• hydrological cycle;
  • global warming;
  • evaporation

[1] Atmospheric moisture content is expected to rise in response to global warming, but climate models predict a much slower rate of precipitation increase. This muted response of the hydrological cycle is investigated from a surface evaporation perspective, using a multimodel ensemble of simulations under the A1B forcing scenario. A 90-year analysis of surface evaporation based on a standard bulk formula reveals that the following atmospheric changes act to slow down the increase in surface evaporation over ice-free oceans: surface relative humidity increases by 1.0%, surface stability, as measured by air-sea temperature difference, increases by 0.2 K, and surface wind speed decreases by 0.02 m/s. As a result of these changes, surface evaporation increases by only 2% per Kelvin of surface warming, rather than the 7%/K rate simulated for atmospheric moisture. The increased surface stability and relative humidity are robust across models. The former is nearly uniform over ice-free oceans while the latter features a subtropical peak on either side of the equator. While relative humidity changes are positive almost everywhere in a thin surface layer, changes aloft show positive trends in the deep tropics and negative ones in the subtropics. The surface-trapped structure suggests the following mechanism: owing to its thermal inertia, the ocean lags behind the atmospheric warming, and this retarding effect causes an increase in surface stability and relative humidity, analogously to advection fog. Our results call for observational efforts to monitor and detect changes in surface relative humidity and stability over the world ocean.