the Climate Change Detection and Attribution Project, jointly funded by NOAA’s Office of Global Programs and the US Department of Energy. N.P.G. also acknowledges the support of the Leverhulme Trust. P.D.J. acknowledges the support of the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. P.W.T. was supported by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Author Contributions K.M.W. compiled HadCRUH during a PhD project supervised by the other three authors, and prepared the Methods section. N.P.G. performed the detection and attribution analysis and prepared the remainder of the manuscript. P.D.J. proposed the PhD project, and provided advice and guidance. P.W.T. provided advice and guidance and facilitated access to Met Office observations and model data.
The file contains Supplementary Figures S1-S3 with Legends and additional references.
About this article
Journal of Hydrology (2019)