From a societal, weather, and climate perspective, precipitation intensity, duration, frequency, and phase are as much of concern as total amounts, as these factors determine the disposition of precipitation once it hits the ground and how much runs off. At the extremes of precipitation incidence are the events that give rise to floods and droughts, whose changes in occurrence and severity have an enormous impact on the environment and society. Hence, advancing understanding and the ability to model and predict the character of precipitation is vital but requires new approaches to examining data and models. Various mechanisms, storms and so forth, exist to bring about precipitation. Because the rate of precipitation, conditional on when it falls, greatly exceeds the rate of replenishment of moisture by surface evaporation, most precipitation comes from moisture already in the atmosphere at the time the storm begins, and transport of moisture by the storm-scale circulation into the storm is vital. Hence, the intensity of precipitation depends on available moisture, especially for heavy events. As climate warms, the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, which is governed by the Clausius–Clapeyron equation, is expected to rise much faster than the total precipitation amount, which is governed by the surface heat budget through evaporation. This implies that the main changes to be experienced are in the character of precipitation: increases in intensity must be offset by decreases in duration or frequency of events. The timing, duration, and intensity of precipitation can be systematically explored via the diurnal cycle, whose correct simulation in models remains an unsolved challenge of vital importance in global climate change. Typical problems include the premature initiation of convection, and precipitation events that are too light and too frequent. These challenges in observations, modeling, and understanding precipitation changes are being taken up in the NCAR “Water Cycle Across Scales” initiative, which will exploit the diurnal cycle as a test bed for a hierarchy of models to promote improvements in models.
The National Center for Atmospheric Research,* Boulder, Colorado
*The National Center for Atmospheric Research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation