Relative humidity changes in a warmer climate

Authors


Abstract

[1] Key climate feedback due to water vapor and clouds rest largely on how relative humidity ℛ changes in a warmer climate, yet this has not been extensively analyzed in models. General circulation models (GCMs) from the CMIP3 archive and several higher-resolution atmospheric GCMs examined here generally predict a characteristic pattern of ℛ trend with global temperature that has been reported previously in individual models, including increase around the tropopause, decrease in the tropical upper troposphere, and decrease in midlatitudes. This pattern is very similar to that previously reported for cloud cover in the same GCMs, confirming the role of ℛ in controlling changes in simulated cloud. Comparing different models, the trend in each part of the troposphere is approximately proportional to the upward and/or poleward gradient of ℛ in the present climate. While this suggests that the changes simply reflect a shift of the ℛ pattern upward with the tropopause and poleward with the zonal jets, the drying trend in the subtropics is roughly 3 times too large to be attributable to shifts of subtropical features, and the subtropical ℛ minima deepen in most models. ℛ trends are correlated with horizontal model resolution, especially outside the tropics, where they show signs of convergence and latitudinal gradients become close to available observations for GCM resolutions near T85 and higher. We argue that much of the systematic change in ℛ can be explained by the local specific humidity having been set (by condensation) in remote regions with different temperature changes, hence the gradients and trends each depend on a model's ability to resolve moisture transport. Finally, subtropical drying trends predicted from the warming alone fall well short of those observed in recent decades. While this discrepancy supports previous reports of GCMs underestimating Hadley cell expansion, our results imply that shifts alone are not a sufficient interpretation of changes.

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