Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 10:06 PM GMT on February 19, 2008
Are storms getting more extreme due to climate change? That is a difficult question to answer, since reliable records are not available at all in many parts of the world, and extend back only a few decades elsewhere. However, we do have a fairly good set of precipitation records for many parts of the globe, and those records show that the heaviest types of rains--those likely to cause flooding--have increased in recent years. According to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2007 report, "The frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most land areas". Indeed, global warming theory has long predicted an increase in heavy precipitation events. As the climate warms, evaporation of moisture from the oceans increases, resulting in more water vapor in the air. According to the 2007 IPCC report, water vapor in the global atmosphere has increased by about 5% over the 20th century, and 4% since 1970. Satellite measurements (Trenberth et al., 2005) have shown a 1.3% per decade increase in water vapor over the global oceans since 1988. Santer et al. (2007) used a climate model to study the relative contribution of natural and human-caused effects on increasing water vapor, and concluded that this increase was "primarily due to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases". This was also the conclusion of Willet et al. (2007).
More water vapor equals more precipitation
This increase in water vapor has very likely led to an increase in global precipitation. For instance, over the U.S., where we have very good precipitation records, annual average precipitation has increased 7% over the past century (Groisman et al., 2004). The same study also found a 14% increase in heavy (top 5%) and 20% increase in very heavy (top 1%) precipitation events over the U.S. in the past century. Kunkel et al. (2003) also found an increase in heavy precipitation events over the U.S. in recent decades, but noted that heavy precipitation events were nearly as frequent at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, though the data is not as reliable back then. Thus, there is a large natural variation in extreme precipitation events.
Pollution may contribute to higher precipitation
It is possible that increased pollution is partly responsible for the increase in precipitation and in heavy precipitation events in some parts of the world. According to Bell et al. (2008), summertime rainfall over the Southeast U.S. is more intense on weekdays than on weekends, with Tuesdays having 1.8 times as much rain as Saturdays during the 1998-2005 period analyzed. Air pollution particulate matter also peaks on weekdays and has a weekend minimum, making it likely that pollution is contributing to the observed mid-week rainfall increase. Pollution particles act as "nuclei" around which raindrops condense, increasing precipitation in some storms.
The future of flooding
It is difficult to say if the increase in heavy precipitation events in recent years has led to more flooding, since flooding is critically dependent on how much the landscape has been altered by development, upstream deforestation, and what kind of flood control devices are present. One of the few studies that did attempt to quantify flooding (Milly et al., 2002) found that the incidence of great floods has increased in recent decades. In the past century, the world's 29 largest river basins experienced a total of 21 "100-year floods"--the type of flood one would expect only once per 100 years in a given river basin. Of these 21 floods, 16 occurred in the last half of the century (after 1953). With the IPCC predicting that heavy precipitation events are very likely to continue to increase, it would be no surprise to see flooding worsen globally in the coming decades.
Bell, T. L., D. Rosenfeld, K.-M. Kim, J.-M. Yoo, M.-I. Lee, and M. Hahnenberger (2008), "Midweek increase in U.S. summer rain and storm heights suggests air pollution invigorates rainstorms," J. Geophys. Res., 113, D02209, doi:10.1029/2007JD008623.
Kunkel, K. E., D. R. Easterling, K. Redmond, and K. Hubbard, 2003, "Temporal variations of extreme precipitation events in the United States: 1895.2000", Geophys. Res. Lett., 30(17), 1900, doi:10.1029/2003GL018052.
Groisman, P.Y., R.W. Knight, T.R. Karl, D.R. Easterling, B. Sun, and J.H. Lawrimore, 2004, "Contemporary Changes of the Hydrological Cycle over the Contiguous United States: Trends Derived from In Situ Observations," J. Hydrometeor., 5, 64.85.
Milly, P.C.D., R.T. Wetherald, K.A. Dunne, and T.L.Delworth, Increasing risk of great floods in a changing climate", Nature 415, 514-517 (31 January 2002) | doi:10.1038/415514a.
Santer, B.D., C. Mears, F. J. Wentz, K. E. Taylor, P. J. Gleckler, T. M. L. Wigley, T. P. Barnett, J. S. Boyle, W. Brüggemann, N. P. Gillett, S. A. Klein, G. A. Meehl, T. Nozawa, D. W. Pierce, P. A. Stott, W. M. Washington, and M. F. Wehner, 2007, "Identification of human-induced changes in atmospheric moisture content", PNAS 2007 104: 15248-15253.
Trapp, R.J., N.S. Diffenbaugh, H.E. Brooks, M.E. Baldwin, E.D. Robinson, and J.S. Pal, 2007, Severe thunderstorm environment frequency during the 21st century caused by anthropogenically enhanced global radiative forcing, PNAS 104 no. 50, 19719-19723, Dec. 11, 2007.
Trenberth, K.E., J. Fasullo, and L. Smith, 2005: "Trends and variability in column-integrated atmospheric water vapor", Climate Dynamics 24, 741-758.
Willett, K.M., N.P. Gillett, P.D. Jones, and P.W. Thorne, 2007, "Attribution of observed surface humidity changes to human influence", Nature 449, 710-712 (11 October 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06207.
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