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Assessing a Satellite-Era Perspective of the Global Water Cycle

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  • 1 Joint Program on the Policy and Science of Global Change, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • | 2 Climate Dynamics Program, Center for Research on Environment and Water, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia
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Abstract

The capability of a global data compilation, largely satellite based, is assessed to depict the global atmospheric water cycle’s mean state and variability. Monthly global precipitation estimates from the Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) and the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) Merged Analysis of Precipitation (CMAP) span from 1979 to 1999. Monthly global Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I)-based bulk aerodynamic ocean evaporation estimates span from June 1987 to December 1999. Global terrestrial evapotranspiration rates are estimated over a multidecade period (1975–99) using a global land model simulation forced by bias-corrected reanalysis data. Monthly total precipitable water (TPW) from the NASA Global Water Vapor Project (NVAP) spans from 1988 to 1999.

The averaged annual global precipitation (P) and evaporation (E) estimates are out of balance by 5% or 24 000 (metric) gigatons (Gton) of water, which exceeds the uncertainty of global mean annual precipitation (∼±1%). For any given year, the annual flux imbalance can be on the order of 10% (48 000 Gton of water). However, observed global TPW interannual variations suggest a water flux imbalance on the order of 0.01% (48 Gton of water)—a finding consistent with a general circulation model (GCM) simulation. Variations in observationally based global P and E rates show weak monthly and interannual consistency, and depending on the choice of ocean evaporation data, the mean annual cycle of global EP can be up to 5 times larger to that of TPW. The global ocean annual evaporation rates have as much as a ∼1% yr−1 increase during the period analyzed (1988–99), which is consistent in sign with most transient CO2 GCM simulations, but at least an order of magnitude larger. The ocean evaporation trends are driven by trends in SSM/I-retrieved near-surface atmospheric humidity and wind speed, and the largest year-to-year changes are coincident with transitions in the SSM/I fleet.

In light of (potential) global water cycle changes in GCM projections, the ability to consistently detect or verify these changes in nature rests upon one or more of the following: quantification of global evaporation uncertainty, at least a twofold improvement in consistency between the observationally based global precipitation and evaporation variations, a two order of magnitude rectification between annual variations of EP and precipitable water as well as substantial improvements in the consistency of their seasonal cycles, a critical reevaluation of intersatellite calibration for the relevant geophysical quantities used for ocean evaporation estimates, and the continuation of a dedicated calibration in this regard for future satellite transitions.

Corresponding author address: C. Adam Schlosser, MIT, E40-413, 1 Amherst St., Cambridge, MA 02048. Email: casch@mit.edu

Abstract

The capability of a global data compilation, largely satellite based, is assessed to depict the global atmospheric water cycle’s mean state and variability. Monthly global precipitation estimates from the Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP) and the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) Merged Analysis of Precipitation (CMAP) span from 1979 to 1999. Monthly global Special Sensor Microwave Imager (SSM/I)-based bulk aerodynamic ocean evaporation estimates span from June 1987 to December 1999. Global terrestrial evapotranspiration rates are estimated over a multidecade period (1975–99) using a global land model simulation forced by bias-corrected reanalysis data. Monthly total precipitable water (TPW) from the NASA Global Water Vapor Project (NVAP) spans from 1988 to 1999.

The averaged annual global precipitation (P) and evaporation (E) estimates are out of balance by 5% or 24 000 (metric) gigatons (Gton) of water, which exceeds the uncertainty of global mean annual precipitation (∼±1%). For any given year, the annual flux imbalance can be on the order of 10% (48 000 Gton of water). However, observed global TPW interannual variations suggest a water flux imbalance on the order of 0.01% (48 Gton of water)—a finding consistent with a general circulation model (GCM) simulation. Variations in observationally based global P and E rates show weak monthly and interannual consistency, and depending on the choice of ocean evaporation data, the mean annual cycle of global EP can be up to 5 times larger to that of TPW. The global ocean annual evaporation rates have as much as a ∼1% yr−1 increase during the period analyzed (1988–99), which is consistent in sign with most transient CO2 GCM simulations, but at least an order of magnitude larger. The ocean evaporation trends are driven by trends in SSM/I-retrieved near-surface atmospheric humidity and wind speed, and the largest year-to-year changes are coincident with transitions in the SSM/I fleet.

In light of (potential) global water cycle changes in GCM projections, the ability to consistently detect or verify these changes in nature rests upon one or more of the following: quantification of global evaporation uncertainty, at least a twofold improvement in consistency between the observationally based global precipitation and evaporation variations, a two order of magnitude rectification between annual variations of EP and precipitable water as well as substantial improvements in the consistency of their seasonal cycles, a critical reevaluation of intersatellite calibration for the relevant geophysical quantities used for ocean evaporation estimates, and the continuation of a dedicated calibration in this regard for future satellite transitions.

Corresponding author address: C. Adam Schlosser, MIT, E40-413, 1 Amherst St., Cambridge, MA 02048. Email: casch@mit.edu

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