Precipitation

The following list of publications details our work related to understanding precipitation changes related to human-caused climate change.
 

RELATED PUBLICATIONS

Payne AE, Demory ME, Leung LR, Ramos AM, Shields CA, Rutz JJ, Siler N, Villarini G, Hall A, Ralph FM. Responses and impacts of atmospheric rivers to climate change. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment [Internet]. 2020;1 :143–157. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are characterized by intense moisture transport, which, on landfall, produce precipitation which can be both beneficial and destructive. ARs in California, for example, are known to have ended drought conditions but also to have caused substantial socio-economic damage from landslides and flooding linked to extreme precipitation. Understanding how AR characteristics will respond to a warming climate is, therefore, vital to the resilience of communities affected by them, such as the western USA, Europe, East Asia and South Africa. In this Review, we use a theoretical framework to synthesize understanding of the dynamic and thermodynamic responses of ARs to anthropogenic warming and connect them to observed and projected changes and impacts revealed by observations and complex models. Evidence suggests that increased atmospheric moisture (governed by Clausius–Clapeyron scaling) will enhance the intensity of AR-related precipitation — and related hydrological extremes — but with changes that are ultimately linked to topographic barriers. However, due to their dependency on both weather and climate-scale processes, which themselves are often poorly constrained, projections are uncertain. To build confidence and improve resilience, future work must focus efforts on characterizing the multiscale development of ARs and in obtaining observations from understudied regions, including the West Pacific, South Pacific and South Atlantic.
Huang X, Swain DL, Walton DB, Stevenson S, Hall A. Simulating and Evaluating Atmospheric River‐Induced Precipitation Extremes Along the U.S. Pacific Coast: Case Studies From 1980–2017. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres [Internet]. 2020;125 (4). Publisher's VersionAbstract
Atmospheric rivers (ARs) are responsible for a majority of extreme precipitation and flood events along the U.S. West Coast. To better understand the present‐day characteristics of AR‐related precipitation extremes, a selection of nine most intense historical AR events during 1980–2017 is simulated using a dynamical downscaling modeling framework based on the Weather Research and Forecasting Model. We find that the chosen framework and Weather Research and Forecasting Model configuration reproduces both large‐scale atmospheric features—including parent synoptic‐scale cyclones—as well as the filamentary corridors of integrated vapor transport associated with the ARs themselves. The accuracy of simulated extreme precipitation maxima, relative to in situ and interpolated gridded observations, improves notably with increasing model resolution, with improvements as large as 40–60% for fine scale (3 km) relative to coarse‐scale (27 km) simulations. A separate set of simulations using smoothed topography suggests that much of these gains stem from the improved representation of complex terrain. Additionally, using the 12 December 1995 storm in Northern California as an example, we demonstrate that only the highest‐resolution simulations resolve important fine‐scale features—such as localized orographically forced vertical motion and powerful near hurricane‐force boundary layer winds. Given the demonstrated ability of a targeted dynamical downscaling framework to capture both local extreme precipitation and key fine‐scale characteristics of the most intense ARs in the historical record, we argue that such a configuration may be highly conducive to understanding AR‐related extremes and associated changes in a warming climate.
Hall A, Qu X, Neelin JD. Improving predictions of summer climate change in the United States. Geophysical Research Letters [Internet]. 2008;35 :L01702. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Across vast, agriculturally intensive regions of the United States, the spread in predictions of summer temperature and soil moisture under global warming is curiously elevated in current climate models. Some models show modest warming of 2–3C° and little drying or slight moistening by the 22nd century, while at the other extreme are simulations with warming as large as 7–8C° and 20–40% reductions in soil moisture. We show this region of large spread arises from differences in simulations of snow albedo feedback. During winter and early spring, models with strong snow albedo feedback exhibit large reductions in snowpack and hence water storage. This water deficit persists in summer soil moisture, with reduced evapotranspiration yielding warmer temperatures. Comparison of simulated feedback strength to observations of the feedback from the current climate's seasonal cycle suggests the inter‐model differences are excessive. At the same time, the multi‐model mean feedback strength agrees reasonably well with the observed value. We estimate that if the next generation of models were brought into line with observations of snow albedo feedback, the unusually wide divergence in simulations of summer warming and drying over the US would shrink by roughly one third to one half.
Hughes M, Hall A, Fovell RG. Blocking in areas of complex topography, and its influence on rainfall distribution. Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences [Internet]. 2009;66 :508–518. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Using a 6-km-resolution regional climate simulation of Southern California, the effect of orographic blocking on the precipitation climatology is examined. To diagnose whether blocking occurs, precipitating hours are categorized by a bulk Froude number. The precipitation distribution becomes much more spatially homogeneous as the Froude number decreases, and an inspection of winds confirms that this results from the increasing prevalence of orographic blocking. Low Froude (Froude approximately less than 1), blocked cases account for a large fraction of climatological precipitation, particularly at the coastline where more than half is attributable to blocked cases. Thus, the climatological precipitation–slope relationship seen in observations and in the simulation is a hybrid of blocked and unblocked cases.

Simulated precipitation distributions are compared to those predicted by a simple linear model that includes only rainfall arising from direct forced topographic ascent. The agreement is nearly perfect for high Froude (Froude substantially larger than 1) cases but degrades dramatically as the index decreases; as blocking becomes more prevalent, the precipitation–slope relationship becomes continuously weaker than that predicted by the linear model. Because of its high fidelity during unblocked cases, it is surmised that blocking effects are the primary limitation preventing the linear model from accurately representing precipitation climatology and that the representation would be significantly improved during low Froude hours by the addition of a term to reduce the effective slope of the topography. These results suggest orographic blocking may substantially affect climatological precipitation distributions in similarly configured coastal areas.

Neelin JD, Langenbrunner B, Meyerson JE, Hall A, Berg N. California winter precipitation change under global warming in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 ensemble. Journal of Climate [Internet]. 2013;26 :6238–6256. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Projections of possible precipitation change in California under global warming have been subject to considerable uncertainty because California lies between the region anticipated to undergo increases in precipitation at mid-to-high latitudes and regions of anticipated decrease in the subtropics. Evaluation of the large-scale model experiments for phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) suggests a greater degree of agreement on the sign of the winter (December–February) precipitation change than in the previous such intercomparison, indicating a greater portion of California falling within the increased precipitation zone. While the resolution of global models should not be relied on for accurate depiction of topographic rainfall distribution within California, the precipitation changes depend substantially on large-scale shifts in the storm tracks arriving at the coast. Significant precipitation increases in the region arriving at the California coast are associated with an eastward extension of the region of strong Pacific jet stream, which appears to be a robust feature of the large-scale simulated changes. This suggests that effects of this jet extension in steering storm tracks toward the California coast constitute an important factor that should be assessed for impacts on incoming storm properties for high-resolution regional model assessments.
Berg N, Hall A, Sun F, Capps SB, Walton DB, Langenbrunner B, Neelin JD. Mid 21st-century precipitation changes over the Los Angeles region. Journal of Climate [Internet]. 2015;28 (2) :401–421. Publisher's VersionAbstract
A new hybrid statistical–dynamical downscaling technique is described to project mid- and end-of-twenty-first-century local precipitation changes associated with 36 global climate models (GCMs) in phase 5 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project archive over the greater Los Angeles region. Land-averaged precipitation changes, ensemble-mean changes, and the spread of those changes for both time slices are presented. It is demonstrated that the results are similar to what would be produced if expensive dynamical downscaling techniques were instead applied to all GCMs. Changes in land-averaged ensemble-mean precipitation are near zero for both time slices, reflecting the region’s typical position in the models at the node of oppositely signed large-scale precipitation changes. For both time slices, the intermodel spread of changes is only about 0.2–0.4 times as large as natural interannual variability in the baseline period. A caveat to these conclusions is that interannual variability in the tropical Pacific is generally regarded as a weakness of the GCMs. As a result, there is some chance the GCM responses in the tropical Pacific to a changing climate and associated impacts on Southern California precipitation are not credible. It is subjectively judged that this GCM weakness increases the uncertainty of regional precipitation change, perhaps by as much as 25%. Thus, it cannot be excluded that the possibility that significant regional adaptation challenges related to either a precipitation increase or decrease would arise. However, the most likely downscaled outcome is a small change in local mean precipitation compared to natural variability, with large uncertainty on the sign of the change.
Berg N, Hall A. Increased interannual precipitation extremes over California under climate change. Journal of Climate [Internet]. 2015;28 (16) :6324–6334. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Changes to mean and extreme wet season precipitation over California on interannual time scales are analyzed using twenty-first-century precipitation data from 34 global climate models. Models disagree on the sign of projected changes in mean precipitation, although in most models the change is very small compared to historical and simulated levels of interannual variability. For the 2020/21–2059/60 period, there is no projected increase in the frequency of extremely dry wet seasons in the ensemble mean. Wet extremes are found to increase to around 2 times the historical frequency, which is statistically significant at the 95% level. Stronger signals emerge in the 2060/61–2099/2100 period. Across all models, extremely dry wet seasons are roughly 1.5 to 2 times more common, and wet extremes generally triple in their historical frequency (statistically significant). Large increases in precipitation variability in most models account for the modest increases to dry extremes. Increases in the frequency of wet extremes can be ascribed to equal contributions from increased variability and increases to the mean. These increases in the frequency of interannual precipitation extremes will create severe water management problems in a region where coping with large interannual variability in precipitation is already a challenge. Evidence from models and observations is examined to understand the causes of the low precipitation associated with the 2013/14 drought in California. These lines of evidence all strongly indicate that the low 2013/14 wet season precipitation total can be very likely attributed to natural variability, in spite of the projected future changes in extremes.
DeAngelis AM, Qu X, Zelinka MD, Hall A. An observational radiative constraint on hydrologic cycle intensification. Nature [Internet]. 2015;528 :249–253. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Intensification of the hydrologic cycle is a key dimension of climate change, with substantial impacts on human and natural systems1,2. A basic measure of hydrologic cycle intensification is the increase in global-mean precipitation per unit surface warming, which varies by a factor of three in current-generation climate models (about 1–3 per cent per kelvin)3,4,5. Part of the uncertainty may originate from atmosphere–radiation interactions. As the climate warms, increases in shortwave absorption from atmospheric moistening will suppress the precipitation increase. This occurs through a reduction of the latent heating increase required to maintain a balanced atmospheric energy budget6,7. Using an ensemble of climate models, here we show that such models tend to underestimate the sensitivity of solar absorption to variations in atmospheric water vapour, leading to an underestimation in the shortwave absorption increase and an overestimation in the precipitation increase. This sensitivity also varies considerably among models due to differences in radiative transfer parameterizations, explaining a substantial portion of model spread in the precipitation response. Consequently, attaining accurate shortwave absorption responses through improvements to the radiative transfer schemes could reduce the spread in the predicted global precipitation increase per degree warming for the end of the twenty-first century by about 35 per cent, and reduce the estimated ensemble-mean increase in this quantity by almost 40 per cent.
DeAngelis AM, Qu X, Hall A. Importance of vegetation processes for model spread in the fast precipitation response to CO2 forcing. Geophysical Research Letters [Internet]. 2016;43 (24) :12550–12559. Publisher's VersionAbstract
In the current generation of climate models, the projected increase in global precipitation over the 21st century ranges from 2% to 10% under a high‐emission scenario. Some of this uncertainty can be traced to the rapid response to carbon dioxide (CO2) forcing. We analyze an ensemble of simulations to better understand model spread in this rapid response. A substantial amount is linked to how the land surface partitions a change in latent versus sensible heat flux in response to the CO2‐induced radiative perturbation; a larger increase in sensible heat results in a larger decrease in global precipitation. Model differences in the land surface response appear to be strongly related to the vegetation response to increased CO2, specifically, the closure of leaf stomata. Future research should thus focus on evaluation of the vegetation physiological response, including stomatal conductance parameterizations, for the purpose of constraining the fast response of Earth's hydrologic cycle to CO2 forcing.
Swain DL, Langenbrunner B, Neelin JD, Hall A. Increasing precipitation volatility in twenty-first-century California. Nature Climate Change [Internet]. 2018;8 :427–433. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Mediterranean climate regimes are particularly susceptible to rapid shifts between drought and flood—of which, California’s rapid transition from record multi-year dryness between 2012 and 2016 to extreme wetness during the 2016–2017 winter provides a dramatic example. Projected future changes in such dry-to-wet events, however, remain inadequately quantified, which we investigate here using the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble of climate model simulations. Anthropogenic forcing is found to yield large twenty-first-century increases in the frequency of wet extremes, including a more than threefold increase in sub-seasonal events comparable to California’s ‘Great Flood of 1862’. Smaller but statistically robust increases in dry extremes are also apparent. As a consequence, a 25% to 100% increase in extreme dry-to-wet precipitation events is projected, despite only modest changes in mean precipitation. Such hydrological cycle intensification would seriously challenge California’s existing water storage, conveyance and flood control infrastructure.