, Volume 39, Issue 5, pp 1137-1147
Date: 18 Dec 2011

A mechanism for land–ocean contrasts in global monsoon trends in a warming climate

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Abstract

A central paradox of the global monsoon record involves reported decreases in rainfall over land during an era in which the global hydrologic cycle is both expected and observed to intensify. It is within this context that this work develops a physical basis for both interpreting the observed record and anticipating changes in the monsoons in a warming climate while bolstering the concept of the global monsoon in the context of shared feedbacks. The global-land monsoon record across multiple reanalyses is first assessed. Trends that in other studies have been taken as real are shown to likely be spurious as a result of changes in the assimilated data streams both prior to and during the satellite era. Nonetheless, based on satellite estimates, robust increases in monsoon rainfall over ocean do exist and a physical basis for this land–ocean contrast remains lacking. To address the contrast’s causes, simulated trends are therefore assessed. While projections of total rainfall are inconsistent across models, the robust land–ocean contrast identified in observations is confirmed. A feedback mechanism is proposed rooted in the facts that land areas warm disproportionately relative to ocean, and onshore flow is the chief source of monsoonal moisture. Reductions in lower tropospheric relative humidity over land domains are therefore inevitable and these have direct consequences for the monsoonal convective environment including an increase in the lifting condensation level and a shift in the distribution of convection generally towards less frequent and potentially more intense events. The mechanism is interpreted as an important modulating influence on the “rich-get-richer” mechanism. Caveats for regional monsoons exist and are discussed.

This paper is a contribution to the special issue on Global Monsoon Climate, a product of the Global Monsoon Working Group of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) project, coordinated by Pinxian Wang, Bin Wang, and Thorsten Kiefer.
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.