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

TS.3.1.3 Changes in the Water Cycle: Water Vapour, Clouds, Precipitation and Tropical Storms

Tropospheric water vapour is increasing (Figure TS.8). Surface specific humidity has generally increased since 1976 in close association with higher temperatures over both land and ocean. Total column water vapour has increased over the global oceans by 1.2 ± 0.3% per decade (95% confidence limits) from 1988 to 2004. The observed regional changes are consistent in pattern and amount with the changes in SST and the assumption of a near-constant relative humidity increase in water vapour mixing ratio. The additional atmospheric water vapour implies increased moisture availability for precipitation. {3.4}

Upper-tropospheric water vapour is also increasing. Due to instrumental limitations, it is difficult to assess long-term changes in water vapour in the upper troposphere, where it is of radiative importance. However, the available data now show evidence for global increases in upper-tropospheric specific humidity over the past two decades (Figure TS.8). These observations are consistent with the observed increase in temperatures and represent an important advance since the TAR. {3.4}

Atmospheric Water Vapour

Figure TS.8

Figure TS.8. (a) Linear trends in precipitable water (total column water vapour) over the period 1988 to 2004 (% per decade) and (b) the monthly time series of anomalies, relative to the period shown, over the global ocean with linear trend. (c) The global mean (80°N to 80°S) radiative signature of upper-tropospheric moistening is given by monthly time series of combinations of satellite brightness temperature anomalies (°C), relative to the period 1982 to 2004, with the dashed line showing the linear trend of the key brightness temperature in °C per decade. {3.4, Figures 3.20 and 3.21}

Cloud changes are dominated by ENSO. Widespread (but not ubiquitous) decreases in continental DTR have coincided with increases in cloud amounts. Surface and satellite observations disagree on changes in total and low-level cloud changes over the ocean. However, radiation changes at the top of the atmosphere from the 1980s to 1990s (possibly related in part to the ENSO phenomenon) appear to be associated with reductions in tropical upper-level cloud cover, and are consistent with changes in the energy budget and in observed ocean heat content. {3.4}

‘Global dimming’ is not global in extent and it has not continued after 1990. Reported decreases in solar radiation at the Earth’s surface from 1970 to 1990 have an urban bias. Further, there have been increases since about 1990. An increasing aerosol load due to human activities decreases regional air quality and the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. In some areas, such as Eastern Europe, recent observations of a reversal in the sign of this effect link changes in solar radiation to concurrent air quality improvements. {3.4}

Long-term trends in precipitation amounts from 1900 to 2005 have been observed in many large regions (Figure TS.9). Significantly increased precipitation has been observed in the eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia. Drying has been observed in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia. Precipitation is highly variable spatially and temporally, and robust long-term trends have not been established for other large regions.[5] {3.3}

Global Mean Precipitation

Figure TS.9

Figure TS.9. (Top) Distribution of linear trends of annual land precipitation amounts over the period 1901 to 2005 (% per century) and (middle) 1979 to 2005 (% per decade). Areas in grey have insufficient data to produce reliable trends. The percentage is based on the 1961 to 1990 period. (Bottom) Time series of annual global land precipitation anomalies with respect to the 1961 to 1990 base period for 1900 to 2005. The smooth curves show decadal variations (see Appendix 3.A) for different data sets. {3.3, Figures 3.12 and 3.13}

Substantial increases in heavy precipitation events have been observed. It is likely that there have been increases in the number of heavy precipitation events (e.g., above the 95th percentile) in many land regions since about 1950, even in those regions where there has been a reduction in total precipitation amount. Increases have also been reported for rarer precipitation events (1 in 50 year return period), but only a few regions have sufficient data to assess such trends reliably (see Figure TS.10). {3.8}

Annual Precipitation Trends

Figure TS.10

Figure TS.10. (Top) Observed trends (% per decade) over the period 1951 to 2003 in the contribution to total annual precipitation from very wet days (i.e., corresponding to the 95th percentile and above). White land areas have insufficient data for trend determination. (Bottom) Anomalies (%) of the global (regions with data shown in top panel) annual time series of very wet days (with respect to 1961–1990) defined as the percentage change from the base period average (22.5%). The smooth orange curve shows decadal variations (see Appendix 3.A). {Figure 3.39}

There is observational evidence for an increase of intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, correlated with increases in tropical SSTs. There are also suggestions of increased intense tropical cyclone activity in some other regions where concerns over data quality are greater. Multi-decadal variability and the quality of the tropical cyclone records prior to routine satellite observations in about 1970 complicate the detection of long-term trends in tropical cyclone activity and there is no clear trend in the annual numbers of tropical cyclones. Estimates of the potential destructiveness of tropical cyclones suggest a substantial upward trend since the mid-1970s, with a trend towards longer lifetimes and greater intensity. Trends are also apparent in SST, a critical variable known to influence tropical cyclone development (see Figure TS.11). Variations in the total numbers of tropical cyclones result from ENSO and decadal variability, which also lead to a redistribution of tropical storm numbers and tracks. The numbers of hurricanes in the North Atlantic have been above normal (based on 1981–2000) in nine of the years from 1995 to 2005. {3.8}

Annual Sea-Surface Temperature Anomalies

Figure TS.11

Figure TS.11. Tropical Atlantic (10°N–20°N) sea surface temperature annual anomalies (°C) in the region of Atlantic hurricane formation, relative to the 1961 to 1990 mean. {Figure 3.33}

More intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas, particularly in the tropics and subtropics since the 1970s. While there are many different measures of drought, many studies use precipitation changes together with temperature.[6] Increased drying due to higher temperatures and decreased land precipitation have contributed to these changes. {3.3}

  1. ^  The assessed regions are those considered in the regional projections chapter of the TAR and in Chapter 11 of this report.
  2. ^  Precipitation and temperature are combined in the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), considered in this report as one measure of drought. The PDSI does not include variables such as wind speed, solar radiation, cloudiness and water vapour but is a superior measure to precipitation alone.