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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Contrasting the responses of extreme precipitation to changes in surface air and dew point temperatures


The Clausius–Clapeyron (C–C) relationship is a thermodynamic relationship between saturation vapor pressure and temperature. Based on the C–C relationship, the scaling of extreme precipitation with respect to surface air temperature (i.e., extreme precipitation scaling) has been widely believed to quantify the sensitivity of these extremes to global surface warming under climate change. However, the extreme precipitation scaling rate in the observations produces counter-intuitive results, particularly in the tropics (i.e., strong negative scaling in the tropical land) possibly associated with limitations in moisture availability under the high-temperature bands. The trends in extreme precipitation based on station data are mixed with decreases in most of the tropics and subtropics and increases in most of the USA, western Europe, Australia, and a large portion of Asia. To try to reconcile these results, we examine the extreme precipitation scaling using dew point temperature and extreme precipitation and compare these results with those obtained from surface air temperature and extreme precipitation using station-based data, reanalysis data, and climate model simulations. We find that this mix of increases and decreases in the trends of extreme precipitation across the planet is more similar to the changes in surface dew point temperature rather than the actual temperature across the station-based data, reanalysis data, and the historical experiments with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Atmosphere Model, version 5 (CAM5). These findings suggest that dew point temperature is a better and more realistic metric for the responses of extreme precipitation to temperature increases. Therefore, the risk of having extreme precipitation is higher than what was obtained using surface air temperature, particularly in the tropics and subtropics (e.g., South Asia), areas of the world characterized by extremely high population density and severe poverty.

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