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Land–atmosphere feedbacks amplify aridity increase over land under global warming


The response of the terrestrial water cycle to global warming is central to issues including water resources, agriculture and ecosystem health. Recent studies1,2,3,4,5,6 indicate that aridity, defined in terms of atmospheric supply (precipitation, P) and demand (potential evapotranspiration, Ep) of water at the land surface, will increase globally in a warmer world. Recently proposed mechanisms for this response emphasize the driving role of oceanic warming and associated atmospheric processes4,5. Here we show that the aridity response is substantially amplified by land–atmosphere feedbacks associated with the land surface’s response to climate and CO2 change. Using simulations from the Global Land Atmosphere Coupling Experiment (GLACE)-CMIP5 experiment7,8,9, we show that global aridity is enhanced by the feedbacks of projected soil moisture decrease on land surface temperature, relative humidity and precipitation. The physiological impact of increasing atmospheric CO2 on vegetation exerts a qualitatively similar control on aridity. We reconcile these findings with previously proposed mechanisms5 by showing that the moist enthalpy change over land is unaffected by the land hydrological response. Thus, although oceanic warming constrains the combined moisture and temperature changes over land, land hydrology modulates the partitioning of this enthalpy increase towards increased aridity.

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Figure 1: Prescribed soil moisture trends.
Figure 2: Impact of soil moisture trends on land climate change.
Figure 3: Spatial variability of soil moisture impacts on aridity changes.
Figure 4: Impact of CO2 physiological effect on land climate change.
Figure 5: Moist enthalpy changes over land.

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The contribution of A.B. was supported by NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship AGS-1331375. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the 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 development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. The authors thank T. Knutson and I. Held for providing comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

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A.B. designed the study, conducted the analysis and wrote the manuscript. K.F., B.L. and P.C.D.M. advised on the approach followed and the interpretation of results. All authors contributed to the manuscript preparation. S.I.S. and B.v.d.H. designed and led the GLACE-CMIP5 experiment. R.L., S.H., A.M., F.C., A.D. and S.M. performed model experiments in their respective groups.

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Correspondence to Alexis Berg.

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Berg, A., Findell, K., Lintner, B. et al. Land–atmosphere feedbacks amplify aridity increase over land under global warming. Nature Clim Change 6, 869–874 (2016).

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