Articles | Volume 3, issue 2
Research article
22 Nov 2012
Research article |  | 22 Nov 2012

Strengthening of the hydrological cycle in future scenarios: atmospheric energy and water balance perspective

A. Alessandri, P. G. Fogli, M. Vichi, and N. Zeng

Abstract. Future climate scenarios experiencing global warming are expected to strengthen the hydrological cycle during the 21st century (21C). We analyze the strengthening of the global-scale increase in precipitation from the perspective of changes in whole atmospheric water and energy balances. By combining energy and water equations for the whole atmosphere, we obtain constraints for the changes in surface fluxes and partitioning at the surface between sensible and latent components. We investigate the differences in the strengthening of the hydrological cycle in two centennial simulations performed with an Earth system model forced with specified atmospheric concentration pathways. Alongside the Special Report on Emissions Scenario (SRES) A1B, which is a medium-high non-mitigation scenario, we consider a new aggressive-mitigation scenario (E1) with reduced fossil fuel use for energy production aimed at stabilizing global warming below 2 K.

Our results show that the mitigation scenario effectively constrains the global warming with a stabilization below 2 K with respect to the 1950–2000 historical period. On the other hand, the E1 precipitation does not follow the temperature field toward a stabilization path but continues to increase over the mitigation period. Quite unexpectedly, the mitigation scenario is shown to strengthen the hydrological cycle even more than SRES A1B till around 2070. We show that this is mostly a consequence of the larger increase in the negative radiative imbalance of atmosphere in E1 compared to A1B. This appears to be primarily related to decreased sulfate aerosol concentration in E1, which considerably reduces atmospheric absorption of solar radiation compared to A1B.

The last decades of the 21C show a marked increase in global precipitation in A1B compared to E1, despite the fact that the two scenarios display almost the same overall increase of radiative imbalance with respect to the 20th century. Our results show that radiative cooling is weakly effective in A1B throughout the 21C. Two distinct mechanisms characterize the diverse strengthening of the hydrological cycle in the middle and end- 21C. It is only through a very large perturbation of surface fluxes that A1B achieves a larger increase in global precipitation in the last decades of the 21C. Our energy/water budget analysis shows that this behavior is ultimately due to a bifurcation in the Bowen ratio change between the two scenarios.

This work warns that mitigation policies that promote aerosol abatement, may lead to an unexpected stronger intensification of the hydrological cycle and associated changes that may last for decades after global warming is effectively mitigated. On the other hand, it is also suggested that predictable components of the radiative forcing by aerosols may have the potential to effectively contribute to the decadal-scale predictability of changes in the hydrological strength.

Final-revised paper