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


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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Figure 1: Geographical distribution of simulated annual mean twenty-first-century precipitation, surface evaporation, and sea-ice cover changes in the Arctic region.
Figure 2: Simulated annual and monthly twenty-first-century changes in Arctic mean precipitation, poleward moisture transport across 70° N (remote origin) and surface evaporation components (local origin).
Figure 3: Dependence of simulated Arctic mean twenty-first-century changes in surface evaporation, poleward moisture transport and precipitation on Arctic mean surface air temperature change.
Figure 4: Simulated twenty-first-century Arctic mean precipitation, evaporation and moisture transport sensitivities.

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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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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Schematic overview of the main processes discussed in the paper.

Blue arrows denote future changes in the Arctic various moisture fluxes, with the size of the arrows loosely depicting the magnitude of the changes. The red text and arrows represent the associated climatic consequences.

Extended Data Figure 2 Number of CMIP5 models that simulate specific amounts of precipitation, surface evaporation and moisture transport across 60°N.

Distributions of Arctic (60°–90° N) precipitation (a), surface evaporation (b) and poleward moisture transport across 60° N (c) in terms of the number of CMIP5 models that simulate a specific amount. Distributions are given for the present (green), future RCP4.5 (red) and future RCP8.5 (blue). Dashed lines denote the model-mean values, while the purple line shows the present-day value derived from reanalyses data4.

Extended Data Figure 3 Simulated twenty-first-century changes in sea surface salinity in the Arctic Ocean north of 70° N.

Results are shown for the intermediate forcing scenario (RCP4.5) (a) and the strong forcing (RCP8.5) (b), sorted according to the magnitude of the change. The dashed line shows the multimodel-mean value. The salinity is shown on the colour scale in practical salinity units (PSU).

Extended Data Figure 4 Simulated changes in sea surface salinity resulting from a 50% increase in precipitation over the Arctic Ocean north of 70° N using the global climate model EC-Earth30.

The salinity change is shown on the colour scale in PSU.

Extended Data Figure 5 Simulated change in Arctic mean sea surface salinity against the ratio of changes in moisture transport across 70° N and surface evaporation.

The ratio is equivalent to the ratio of remote and local contributions. Each square represents one CMIP5 model. The straight line shows the best linear fit to the data, where R is the correlation coefficient and p is the probability that uncorrelated data of the same sample size would yield a similar relationship.

Extended Data Figure 6 Simulated AMOC strength as a function of Arctic precipitation increase.

Time series of simulated annual-mean AMOC strength at 30° N for the various Arctic precipitation (P) change simulations (see main text for details) carried out with the global climate model EC-Earth30.

Extended Data Table 1 Arctic moisture flux components and their changes for the RCP4.5 scenario
Extended Data Table 2 Arctic moisture flux components and their changes for the RCP8.5 scenario

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Bintanja, R., Selten, F. Future increases in Arctic precipitation linked to local evaporation and sea-ice retreat. Nature 509, 479–482 (2014).

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