As a consequence of the temperature dependence of the saturation vapour pressure in the atmosphere, the projected warming is expected to be accompanied by an increase in atmospheric moisture flux and its convergence/divergence intensity. This results in a general increase in precipitation over most of the continent except the most south-westerly part (Figure 11.12). The ensemble mean of MMD models projects an increase in annual mean precipitation in the north reaching +20%, which is twice the inter-model spread, so likely significant; the projected increase reaches as much as +30% in winter. Because the increased saturation vapour pressure can also yield greater evaporation, projected increases in annual precipitation are partially offset by increases in evaporation; regions in central North America may experience net surface drying as a result (see Supplementary Material Figure S11.1). See Table 11.1 and Supplementary Table S11.2 for more regional and seasonal details, noting that regional averaging hides important north-south differences.
Figure 11.12. Temperature and precipitation changes over North America from the MMD-A1B simulations. Top row: Annual mean, DJF and JJA temperature change between 1980 to 1999 and 2080 to 2099, averaged over 21 models. Middle row: same as top, but for fractional change in precipitation. Bottom row: number of models out of 21 that project increases in precipitation.
In keeping with the projected northward displacement of the westerlies and the intensification of the Aleutian Low (Section 18.104.22.168), northern region precipitation is projected to increase, by the largest amount in autumn and by the largest fraction in winter. Due to the increased precipitable water, the increase in precipitation amount is likely to be larger on the windward slopes of the mountains in the west with orographic precipitation. In western regions, modest changes in annual mean precipitation are projected, but the majority of AOGCMs indicate an increase in winter and a decrease in summer. Models show greater consensus on winter increases (ensemble mean maximum of 15%) to the north and on summer decreases (ensemble mean maximum of –20%) to the south. These decreases are consistent with enhanced subsidence and flow of drier air masses in the southwest USA and northern Mexico resulting from an amplification of the subtropical anticyclone off the West Coast due to the land-sea contrast in warming (e.g., Mote and Mantua, 2002). However, this reduction is close to the inter-model spread so it contains large uncertainty, an assessment that is reinforced by the fact that some AOGCMs project an increase in precipitation.
In central and eastern regions, projections from the MMD models show the same characteristics as in the west, with greater consensus for winter increases to the north and summer decreases to the south. The line of zero change is oriented more or less west-to-east and moves north from winter to summer. The line of zero change is also projected to lie further to the north under SRES scenarios with larger greenhouse gas amounts. However, uncertainty around the projected changes is large and the changes do not scale well across different SRES scenarios.
Govindasamy (2003) finds that, averaged over the USA, the few existing time-slice simulations with high-resolution AGCM results do not significantly differ from those obtained with AOGCMs. Available RCM simulations provide little extra information on average changes. Some RCMs project precipitation changes of different sign, either locally (Chen et al., 2003) or over the entire continental USA (Han and Roads, 2004, where in summer the AOGCM generally produced a small increase and the RCM a substantial decrease). In contrast, Plummer et al. (2006) find only small differences in precipitation responses using two sets of physical parametrizations in their RCM, despite the fact that one corrected significant summer precipitation excess present in the other.