Subtropical Water Vapor As a Mediator of Rapid Global Climate Climate Change

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert


This article surveys the essential features of atmospheric water vapor dynamics needed to address current issues regarding the possible role of water vapor changes in mediating climate fluctuations on the millennial to Milankovic time scales. The focus is on the subtropics, which afford the most interesting possibilities for significant feedbacks. The observed distribution of water vapor, the amount by which water vapor must change in order to cause a significant temperature change, and the physical factors that determine the water vapor content of the subtropical atmosphere are discussed. It is shown that halving the subtropical relative humidity would lead to a 2.5K cooling of the tropics, while doubling it would lead to a 3K warming. The humidity content of the subtropics could be reduced by enhancing subsidence, reducing transient eddy activity, or contracting the convective region. Further work is needed to determine which, if any, of these changes occur in concert with the observed millennial and longer scale climate fluction.