Articles | Volume 8, issue 3
Research article
21 Aug 2017
Research article |  | 21 Aug 2017

Comparison of land surface humidity between observations and CMIP5 models

Robert J. H. Dunn, Kate M. Willett, Andrew Ciavarella, and Peter A. Stott

Abstract. We compare the latest observational land surface humidity dataset, HadISDH, with the latest generation of climate models extracted from the CMIP5 archive and the ERA-Interim reanalysis over the period 1973 to present. The globally averaged behaviour of HadISDH and ERA-Interim are very similar in both humidity measures and air temperature, on decadal and interannual timescales.

The global average relative humidity shows a gradual increase from 1973 to 2000, followed by a steep decline in recent years. The observed specific humidity shows a steady increase in the global average during the early period but in the later period it remains approximately constant. None of the CMIP5 models or experiments capture the observed behaviour of the relative or specific humidity over the entire study period. When using an atmosphere-only model, driven by observed sea surface temperatures and radiative forcing changes, the behaviour of regional average temperature and specific humidity are better captured, but there is little improvement in the relative humidity.

Comparing the observed climatologies with those from historical model runs shows that the models are generally cooler everywhere, are drier and less saturated in the tropics and extra-tropics, and have comparable moisture levels but are more saturated in the high latitudes. The spatial pattern of linear trends is relatively similar between the models and HadISDH for temperature and specific humidity, but there are large differences for relative humidity, with less moistening shown in the models over the tropics and very little at high latitudes. The observed drying in mid-latitudes is present at a much lower magnitude in the CMIP5 models. Relationships between temperature and humidity anomalies (Tq and T–rh) show good agreement for specific humidity between models and observations, and between the models themselves, but much poorer for relative humidity. The Tq correlation from the models is more steeply positive than the observations in all regions, and this over-correlation may be due to missing processes in the models.

The observed temporal behaviour appears to be a robust climate feature rather than observational error. It has been previously documented and is theoretically consistent with faster warming rates over land compared to oceans. Thus, the poor replication in the models, especially in the atmosphere-only model, leads to questions over future projections of impacts related to changes in surface relative humidity. It also precludes any formal detection and attribution assessment.

Short summary
We compare the latest observations of relative and specific humidity with those from climate models. The climate models do not accurately reproduce the observed humidity behaviour for the last 15–20 years. We use the temporal, spatial and trend information to contrast the patterns exhibited by the observations and models. The temporal behaviour of the observations has previously been documented and is consistent with faster warming rates over land compared to oceans.
Final-revised paper