Climate Dynamics

, Volume 24, Issue 7–8, pp 741–758 | Cite as

Trends and variability in column-integrated atmospheric water vapor

  • Kevin E. TrenberthEmail author
  • John Fasullo
  • Lesley Smith


An analysis and evaluation has been performed of global datasets on column-integrated water vapor (precipitable water). For years before 1996, the Ross and Elliott radiosonde dataset is used for validation of European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) reanalyses ERA-40. Only the special sensor microwave imager (SSM/I) dataset from remote sensing systems (RSS) has credible means, variability and trends for the oceans, but it is available only for the post-1988 period. Major problems are found in the means, variability and trends from 1988 to 2001 for both reanalyses from National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) and the ERA-40 reanalysis over the oceans, and for the NASA water vapor project (NVAP) dataset more generally. NCEP and ERA-40 values are reasonable over land where constrained by radiosondes. Accordingly, users of these data should take great care in accepting results as real. The problems highlight the need for reprocessing of data, as has been done by RSS, and reanalyses that adequately take account of the changing observing system. Precipitable water variability for 1988–2001 is dominated by the evolution of ENSO and especially the structures that occurred during and following the 1997–98 El Niño event. The evidence from SSM/I for the global ocean suggests that recent trends in precipitable water are generally positive and, for 1988 through 2003, average 0.40±0.09 mm per decade or 1.3±0.3% per decade for the ocean as a whole, where the error bars are 95% confidence intervals. Over the oceans, the precipitable water variability relates very strongly to changes in SSTs, both in terms of spatial structure of trends and temporal variability (with a regression coefficient for 30°N–30°S of 7.8% K−1) and is consistent with the assumption of fairly constant relative humidity. In the tropics, the trends are also influenced by changes in rainfall which, in turn, are closely associated with the mean flow and convergence of moisture by the trade winds. The main region where positive trends are not very evident is over Europe, in spite of large and positive trends over the North Atlantic since 1988. A much longer time series is probably required to obtain stable patterns of trends over the oceans, although the main variability could probably be deduced from past SST and associated precipitation variations.


Empirical Orthogonal Function Precipitable Water South Pacific Convergence Zone Empirical Orthogonal Function Analysis Inter Tropical Convergence Zone 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



This research is partially sponsored by the NOAA CLIVAR and CCDD programs under grant NA17GP1376. The ERA-40 data used were provided by ECMWF. SSM/I data are produced by Remote Sensing Systems and sponsored by the NASA Earth Science REASoN DISCOVER Project. Data are available at We thank Brian Soden and Adrian Simmons for comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kevin E. Trenberth
    • 1
    Email author
  • John Fasullo
    • 1
  • Lesley Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.National Center for Atmospheric ResearchBoulderCOUSA

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