Letter | Published:

Future increases in Arctic precipitation linked to local evaporation and sea-ice retreat

Nature volume 509, pages 479482 (22 May 2014) | Download Citation


Precipitation changes projected for the end of the twenty-first century show an increase of more than 50 per cent in the Arctic regions1,2. This marked increase, which is among the highest globally, has previously been attributed primarily to enhanced poleward moisture transport from lower latitudes3,4. Here we use state-of-the-art global climate models5 to show that the projected increases in Arctic precipitation over the twenty-first century, which peak in late autumn and winter, are instead due mainly to strongly intensified local surface evaporation (maximum in winter), and only to a lesser degree due to enhanced moisture inflow from lower latitudes (maximum in late summer and autumn). Moreover, we show that the enhanced surface evaporation results mainly from retreating winter sea ice, signalling an amplified Arctic hydrological cycle. This demonstrates that increases in Arctic precipitation are firmly linked to Arctic warming and sea-ice decline. As a result, the Arctic mean precipitation sensitivity (4.5 per cent increase per degree of temperature warming) is much larger than the global value (1.6 to 1.9 per cent per kelvin). The associated seasonally varying increase in Arctic precipitation is likely to increase river discharge6,7,8 and snowfall over ice sheets9 (thereby affecting global sea level), and could even affect global climate through freshening of the Arctic Ocean and subsequent modulations of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation10,11.

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We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme's Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank all climate-modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led the development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We are grateful to the EC-Earth consortium for their contribution to the development of the Earth System Model EC-Earth. We thank C. A. Katsman and R. G. Graversen for their comments on the manuscript, and to G. J. van Oldenborgh for information on intermodel versus intramodel climate variability.

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  1. Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), Utrechtseweg 297, 3731GA, De Bilt, The Netherlands

    • R. Bintanja
    •  & F. M. Selten


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R.B. developed the ideas that led to this paper. R.B. and F.M.S. analysed the climate model simulations. R.B. wrote the main paper, with input from F.M.S. Both authors discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

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