New study show two separate effects that could cancel each other out — for a while
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — While some weather observations and climate models suggest specific global warming impacts to southern hemisphere weather patterns, a new study by the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa suggests rainfall will be affected by two competing factors.
In the South Pacific, these two effects — an increase due to overall warming and a decrease due to changes in atmospheric water transport — may cancel each other out, resulting in highly uncertain rainfall projections. Other studies also suggest that global warming will shift the South Pacific rain band.
“We have known for some time that rising tropical temperatures will lead to more water vapor in the atmosphere,” said oceanography professor Axel Timmermann. “Abundant moisture tends to bring about heavier rainfall in regions of converging winds such as the South Pacific Convergence Zone.” Scientists refer to this as the “wet gets wetter” climate change mechanism.
In the southern hemisphere, the South Pacific Convergence Zone is the main source of rainfall for South Pacific island nations. Changes in this rainfall band would have severe consequences for the vulnerable island nations already having to adapt to accelerating sea level rise. Yet, very little is known about how this 8,000-kilometer-long climate feature will respond to greenhouse warming.
“One reason why the SPCZ projections are so elusive is that many climate models are notoriously poor in simulating this important rainband, even under present-day climate conditions,” said Matthew Widlansky, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Pacific Research Center. “We were able to overcome some model shortcomings in simulating South Pacific climate by removing model deviations from observed sea surface temperatures.”
With the resulting improvements in climate model performance, Widlansky, Timmermann, and colleagues could identify two competing mechanisms affecting rainfall trends in the South Pacific.
“Nearly all climate change model simulations … suggest the equatorial Pacific will warm faster than the SPCZ region. This uneven warming is likely to pull the rainband away from its normal position, causing drying in the Southwest Pacific and more equatorial rainfall,” Timmerman said.
“When we evaluated the latest climate change experiments being conducted by international climate modeling groups, we saw that these competing mechanisms are the cause for uncertainty in the SPCZ rainfall projections,” Widlansky added.
The scientists found that, depending upon the degree of tropical warming expected this century, one or the other mechanism is more likely to win out. With moderate warming, weaker sea surface temperature gradients are likely to shift the rainband towards the equator, potentially causing drying during summer for most Southwest Pacific island nations. For much higher warming possible by the end of this century, the net effect of the opposing mechanisms is likely a shift towards more rainfall for the South Pacific islands.
“To be more definite in our projections, however, we need more extensive observations in the South Pacific of how clouds and rainfall form and how they respond to such climate phenomena as El Niño,” Timmer said. “Before we have more confidence in our calculations of the delicate balance between the two climate change mechanisms, we need to be able to simulate cloud formations more realistically,” he concluded.
Results of the study are published in the 28 October online issue of Nature Climate Change.