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Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 01 May 2013


Extremes of weather and climate can have devastating effects on human society and the environment1,2. Understanding past changes in the characteristics of such events, including recent increases in the intensity of heavy precipitation events over a large part of the Northern Hemisphere land area3,4,5, is critical for reliable projections of future changes. Given that atmospheric water-holding capacity is expected to increase roughly exponentially with temperature—and that atmospheric water content is increasing in accord with this theoretical expectation6,7,8,9,10,11—it has been suggested that human-influenced global warming may be partly responsible for increases in heavy precipitation3,5,7. Because of the limited availability of daily observations, however, most previous studies have examined only the potential detectability of changes in extreme precipitation through model–model comparisons12,13,14,15. Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas. These results are based on a comparison of observed and multi-model simulated changes in extreme precipitation over the latter half of the twentieth century analysed with an optimal fingerprinting technique. Changes in extreme precipitation projected by models, and thus the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming16.

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Figure 1: Geographical distribution of trends of extreme precipitation indices (PI) during 1951–99.
Figure 2: Time series of five-year mean area-averaged PI anomalies over Northern Hemisphere land during 1951–99.
Figure 3: Results from optimal detection analyses of extreme precipitation indices.

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We thank N. Gillett and B. Yu for comments, M. Wehner for provision of CCSM3 data, and J. Penner and M. Sugiyama for discussion. We acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) and the World Climate Research Programme’s (WCRP's) Working Group on Coupled Modelling (WGCM) for their roles in making available the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model data set. Support for this data set is provided by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy. We acknowledge the support of the International Detection and Attribution Group (IDAG) by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office. S.-K.M. was supported by the Canadian International Polar Year (IPY) programme. G.C.H. was supported by the NSF (grant ATM-0296007).

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S.-K.M. carried out analysis. X.Z., F.W.Z. and G.C.H. contributed to the analysis. All authors discussed the results and contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Seung-Ki Min or Francis W. Zwiers.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Text 1-9, additional references, Supplementary Tables 1-3 and Supplementary Figures 1-17 with legends. (PDF 9096 kb)

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Min, SK., Zhang, X., Zwiers, F. et al. Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes. Nature 470, 378–381 (2011).

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