Radiosonde data from a global 118-station network are used to determine the spatial and temporal scales of variability of tropospheric water vapor. Various sources of possible error and bias in the data are analyzed. Changes in instrumentation at U.S. stations are shown to have a considerable influence on the record; information on comparable changes in other countries is not readily available. Mean monthly data are shown to be acceptable at tropical nations but not at high-latitude stations, where the nonlinear dependence of saturation vapor pressure on temperature, coupled with large temperature ranges, leads to biases of up to 10% in mean monthly specific humidity.

A series of three empirical orthogonal function analyses (for the tropics, North America, and the globe) of specific humidity at the surface, 850-mb, 700-mb, and 500-mb levels is presented. All three show evidence of a shift in the specific humidity field in the winter of 1976/77, with generally lower values from the beginning of the record (January 1973) until the shift and higher values through the winter of 1985/86. This shift is shown to be consistent with other evidence for a change in “climate state” in about 1977. The influence of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation is evident in both the tropical and global analyses.

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