How Dry is the Tropical Free Troposphere? Implications for Global Warming Theory

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The humidity of the free troposphere is being increasingly scrutinized in climate research due to its central role in global warming theory through positive water vapor feedback. This feedback is the primary source of global warming in general circulation models (GCMs). Because the loss of infrared energy to space increases nonlinearly with decreases in relative humidity, the vast dry zones in the Tropics are of particular interest. These dry zones are nearly devoid of radiosonde stations, and most of those stations have, until recently, ignored the low humidity information from the sondes. This results in substantial uncertainty in GCM tuning and validation based on sonde data. While satellite infrared radiometers are now beginning to reveal some information about the aridity of the tropical free troposphere, the authors show that the latest microwave humidity sounder data suggests even drier conditions than have been previously reported. This underscores the importance of understanding how these low humidity levels are controlled in order to tune and validate GCMs, and to predict the magnitude of water vapor feedback and thus the magnitude of global warming.

*NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Global Hydrology and Climate Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

+Nichols Research Corporation, Global Hydrology and Climate Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Roy W. Spencer, Earth System Science Division, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Global Hydrology and Climate Center, ES41, Huntsville, AL 35806.

The humidity of the free troposphere is being increasingly scrutinized in climate research due to its central role in global warming theory through positive water vapor feedback. This feedback is the primary source of global warming in general circulation models (GCMs). Because the loss of infrared energy to space increases nonlinearly with decreases in relative humidity, the vast dry zones in the Tropics are of particular interest. These dry zones are nearly devoid of radiosonde stations, and most of those stations have, until recently, ignored the low humidity information from the sondes. This results in substantial uncertainty in GCM tuning and validation based on sonde data. While satellite infrared radiometers are now beginning to reveal some information about the aridity of the tropical free troposphere, the authors show that the latest microwave humidity sounder data suggests even drier conditions than have been previously reported. This underscores the importance of understanding how these low humidity levels are controlled in order to tune and validate GCMs, and to predict the magnitude of water vapor feedback and thus the magnitude of global warming.

*NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Global Hydrology and Climate Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

+Nichols Research Corporation, Global Hydrology and Climate Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

Corresponding author address: Dr. Roy W. Spencer, Earth System Science Division, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Global Hydrology and Climate Center, ES41, Huntsville, AL 35806.
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