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MIT and Caltech Study Finds Climate Change Will Result In More Extreme Rainfall

A new MIT and Caltech study on the impact that global climate change will have on precipitation patterns concludes that extreme rainfall will increase in the future. However, the increase in extreme downpours is not uniformly spread around the world.

The analysis shows that while the pattern is clear and consistent outside of the tropics, climate models give conflicting results within the tropics and more research will be needed to determine the likely outcomes in tropical regions.

Previous studies have shown that average annual precipitation will increase in both the deep tropics and in temperate zones, but will decrease in the subtropics. However, it’s important to know how the magnitude of extreme precipitation events will be affected, as these heavy downpours can lead to increased flooding and soil erosion.

The magnitude of these extreme events was the subject of the new research, which will appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of 17 Aug. The report was written by Paul O’Gorman, assistant professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT, and Tapio Schneider, professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech.

Model simulations used in the study suggest that precipitation in extreme events will go up by about 5 to 6 percent for every one degree Celsius increase in temperature. Separate projections published earlier this year by MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change indicate that without rapid and massive policy changes, there is a median probability of global surface warming of 5.2 °C by 2100, with a 90% probability range of 3.5 to 7.4 degrees.

The basic underlying reason for the projected increase in precipitation is that warmer air can hold more water vapor. So as the climate heats up, “there will be more vapor in the atmosphere, which will lead to an increase in precipitation extremes,” O’Gorman says.

However, contrary to what might be expected, precipitation extremes do not increase at the same rate as the moisture capacity of the atmosphere. The extremes do go up, but not by as much as the total water vapor, he says. That is because water condenses out as rising air cools, but the rate of cooling for the rising air is less in a warmer climate, and this moderates the increase in precipitation, he says.

The reason the climate models are less consistent about what will happen to precipitation extremes in the tropics, O’Gorman says, is that typical weather systems there fall below the size limitations of the models. While high and low pressure areas in temperate zones may span 1,000 kilometers, typical storm circulations in the tropics are too small for models to account for directly. To address that problem, O’Gorman and others are trying to run much smaller-scale, higher-resolution models for tropical areas.

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