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Patterns of the seasonal response of tropical rainfall to global warming

Nature Geoscience volume 6, pages 357361 (2013) | Download Citation


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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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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  1. Center for Monsoon System Research, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, China

    • Ping Huang
    • , Kaiming Hu
    •  & Ronghui Huang
  2. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Shang-Ping Xie
  3. Physical Oceanography Laboratory, Ocean University of China, Qingdao 266003, China

    • Shang-Ping Xie
  4. International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Shang-Ping Xie
  5. Key Laboratory of Regional Climate-Environment Research for Temperate East Asia, Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, China

    • Gang Huang


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ping Huang or Shang-Ping Xie.

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