Skip to main content
Log in

A re-examination of the projected subtropical precipitation decline

  • Letter
  • Published:

From Nature Climate Change

View current issue Submit your manuscript

An Author Correction to this article was published on 13 August 2018


A large-scale precipitation decline in the subtropics is a widely accepted projection of future climate change1,2,3, but its causes and implications are uncertain. Two mechanisms are commonly used to explain the large-scale subtropical precipitation decline: an amplification of moisture export due to the increase in moisture4 and a poleward shift of subtropical subsidence associated with the poleward expansion of the Hadley cell5,6. In an idealized experiment with abrupt CO2 increase, we find that the subtropical precipitation decline forms primarily in the fast adjustment to CO2 forcing during which neither of the two proposed mechanisms exists. Permitting the increase in moisture and the Hadley cell expansion does not substantially change the characteristics of the large-scale subtropical precipitation decline. This precipitation change should be interpreted as a response to the land–sea warming contrast, the direct radiative forcing of CO2 and, in certain regions, the pattern of SST changes. Moreover, the subtropical precipitation decline is projected predominately over oceans. Over subtropical land regions, the precipitation decline is muted or even reversed by the land–sea warming contrast.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Figure 1: Multi-model ensemble mean changes in the abrupt4×CO2 simulation.
Figure 2: Time evolution of multi-model ensemble mean changes in the global mean moisture, boundary of the Hadley cell and zonal mean precipitation from the abrupt4×CO2 simulation.
Figure 3: Multi-model ensemble mean precipitation changes.
Figure 4: Changes in the moisture budget terms for the robust SPD regions from the 1pctCO2, AMIP and aqua_CO2 simulations.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Allen, M. R. & Ingram, W. J. Constraints on future changes in climate and the hydrologic cycle. Nature 419, 224–232 (2002).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Neelin, J. D., Münnich, M., Su, H., Meyerson, J. E. & Holloway, C. E. Tropical drying trends in global warming models and observations. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 6110–6115 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  4. Held, I. M. & Soden, B. J. Robust responses of the hydrological cycle to global warming. J. Clim. 19, 5686–5699 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Scheff, J. & Frierson, D. Twenty-first-century multimodel subtropical precipitation declines are mostly midlatitude shifts. J. Clim. 25, 4330–4347 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Scheff, J. & Frierson, D. M. W. Robust future precipitation declines in CMIP5 largely reflect the poleward expansion of model subtropical dry zones. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L18704 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Seager, R. et al. Model projections of an imminent transition to a more arid climate in southwestern North America. Science 316, 1181–1184 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Hansen, J. et al. Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim? Open Atmos. Sci. J. 2, 217–231 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Greve, P. et al. Global assessment of trends in wetting and drying over land. Nat. Geosci. 7, 716–721 (2014).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Roderick, M. L., Sun, F., Lim, W. H. & Farquhar, G. D. A general framework for understanding the response of the water cycle to global warming over land and ocean. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 18, 1575–1589 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Byrne, M. P. & O’Gorman, P. A. The response of precipitation minus evapotranspiration to climate warming: why the ‘wet-get-wetter, dry-get-drier’ scaling does not hold over land. J. Clim. 28, 8078–8092 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Frierson, D. M. W., Lu, J. & Chen, G. Width of the Hadley cell in simple and comprehensive general circulation models. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L18804 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Grise, K. M. & Polvani, L. M. The response of midlatitude jets to increased CO2: distinguishing the roles of sea surface temperature and direct radiative forcing. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 2014GL061638 (2014).

    Google Scholar 

  14. He, J. & Soden, B. J. Anthropogenic weakening of the tropical circulation: the relative roles of direct CO2 forcing and sea surface temperature change. J. Clim. 28, 8728–8742 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Bony, S. et al. Robust direct effect of carbon dioxide on tropical circulation and regional precipitation. Nat. Geosci. 6, 447–451 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Wu, Y., Seager, R., Ting, M., Naik, N. & Shaw, T. A. Atmospheric circulation response to an instantaneous doubling of carbon dioxide. Part I: model experiments and transient thermal response in the troposphere. J. Clim. 25, 2862–2879 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Wu, Y., Seager, R., Shaw, T. A., Ting, M. & Naik, N. Atmospheric circulation response to an instantaneous doubling of carbon dioxide. Part II: atmospheric transient adjustment and its dynamics. J. Clim. 26, 918–935 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Xie, S.-P. et al. Global warming pattern formation: sea surface temperature and rainfall. J. Clim. 23, 966–986 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. He, J., Soden, B. J. & Kirtman, B. The robustness of the atmospheric circulation and precipitation response to future anthropogenic surface warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 2614–2622 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Seager, R., Naik, N. & Vecchi, G. A. Thermodynamic and dynamic mechanisms for large-scale changes in the hydrological cycle in response to global warming. J. Clim. 23, 4651–4668 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Chadwick, R., Good, P., Andrews, T. & Martin, G. Surface warming patterns drive tropical rainfall pattern responses to CO2 forcing on all timescales. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 610–615 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Ackerley, D. & Dommenget, D. Atmosphere-only GCM (ACCESS1. 0) simulations with prescribed land surface temperatures. Geosci. Model Dev. 9, 2077–2098 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Rodwell, M. J. & Hoskins, B. J. Subtropical anticyclones and summer monsoons. J. Clim. 14, 3192–3211 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Giannini, A. Mechanisms of climate change in the semiarid African Sahel: the local view. J. Clim. 23, 743–756 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Chadwick, R. Which aspects of CO2 forcing and SST warming cause most uncertainty in projections of tropical rainfall change over land and ocean? J. Clim. 29, 2493–2509 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Chavaillaz, Y., Joussaume, S., Bony, S. & Braconnot, P. Spatial stabilization and intensification of moistening and drying rate patterns under future climate change. Clim. Dynam. 47, 951–965 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank I. Held, T. Knutson, J. Scheff and L. Polvani for useful discussions. Thanks also go to T. Delworth and K. van der Wiel for their internal review at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. J.H. is supported by the Visiting Scientist Program at the department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Princeton University.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.H. designed the research and analysed the simulations. J.H. and B.J.S. discussed the results. J.H. led the writing with the assistance of B.J.S.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jie He.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 2385 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

He, J., Soden, B. A re-examination of the projected subtropical precipitation decline. Nature Clim Change 7, 53–57 (2017).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

  • Springer Nature Limited

This article is cited by