Thermodynamic scaling of the hydrological cycle of the last glacial maximum


In climate models subject to greenhouse gas–induced warming, vertically integrated water vapor increases at nearly the same rate as its saturation value. Previous studies showed that this increase dominates circulation changes in climate models, so that precipitation minus evaporation (P − E) decreases in the subtropics and increases in the tropics and high latitudes at a rate consistent with a Clausius–Clapeyron scaling. This study examines whether the same thermodynamic scaling describes differences in the hydrological cycle between modern times and the last glacial maximum (LGM), as simulated by a suite of coupled ocean–atmosphere models. In these models, changes in water vapor between modern and LGM climates do scale with temperature according to Clausius–Clapeyron, but this thermodynamic scaling provides a poorer description of the changes in P − E. While the scaling is qualitatively consistent with simulations in the zonal mean, predicting higher P − E in the subtropics and lower P − E in the tropics and high latitudes, it fails to account for high-amplitude zonal asymmetries. Large horizontal gradients of temperature change, which are often neglected when applying the scaling to next-century warming, are shown to be important in large parts of the extratropics. However, even with this correction the thermodynamic scaling provides a poor quantitative fit to the simulations. This suggests that circulation changes play a dominant role in regional hydrological change between modern and LGM climates. Changes in transient eddy moisture transports are shown to be particularly important, even in the deep tropics. Implications for the selection and interpretation of climate proxies are discussed.

Journal of Climate