More on how storms, precipitation intensity will increase with temperature

Excerpt, Science Daily, March 2017

The relationship between precipitation and temperature is founded in science. Simply put, warmer air holds more moisture. Scientists can even tell you how much. A widely used theorem in climate science called the Clausius-Clapeyron equation dictates that for every degree the temperature goes up, there is an approximately 7 percent increase in the amount of moisture the atmosphere can hold. The intensity of extreme precipitation, which is proportional to atmospheric moisture, also increases at a scaling rate of approximately 7 percent, in the absence of moisture limitations.

The problem is that when scientists ran computer models predicting the likelihood of extreme precipitation in the future, and compared those results with both present day observations and the temperature scaling dictated by the so-called “C-C equation,” the numbers were off. In many cases, the increase in extreme precipitation relative to surface temperature over land was closer to 2 to 5 percent, rather than 7 percent. In their analysis, Wang’s team discovered that average local surface temperatures increase much faster than the threshold temperatures for extreme precipitation, and attributed the lower scaling rate to the fact that earlier studies compared extreme precipitation with average local temperatures rather than the temperature at the time the rainstorms occurred.

“There are a lot of studies where people are trying to determine why the scaling rate is lower than 7 percent,” says Wang. “Our study suggests that this is a wrong question to ask. If you want to relate rain intensity to temperature using the C-C relationship as a reference, you have to relate to the temperature at which the rain event occurs, not the mean temperature, which is the long term average.

Kevin Trenberth, an expert on global warming and the lead author of several reports prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, joined Wang in the current study. Trenberth is currently a Distinguished Senior Scientist in the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore as a member of the IPCC.

Trenberth explains the findings this way:

“In general, extreme precipitation increases with higher temperatures because the air can hold more moisture — although that depends on moisture availability. But beyond a certain point, it is the other way round: the temperature responds to the precipitation, or more strictly speaking, the conditions leading to the precipitation, [such as extensive cloud cover or surface moisture]. The most obvious example of this is in a drought where there is no precipitation. Another example is in cloudy, stormy conditions, when it is wet and cool. By relating the changes in precipitation to the temperature where the relationship reverses — instead of the mean temperature as in previous studies — we can make sense of the differences and the changes. Moreover, it means there is no limit to the changes that can occur, as otherwise might be suspected if there were a fixed relationship.”

Guiling Wang, Dagang Wang, Kevin E. Trenberth, Amir Erfanian, Miao Yu, Michael G. Bosilovich, Dana T. Parr. The peak structure and future changes of the relationships between extreme precipitation and temperature. Nature Climate Change, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/nclimate3239

University of Connecticut. “Climate study: More intense and frequent severe rainstorms likely: No drop off expected.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170307100337.htm>.