Amplification of wet and dry month occurrence over tropical land regions in response to global warming



[1] Quantifying how global warming impacts the spatiotemporal distribution of precipitation represents a key scientific challenge with profound implications for human welfare. Utilizing monthly precipitation data from Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3) climate change simulations, the results here show that the occurrence of very dry (<0.5 mm/day) and very wet (>10 mm/day) months comprises a straightforward, robust metric of anthropogenic warming on tropical land region rainfall. In particular, differencing tropics-wide precipitation frequency histograms for 25-year periods over the late 21st and 20th centuries shows increased late-21st-century occurrence of histogram extremes both in the model ensemble and across individual models. Mechanistically, such differences are consistent with the view of enhanced tropical precipitation spatial gradients. Similar diagnostics are calculated for two 15-year subperiods over 1979–2008 for the CMIP3 models and three observational precipitation products to assess whether the signature of late-21st-century warming has already emerged in response to recent warming. While both the observations and CMIP3 ensemble-mean hint at similar amplification in the warmer (1994–2008) subinterval, the changes are not robust, as substantial differences are evident among the observational products and the intraensemble spread is large. Comparing histograms computed from the warmest and coolest years of the observational period further demonstrates effects of internal variability, notably the El Niño/Southern Oscillation, which appear to oppose the impact of quasi-uniform anthropogenic warming on the wet tail of the monthly precipitation distribution. These results identify the increase of very dry and wet occurrences in monthly precipitation as a potential signature of anthropogenic global warming but also highlight the continuing dominance of internal climate variability on even bulk measures of tropical rainfall.