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Summer dryness in a warmer climate: a process study with a regional climate model


Earlier GCM studies have expressed the concern that an enhancement of greenhouse warming might increase the occurrence of summer droughts in mid-latitudes, especially in southern Europe and central North America. This could represent a severe threat for agriculture in the regions concerned, where summer is the main growing season. These predictions must however be considered as uncertain, since most studies featuring enhanced summer dryness in mid-latitudes use very simple representations of the land-surface processes ("bucket" models), despite their key importance for the issue considered. The current study uses a regional climate model including a land-surface scheme of intermediate complexity to investigate the sensitivity of the summer climate to enhanced greenhouse warming over the American Midwest. A surrogate climate change scenario is used for the simulation of a warmer climate. The control runs are driven at the lateral boundaries and the sea surface by reanalysis data and observations, respectively. The warmer climate experiments are forced by a modified set of initial and lateral boundary conditions. The modifications consist of a uniform 3 K temperature increase and an attendant increase of specific humidity (unchanged relative humidity). This strategy maintains a similar dynamical forcing in the warmer climate experiments, thus allowing to investigate thermodynamical impacts of climate change in comparative isolation. The atmospheric CO2 concentration of the sensitivity experiments is set to four times its pre-industrial value. The simulations are conducted from March 15 to October 1st, for 4 years corresponding to drought (1988), normal (1986, 1990) and flood (1993) conditions. The numerical experiments do not present any great enhancement of summer drying under warmer climatic conditions. First, the overall changes in the hydrological cycle (especially evapotranspiration) are of small magnitude despite the strong forcing applied. Second, precipitation increases in spring lead to higher soil water recharge during this season, compensating for the enhanced soil moisture depletion occurring later in the year. Additional simulations replacing the plant control on transpiration with a bucket-type formulation presented increased soil drying in 1988, the drought year. This suggests that vegetation control on transpiration might play an important part in counteracting an enhancement of summer drying when soil water gets limited. Though further aspects of this issue would need investigating, our results underline the importance of land-surface processes in climate integrations and suggest that the risk of enhanced summer dryness in the region studied might be less acute than previously assumed, provided the North American general circulation does not change markedly with global warming.

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Seneviratne, .S., Pal, .J., Eltahir, .E. et al. Summer dryness in a warmer climate: a process study with a regional climate model. Climate Dynamics 20, 69–85 (2002).

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  • Regional Climate Model
  • Summer Dryness
  • Lateral Boundary Condition
  • Greenhouse Warming
  • Vegetation Control