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Sensitivity of tropical precipitation extremes to climate change


Precipitation extremes increase in intensity over many regions of the globe in simulations of a warming climate1,2,3. The rate of increase of precipitation extremes in the extratropics is consistent across global climate models, but the rate of increase in the tropics varies widely, depending on the model used3. The behaviour of tropical precipitation can, however, be constrained by observations of interannual variability in the current climate4,5,6. Here I show that, across state-of-the-art climate models, the response of tropical precipitation extremes to interannual climate variability is strongly correlated with their response to longer-term climate change, although these responses are different. I then use satellite observations to estimate the response of tropical precipitation extremes to the interannual variability. Applying this observational constraint to the climate simulations and exploiting the relationship between the simulated responses to interannual variability and climate change, I estimate a sensitivity of the 99.9th percentile of daily tropical precipitation to climate change at 10% per K of surface warming, with a 90% confidence interval of 6–14% K−1. This tropical sensitivity is higher than expectations for the extratropics3 of about 5% K−1. The inferred percentage increase in tropical precipitation extremes is similar when considering only land regions, where the impacts of extreme precipitation can be severe.

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Figure 1: Time series of precipitation extremes and surface temperature over the tropical oceans in observations and simulations (GFDL-CM2.0 and ECHAM5/MPI).
Figure 2: Sensitivities (% K−1) of the 99.9th percentile of precipitation for variability versus climate change in the CMIP3 simulations.
Figure 3: Inferred and simulated climate-change sensitivities (% K−1) for high percentiles of precipitation.


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I am grateful to C. Kummerow, T. Schneider, M. Tingley, R. Allan, K. Emanuel, C. Wunsch, S. Solomon and T. Merlis for helpful discussions. I acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and I 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. SSM/I (V6) data were provided by RSS ( and sponsored by the NASA Earth Science MEaSUREs DISCOVER Project. SSM/I and TMI GPROF (V10) data were downloaded from GPCP 1DD (V1.1) data were downloaded from TRMM 3B42 (V7) daily data were provided by the Goddard Earth Sciences Data and Information Services Center. NOAA Merged Air Land and SST anomalies (V3.5.1) were provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSD from their website at I acknowledge support from NSF grant AGS-1148594 and NASA grant NNX-11AO92G.

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Correspondence to Paul A. O’Gorman.

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O’Gorman, P. Sensitivity of tropical precipitation extremes to climate change. Nature Geosci 5, 697–700 (2012).

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