Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Patterns of the seasonal response of tropical rainfall to global warming


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.


  1. Alexander, M. A. et al. The atmospheric bridge: The influence of ENSO teleconnections on air–sea interaction over the global oceans. J. Clim. 15, 2205–2231 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Shin, S-I. & Sardeshmukh, P. D. Critical influence of the pattern of Tropical Ocean warming on remote climate trends. Clim. Dyn. 36, 1577–1591 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Meehl, G. A. et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) Ch. 10, 747–845 (Global Climate Projections, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  4. Zhang, X. et al. Detection of human influence on twentieth-century precipitation trends. Nature 448, 461–465 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Ma, J. & Xie, S-P. Regional patterns of sea surface temperature change: A source of uncertainty in future projections of precipitation and atmospheric circulation. J. Clim. (in the press, 2013).

  6. Neelin, J., Chou, C. & Su, H. Tropical drought regions in global warming and El Nino teleconnections. Geophys. Res. Lett. 30, 2275 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Held, I. M. & Soden, B. J. Robust responses of the hydrological cycle to global warming. J. Clim. 19, 5686–5699 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Chou, C., Neelin, J., Chen, C. & Tu, J. Evaluating the ‘rich-get-richer’ mechanism in tropical precipitation change under global warming. J. Clim. 22, 1982–2005 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Xie, S-P. et al. Global warming pattern formation: Sea surface temperature and rainfall. J. Clim. 23, 966–986 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Johnson, N. C. & Xie, S-P. Changes in the sea surface temperature threshold for tropical convection. Nature Geosci. 3, 842–845 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Sobel, A. H. & Camargo, S. J. Projected future seasonal changes in tropical summer climate. J. Clim. 24, 473–487 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Chadwick, R., Boutle, I. & Martin, G. Spatial patterns of precipitation change in CMIP5: Why the rich don’t get richer in the tropics. J. Clim. (in the press, 2013).

  13. Tokinaga, H., Xie, S. P., Deser, C., Kosaka, Y. & Okumura, Y. M. Slowdown of the Walker circulation driven by tropical Indo-Pacific warming. Nature 491, 439–443 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Vecchi, G. & Soden, B. Global warming and the weakening of the tropical circulation. J. Clim. 20, 4316–4340 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Vecchi, G. A. & Soden, B. J. Effect of remote sea surface temperature change on tropical cyclone potential intensity. Nature 450, 1066–1070 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Chou, C. & Tu, J. Y. Hemispherical asymmetry of tropical precipitation in ECHAM5/MPI-OM during El Niño and under global warming. J. Clim. 21, 1309–1332 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Tan, P-H., Chou, C. & Tu, J-Y. Mechanisms of global warming impacts on robustness of tropical precipitation asymmetry. J. Clim. 21, 5585–5602 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Liu, Z., Vavrus, S., He, F., Wen, N. & Zhong, Y. Rethinking tropical ocean response to global warming: The enhanced equatorial warming. J. Clim. 18, 4684–4700 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Cess, R. D. et al. Intercomparison and interpretation of climate feedback processes in 19 atmospheric general circulation models. J. Geophys. Res. 95, 601216 (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Bony, S. et al. CFMIP: Towards a better evaluation and understanding of clouds and cloud feedbacks in CMIP5 models. CLIVAR Exchanges 56, 20–24 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  22. Watanabe, M. & Jin, F. F. A moist linear baroclinic model: Coupled dynamical-convective response to El Nino. J. Clim. 16, 1121–1139 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lau, K. M. & Wu, H. T. Detecting trends in tropical rainfall characteristics, 1979–2003. Int. J. Climatol. 27, 979–988 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Wentz, F. J., Ricciardulli, L., Hilburn, K. & Mears, C. How much more rain will global warming bring? Science 317, 233–235 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Allan, R. P., Soden, B. J., John, V. O., Ingram, W. & Good, P. Current changes in tropical precipitation. Environ. Res. Lett. 5, 025205 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Lu, J. & Zhao, B. The role of oceanic feedback in the climate response to doubling CO2 . J. Clim. 25, 7544–7563 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Deser, C., Phillips, A. & Alexander, M. Twentieth century tropical sea surface temperature trends revisited. Geophys. Res. Lett. 37, L10701 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hsu, P. C. et al. Increase of global monsoon area and precipitation under global warming: A robust signal? Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L06701 (2012).

    Google Scholar 

  29. Kitoh, A. et al. Monsoons in a changing world: a regional perspective in a global context. J. Geophys. Res. (2013).

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 1486 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing