Abstract

Lake evaporation is a sensitive indicator of the hydrological response to climate change. Variability in annual lake evaporation has been assumed to be controlled primarily by the incoming surface solar radiation. Here we report simulations with a numerical model of lake surface fluxes, with input data based on a high-emissions climate change scenario (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5). In our simulations, the global annual lake evaporation increases by 16% by the end of the century, despite little change in incoming solar radiation at the surface. We attribute about half of this projected increase to two effects: periods of ice cover are shorter in a warmer climate and the ratio of sensible to latent heat flux decreases, thus channelling more energy into evaporation. At low latitudes, annual lake evaporation is further enhanced because the lake surface warms more slowly than the air, leading to more long-wave radiation energy available for evaporation. We suggest that an analogous change in the ratio of sensible to latent heat fluxes in the open ocean can help to explain some of the spread among climate models in terms of their sensitivity of precipitation to warming. We conclude that an accurate prediction of the energy balance at the Earth’s surface is crucial for evaluating the hydrological response to climate change.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grant nos 41505005, 41475141, 41575147 and 41275024), the Natural Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province, China (grant no. BK20150900), the Ministry of Education of China (grant PCSIRT) and the Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher EducationInstitutions (grant PAPD). We thank Z. Zubin for running the historical lake simulation. The futuristic simulation was supported by high-performance computing from Yellowstone (ark:/85065/d7wd3xhc) provided by NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the US National Science Foundation.

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Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Wei Wang and Wei Xiao.

Affiliations

  1. Yale-NUIST Center on Atmospheric Environment, International Joint Laboratory on Climate and Environment Change, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, China

    • Wei Wang
    • , Xuhui Lee
    • , Wei Xiao
    • , Shoudong Liu
    • , Yongwei Wang
    • , Mi Zhang
    •  & Lei Zhao
  2. Key Laboratory of Meteorological Disaster, Ministry of Education & Collaborative Innovation Center on Forecast and Evaluation of Meteorological Disasters, Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Nanjing, China

    • Wei Wang
    • , Wei Xiao
    • , Shoudong Liu
    • , Yongwei Wang
    •  & Mi Zhang
  3. School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

    • Xuhui Lee
    •  & Natalie Schultz
  4. Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA

    • Lei Zhao

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Contributions

X.L. designed the research, L.Z. performed the model simulation and W.W. carried out the analysis. S.L., N.S., W.X., Y.W. and M.Z. contributed ideas to the data analysis and manuscript writing, and X.L. and W.W. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Xuhui Lee.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-018-0114-8