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Contributions of soil moisture interactions to climate change in the tropics in the GLACE–CMIP5 experiment

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Abstract

Contributions of changes in soil moisture to the projected climate change in the tropics at the end of the twenty first century are quantified using the simulations from five different global climate models, which contributed to the GLACE–CMIP5 experiment. “GLACE” refers to the Global Land Atmosphere Coupling Experiment and “CMIP5” to the fifth phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project. This is done by relating the overall projected changes in climate to those changes in climate that are related to the projected changes in soil moisture. The study focusses on two particular aspects of the interactions of the soil moisture with climate, the soil moisture–temperature coupling and the soil moisture–precipitation coupling. The simulations show distinct future changes in soil moisture content in the tropics, with a general tendency of increases in the central parts of the tropics and decreases in the subtropics. These changes are associated with corresponding changes in precipitation, with an overall tendency of an approximate 5 % change in soil moisture in response to a precipitation change of 1 mm/day. All five individual models are characterized by the same qualitative behaviour, despite differences in the strength and in the robustness of the coupling between soil moisture and precipitation. The changes in soil moisture content are found to give important contributions to the overall climate change in the tropics. This is in particularly the case for latent and sensible heat flux, for which about 80 % of the overall changes are related to soil moisture changes. Similarly, about 80 % of the overall near-surface temperature changes (with the mean temperature changes in the tropics removed) are associated with soil moisture changes. For precipitation, on the other hand, about 30–40 % of the overall change can be attributed to soil moisture changes. The robustness of the contributions of the soil moisture changes to the overall climate change varies between the different meteorological variables, with a high degree of robustness for the surface energy fluxes, a fair degree for near-surface temperature and a low degree for precipitation. Similar to the coupling between soil moisture and precipitation, the five individual models are characterized by the same qualitative behaviour, albeit differences in the strength and the robustness of the contributions of the soil moisture change. This suggests that despite the regional differences in the projected climate changes between the individual models, the basic physical mechanisms governing the soil moisture–temperature coupling and the soil moisture–precipitation coupling work similarly in these models. The experiment confirms the conceptual models of the soil moisture–temperature coupling and the soil moisture–precipitation coupling described Seneviratne et al. (Earth-Sci Rev 99:125–161, 2010). For the soil moisture–temperature coupling, decreases (increases) in soil moisture lead to increasing (decreasing) sensible heat fluxes and near-surface temperatures. The soil moisture–precipitation coupling is part of a positive feedback loop, where increases (decreases) in precipitation cause increases (decreases) in soil moisture content, which, in turn, lead to increasing (decreasing) latent heat fluxes and precipitation.

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Acknowledgments

The research presented in this paper is a contribution to the Swedish strategic research area ModElling the Regional and Global Earth system, MERGE. Thanks to the modelling groups at GFDL, i.e., Kirsten Findell, and NCAR, i.e., David Lawrence, for sharing the data from their GLACE–CMIP5 simulations as well as people at ETHZ, i.e., Sonia Seneviratne and Martin Hirschi, for coordinating the GLACE–CMIP5 experiment and their help with the data. We also thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions that helped to improve the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Wilhelm May.

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May, W., Meier, A., Rummukainen, M. et al. Contributions of soil moisture interactions to climate change in the tropics in the GLACE–CMIP5 experiment. Clim Dyn 45, 3275–3297 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-015-2538-9

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-015-2538-9

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