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Patterns of the seasonal response of tropical rainfall to global warming

Abstract

Tropical convection is an important factor in regional climate variability and change around the globe 1,2. The response of regional precipitation to global warming is spatially variable, and state-of-the-art model projections suffer large uncertainties in the geographic distribution of precipitation changes 3,4,5. Two views exist regarding tropical rainfall change: one predicts increased rainfall in presently rainy regions (wet-get-wetter) 6,7,8, and the other suggests increased rainfall where the rise in sea surface temperature exceeds the mean surface warming in the tropics (warmer-get-wetter)9,10,11,12. Here we analyse simulations with 18 models from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5), and present a unifying view for seasonal rainfall change. We find that the pattern of ocean warming induces ascending atmospheric flow at the Equator and subsidence on the flanks, anchoring a band of annual mean rainfall increase near the Equator that reflects the warmer-get-wetter view. However, this climatological ascending motion marches back and forth across the Equator with the Sun, pumping moisture upwards from the boundary layer and causing seasonal rainfall anomalies to follow a wet-get-wetter pattern. The seasonal mean rainfall, which is the sum of the annual mean and seasonal anomalies, thus combines the wet-get-wetter and warmer-get-wetter trends. Given that precipitation climatology is well observed whereas the pattern of ocean surface warming is poorly constrained 13,14, our results suggest that projections of tropical seasonal mean rainfall are more reliable than the annual mean.

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Figure 1: Seasonal cycle of precipitation and SST change.
Figure 2: Seasonal cycle of precipitation and circulation changes in SUSI and SPSI runs.
Figure 3: Circulation change and decomposition of precipitation change.
Figure 4: Relationship of precipitation change to mean precipitation, SST change pattern and their linear combination.

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Acknowledgements

The work was supported by the National Basic Research Program of China (2012CB955604 and 2010CB950403), the Natural Science Foundation of China (41105047 and 41275083) and the US National Science Foundation. We wish to thank C. Chou for helpful discussions, and X. Qu for data processing. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP5, and we thank the climate modeling groups (listed in the Methods of this paper) for producing and making available their model output.

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P.H. designed and performed the analysis. S-P.X. contributed to improving the analysis and interpretation. K.H. and G.H. prepared part of the data. P.H. and S-P.X. wrote the paper. All authors discussed and commented on the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ping Huang or Shang-Ping Xie.

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Huang, P., Xie, SP., Hu, K. et al. Patterns of the seasonal response of tropical rainfall to global warming. Nature Geosci 6, 357–361 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1792

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