IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Precipitation Extremes

A long-standing result from global coupled models noted in the TAR is a projected increase in the chance of summer drying in the mid-latitudes in a future warmer climate with associated increased risk of drought. This is shown in Figure 10.12, and has been documented in the more recent generation of models (Burke et al., 2006; Meehl et al., 2006b; Rowell and Jones, 2006). For example, Wang (2005) analyse 15 recent AOGCMs and show that in a future warmer climate, the models simulate summer dryness in most parts of the northern subtropics and mid-latitudes, but with a large range in the amplitude of summer dryness across models. Droughts associated with this summer drying could result in regional vegetation die-offs (Breshears et al., 2005) and contribute to an increase in the percentage of land area experiencing drought at any one time, for example, extreme drought increasing from 1% of present-day land area to 30% by the end of the century in the A2 scenario (Burke et al., 2006). Drier soil conditions can also contribute to more severe heat waves as discussed in Section (Brabson et al., 2005).

Associated with the risk of drying is a projected increase in the chance of intense precipitation and flooding. Although somewhat counter-intuitive, this is because precipitation is projected to be concentrated into more intense events, with longer periods of little precipitation in between. Therefore, intense and heavy episodic rainfall events with high runoff amounts are interspersed with longer relatively dry periods with increased evapotranspiration, particularly in the subtropics as discussed in Section in relation to Figure 10.19 (Frei et al., 1998; Allen and Ingram, 2002; Palmer and Räisänen, 2002; Christensen and Christensen, 2003; Beniston, 2004; Christensen and Christensen, 2004; Pal et al., 2004; Meehl et al., 2005a). However, increases in the frequency of dry days do not necessarily mean a decrease in the frequency of extreme high rainfall events depending on the threshold used to define such events (Barnett et al., 2006). Another aspect of these changes has been related to the mean changes in precipitation, with wet extremes becoming more severe in many areas where mean precipitation increases, and dry extremes where the mean precipitation decreases (Kharin and Zwiers, 2005; Meehl et al., 2005a; Räisänen, 2005a; Barnett et al., 2006). However, analysis of the 53-member perturbed physics ensemble indicates that the change in the frequency of extreme precipitation at an individual location can be difficult to estimate definitively due to model parametrization uncertainty (Barnett et al., 2006). Some specific regional aspects of these changes in precipitation extremes are discussed further in Chapter 11.

Climate models continue to confirm the earlier results that in a future climate warmed by increasing greenhouse gases, precipitation intensity (e.g., proportionately more precipitation per precipitation event) is projected to increase over most regions (Wilby and Wigley, 2002; Kharin and Zwiers, 2005; Meehl et al., 2005a; Barnett et al., 2006), and the increase in precipitation extremes is greater than changes in mean precipitation (Kharin and Zwiers, 2005). As discussed in Chapter 9, this is related to the fact that the energy budget of the atmosphere constrains increases in large-scale mean precipitation, but extreme precipitation relates to increases in moisture content and thus the nonlinearities involved with the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship such that, for a given increase in temperature, increases in extreme precipitation can be more than the mean precipitation increase (e.g., Allen and Ingram, 2002). Additionally, time scale can play a role whereby increases in the frequency of seasonal mean rainfall extremes can be greater than the increases in the frequency of daily extremes (Barnett et al., 2006). The increase in mean and extreme precipitation in various regions has been attributed to contributions from both dynamic and thermodynamic processes associated with global warming (Emori and Brown, 2005). The greater increase in extreme precipitation compared to the mean is attributed to the greater thermodynamic effect on the extremes due to increases in water vapour, mainly over subtropical areas. The thermodynamic effect is important nearly everywhere, but changes in circulation also contribute to the pattern of precipitation intensity changes at middle and high latitudes (Meehl et al., 2005a). Kharin and Zwiers (2005) show that changes in both the location and scale of the extreme value distribution produce increases in precipitation extremes substantially greater than increases in annual mean precipitation. An increase in the scale parameter from the gamma distribution represents an increase in precipitation intensity, and various regions such as the NH land areas in winter showed particularly high values of increased scale parameter (Semenov and Bengtsson, 2002; Watterson and Dix, 2003). Time-slice simulations with a higher-resolution model (~1°) show similar results using changes in the gamma distribution, namely increased extremes in the hydrological cycle (Voss et al., 2002). However, some regional decreases are also projected such as over the subtropical oceans (Semenov and Bengtsson, 2002).

A number of studies have noted the connection between increased rainfall intensity and an implied increase in flooding. McCabe et al. (2001) and Watterson (2005) show a projected increase in extreme rainfall intensity with the extra-tropical surface lows, particularly over NH land, with an implied increase in flooding. In a multi-model analysis of the CMIP models, Palmer and Räisänen (2002) show an increased likelihood of very wet winters over much of central and northern Europe due to an increase in intense precipitation associated with mid-latitude storms, suggesting more floods across Europe (see also Chapter 11). They found similar results for summer precipitation with implications for greater flooding in the Asian monsoon region in a future warmer climate. Similarly, Milly et al. (2002), Arora and Boer (2001) and Voss et al. (2002) relate the increased risk of floods in a number of major river basins in a future warmer climate to an increase in spring river discharge related to increased winter snow depth in some regions. Christensen and Christensen (2003) conclude that there could be an increased risk of summer flooding in Europe.

Globally averaged time series of the Frich et al. (2002) indices in the multi-model analysis of Tebaldi et al. (2006) show simulated increases in precipitation intensity during the 20th century continuing through the 21st century (Figure 10.18a,b), along with a somewhat weaker and less consistent trend of increasing dry periods between rainfall events for all scenarios (Figure 10.18c,d). Part of the reason for these results is shown in the geographic maps for these quantities, where precipitation intensity increases almost everywhere, but particularly at middle and high latitudes where mean precipitation also increases (Meehl et al., 2005a; compare Figure 10.18b to Figure 10.9). However, in Figure 10.18d, there are regions of increased runs of dry days between precipitation events in the subtropics and lower mid-latitudes, but decreased runs of dry days at higher mid-latitudes and high latitudes where mean precipitation increases (compare Figure 10.9 with Figure 10.18d). Since there are areas of both increases and decreases in consecutive dry days between precipitation events in the multi-model average (Figure 10.9), the global mean trends are smaller and less consistent across models as shown in Figure 10.18. Consistency of response in a perturbed physics ensemble with one model shows only limited areas of increased frequency of wet days in July, and a larger range of changes in precipitation extremes relative to the control ensemble mean in contrast to the more consistent response of temperature extremes (Section, indicating a less consistent response for precipitation extremes in general compared to temperature extremes (Barnett et al., 2006). Analysis of the Frich et al. (2002) precipitation indices in a 20-km resolution global model shows similar results to those in Figure 10.18, with particularly large increases in precipitation intensity in South Asia and West Africa (Kamiguchi et al., 2005).

Figure 10.18

Figure 10.18. Changes in extremes based on multi-model simulations from nine global coupled climate models, adapted from Tebaldi et al. (2006). (a) Globally averaged changes in precipitation intensity (defined as the annual total precipitation divided by the number of wet days) for a low (SRES B1), middle (SRES A1B) and high (SRES A2) scenario. (b) Changes in spatial patterns of simulated precipitation intensity between two 20-year means (2080–2099 minus 1980–1999) for the A1B scenario. (c) Globally averaged changes in dry days (defined as the annual maximum number of consecutive dry days). (d) Changes in spatial patterns of simulated dry days between two 20-year means (2080–2099 minus 1980–1999) for the A1B scenario. Solid lines in (a) and (c) are the 10-year smoothed multi-model ensemble means; the envelope indicates the ensemble mean standard deviation. Stippling in (b) and (d) denotes areas where at least five of the nine models concur in determining that the change is statistically significant. Extreme indices are calculated only over land following Frich et al. (2002). Each model’s time series was centred on its 1980 to 1999 average and normalised (rescaled) by its standard deviation computed (after de-trending) over the period 1960 to 2099. The models were then aggregated into an ensemble average, both at the global and at the grid-box level. Thus, changes are given in units of standard deviations.