Potential Evaporation and Soil Moisture in General Circulation Models

P. C. D. Milly U.S. Geological Survey, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/N0AA. Princeton, New Jersey

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Abstract

The parameterization of continental evaporation in many atmospheric general circulation models (GCMS) used for simulation of climate is demonstrably inconsistent with the empirical work upon which the parameterization is based. In the turbulent transfer relation for potential evaporation, the climate models employ the modeled actual temperature to evaluate the saturated surface humidity, whereas the consistent temperature is the one reflecting cooling by the hypothetical potential evaporation. A simple theoretical analysis and some direct computations, all ignoring atmospheric feedbacks, indicate that whenever the soil moisture is limited, GCM-based climate models produce rates of potential evaporation that exceed, by a factor of two or more, the rates that would be yielded by use of the consistent temperature. Further approximate analyses and supporting numerical simulations indicate that the expected value of dry-season soil moisture has a short memory relative to the annual cycle and that dry-season evaporation is therefore nearly equal to dry-season precipitation. When potential evaporation is overestimated, it follows that the soil moisture is artificially reduced by a similar factor, and actual evaporation may or may not be overestimated, depending on other details of the hydrologic parameterization. These arguments, advanced on theoretical grounds, explain the substantial, systematic differences between GCM-generated and observation-based estimates of potential evaporation rates and call into question the direct use of currently available GCM-generated values of potential evaporation in the assessment of the effects of climatic change on continental hydrology and water resources. They also provide a partial explanation of the excessively low values of summer soil moisture in GCMs and raise questions concerning the results of studies of soil-moisture changes induced by an increase of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, an approximate analytical result suggests that the basic dependence of changes in soil moisture on changes in the atmospheric state was qualitatively preserved in those studies.

Abstract

The parameterization of continental evaporation in many atmospheric general circulation models (GCMS) used for simulation of climate is demonstrably inconsistent with the empirical work upon which the parameterization is based. In the turbulent transfer relation for potential evaporation, the climate models employ the modeled actual temperature to evaluate the saturated surface humidity, whereas the consistent temperature is the one reflecting cooling by the hypothetical potential evaporation. A simple theoretical analysis and some direct computations, all ignoring atmospheric feedbacks, indicate that whenever the soil moisture is limited, GCM-based climate models produce rates of potential evaporation that exceed, by a factor of two or more, the rates that would be yielded by use of the consistent temperature. Further approximate analyses and supporting numerical simulations indicate that the expected value of dry-season soil moisture has a short memory relative to the annual cycle and that dry-season evaporation is therefore nearly equal to dry-season precipitation. When potential evaporation is overestimated, it follows that the soil moisture is artificially reduced by a similar factor, and actual evaporation may or may not be overestimated, depending on other details of the hydrologic parameterization. These arguments, advanced on theoretical grounds, explain the substantial, systematic differences between GCM-generated and observation-based estimates of potential evaporation rates and call into question the direct use of currently available GCM-generated values of potential evaporation in the assessment of the effects of climatic change on continental hydrology and water resources. They also provide a partial explanation of the excessively low values of summer soil moisture in GCMs and raise questions concerning the results of studies of soil-moisture changes induced by an increase of greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, an approximate analytical result suggests that the basic dependence of changes in soil moisture on changes in the atmospheric state was qualitatively preserved in those studies.

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