Wetter subtropics in a warmer world: Contrasting past and future hydrological cycles

By Natalie J. Burls and Alexey V. Federov


The subsiding flow of the atmospheric Hadley circulation controls dry conditions over vast subtropical bands where the main arid regions of the globe reside. In the context of future changes in the atmospheric hydrological cycle, understanding precipitation changes in the subtropics is of particular importance given the scarcity of water resources in these locations. A major puzzle arises when contrasting the drier conditions in the subtropics predicted by climate models under global warming scenarios against the wetter conditions seen in reconstructions of past warm climates, including the warm, ∼400 ppm CO2, Pliocene. Our modeling results address this puzzle and highlight the importance of correctly predicting how the meridional temperature gradient between the tropics and the subtropics will change with global warming.


During the warm Miocene and Pliocene Epochs, vast subtropical regions had enough precipitation to support rich vegetation and fauna. Only with global cooling and the onset of glacial cycles some 3 Mya, toward the end of the Pliocene, did the broad patterns of arid and semiarid subtropical regions become fully developed. However, current projections of future global warming caused by CO2 rise generally suggest the intensification of dry conditions over these subtropical regions, rather than the return to a wetter state. What makes future projections different from these past warm climates? Here, we investigate this question by comparing a typical quadrupling-of-CO2 experiment with a simulation driven by sea-surface temperatures closely resembling available reconstructions for the early Pliocene. Based on these two experiments and a suite of other perturbed climate simulations, we argue that this puzzle is explained by weaker atmospheric circulation in response to the different ocean surface temperature patterns of the Pliocene, specifically reduced meridional and zonal temperature gradients. Thus, our results highlight that accurately predicting the response of the hydrological cycle to global warming requires predicting not only how global mean temperature responds to elevated CO2 forcing (climate sensitivity) but also accurately quantifying how meridional sea-surface temperature patterns will change (structural climate sensitivity). [Emphasis added]

The full article is available on the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website at http://www.pnas.org/content/114/49/12888.abstract