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Robust Atmospheric River Response to Global Warming in Idealized and Comprehensive Climate Models

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  • 1 a Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania
  • | 2 b Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California
  • | 3 c NOAA/Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, New Jersey
  • | 4 d Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland
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Abstract

Atmospheric rivers (ARs), narrow intense moisture transport, account for much of the poleward moisture transport in midlatitudes. While studies have characterized AR features and the associated hydrological impacts in a warming climate in observations and comprehensive climate models, the fundamental dynamics for changes in AR statistics (e.g., frequency, length, width) are not well understood. Here we investigate AR response to global warming with a combination of idealized and comprehensive climate models. To that end, we developed an idealized atmospheric GCM with Earth-like global circulation and hydrological cycle, in which water vapor and clouds are modeled as passive tracers with simple cloud microphysics and precipitation processes. Despite the simplicity of the model physics, it reasonably reproduces observed dynamical structures for individual ARs, statistical characteristics of ARs, and spatial distributions of AR climatology. Under climate warming, the idealized model produces robust AR changes similar to CESM large ensemble simulations under RCP8.5, including AR size expansion, intensified landfall moisture transport, and an increased AR frequency, corroborating previously reported AR changes under global warming by climate models. In addition, the latitude of AR frequency maximum shifts poleward with climate warming. Further analysis suggests that the thermodynamic effect (i.e., an increase in water vapor) dominates the AR statistics and frequency changes while both the dynamic and thermodynamic effects contribute to the AR poleward shift. These results demonstrate that AR changes in a warming climate can be understood as passive water vapor and cloud tracers regulated by large-scale atmospheric circulation, whereas convection and latent heat feedback are of secondary importance.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Pengfei Zhang, zpengfei1006@gmail.com or pfz5053@psu.edu

Abstract

Atmospheric rivers (ARs), narrow intense moisture transport, account for much of the poleward moisture transport in midlatitudes. While studies have characterized AR features and the associated hydrological impacts in a warming climate in observations and comprehensive climate models, the fundamental dynamics for changes in AR statistics (e.g., frequency, length, width) are not well understood. Here we investigate AR response to global warming with a combination of idealized and comprehensive climate models. To that end, we developed an idealized atmospheric GCM with Earth-like global circulation and hydrological cycle, in which water vapor and clouds are modeled as passive tracers with simple cloud microphysics and precipitation processes. Despite the simplicity of the model physics, it reasonably reproduces observed dynamical structures for individual ARs, statistical characteristics of ARs, and spatial distributions of AR climatology. Under climate warming, the idealized model produces robust AR changes similar to CESM large ensemble simulations under RCP8.5, including AR size expansion, intensified landfall moisture transport, and an increased AR frequency, corroborating previously reported AR changes under global warming by climate models. In addition, the latitude of AR frequency maximum shifts poleward with climate warming. Further analysis suggests that the thermodynamic effect (i.e., an increase in water vapor) dominates the AR statistics and frequency changes while both the dynamic and thermodynamic effects contribute to the AR poleward shift. These results demonstrate that AR changes in a warming climate can be understood as passive water vapor and cloud tracers regulated by large-scale atmospheric circulation, whereas convection and latent heat feedback are of secondary importance.

© 2021 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Pengfei Zhang, zpengfei1006@gmail.com or pfz5053@psu.edu
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