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Future increases in extreme precipitation exceed observed scaling rates

Abstract

Models and physical reasoning predict that extreme precipitation will increase in a warmer climate due to increased atmospheric humidity1,2,3. Observational tests using regression analysis have reported a puzzling variety of apparent scaling rates including strong rates in midlatitude locations but weak or negative rates in the tropics4,5. Here we analyse daily extreme precipitation events in several Australian cities to show that temporary local cooling associated with extreme events and associated synoptic conditions reduces these apparent scaling rates, especially in warmer climatic conditions. A regional climate projection ensemble6 for Australia, which implicitly includes these effects, accurately and robustly reproduces the observed apparent scaling throughout the continent for daily precipitation extremes. Projections from the same model show future daily extremes increasing at rates faster than those inferred from observed scaling. The strongest extremes (99.9th percentile events) scale significantly faster than near-surface water vapour, between 5.7–15% °C−1 depending on model details. This scaling rate is highly correlated with the change in water vapour, implying a trade-off between a more arid future climate or one with strong increases in extreme precipitation. These conclusions are likely to generalize to other regions.

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Figure 1: Spatial distributions of apparent scaling of extreme precipitation with temperature.
Figure 2: Evolution of composite extreme events.
Figure 3: Apparent versus climate scaling in simulations.
Figure 4: Extreme precipitation versus water vapour in simulations.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Rural Sciences, and CSIRO for providing AWAP data and Met Office Hadley Center for providing HadISD data. Model data used here came from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage-backed NSW/ACT Regional Climate Modelling Project (NARCliM). This work was funded by ARC grants FL150100035, LE150100089, FT110100576 and DP160103439.

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J.B. conducted all analyses and led the writing of the manuscript. S.C.S. assisted in study design and interpretation, L.V.A. assisted in choice and interpretation of observational data, and J.P.E. performed the NARCliM simulations. All authors assisted in writing the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jiawei Bao or Steven C. Sherwood.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Bao, J., Sherwood, S., Alexander, L. et al. Future increases in extreme precipitation exceed observed scaling rates. Nature Clim Change 7, 128–132 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3201

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