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Keywords:

  • water vapor;
  • water vapor feedback;
  • reanalysis

[1] A recent paper (Paltridge et al., 2009) found that specific humidity in the National Centers for Environmental Prediction/National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCEP/NCAR) reanalysis declined between 1973 and 2007, particularly in the tropical mid and upper troposphere, the region that plays the key role in the water vapor feedback. If borne out, this result suggests potential problems in the consensus view of a positive water vapor feedback. Here we consider whether this result holds in other reanalyses and what time scale of climate fluctuation is associated with the negative specific humidity trends. The five reanalyses analyzed here (the older NCEP/NCAR and ERA40 reanalyses and the more modern Japanese Reanalysis (JRA), Modern Era Retrospective-Analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA), and European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF)-interim reanalyses) unanimously agree that specific humidity generally increases in response to short-term climate variations (e.g., El Niño). In response to decadal climate fluctuations, the NCEP/NCAR reanalysis is unique in showing decreases in tropical mid and upper tropospheric specific humidity as the climate warms. All of the other reanalyses show that decadal warming is accompanied by increases in mid and upper tropospheric specific humidity. We conclude from this that it is doubtful that these negative long-term specific humidity trends in the NCEP/NCAR reanalysis are realistic for several reasons. First, the newer reanalyses include improvements specifically designed to increase the fidelity of long-term trends in their parameters, so the positive trends found there should be more reliable than in the older reanalyses. Second, all of the reanalyses except the NCEP/NCAR assimilate satellite radiances rather than being solely dependent on radiosonde humidity measurements to constrain upper tropospheric humidity. Third, the NCEP/NCAR reanalysis exhibits a large bias in tropical upper tropospheric specific humidity. And finally, we point out that there exists no theoretical support for having a positive short-term water vapor feedback and a negative long-term one.