Storms in the South Pacific on Feb. 8, 2012 (image courtesy Digital Typhoon, National Institute of Informatics)

With greenhouse warming, rainfall in the South Pacific islands will depend on two competing effects—an increase due to overall warming and a decrease due to changes in atmospheric water transport—according to a study by an international team of scientists led by Postdoctoral Fellow Matthew Widlansky and Professor Axel Timmermann at UH Mānoa’s International Pacific Research Center in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. In the South Pacific, the study shows, these two effects sometimes cancel each other out, resulting in highly uncertain rainfall projections. Results of the study are published in the 28 October online issue of Nature Climate Change.

The largest rainband in the Southern Hemisphere—the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ)—is the main source of rainfall for South Pacific island nations. Changes in this rainfall band would have severe consequences for the vulnerable island nations already having to adapt to accelerating sea level rise. Yet, very little is known about how this climate feature will respond to greenhouse warming.

“One reason why the SPCZ projections are so elusive is that many climate models are notoriously poor in simulating this important rainband, even under present-day climate conditions,” said Widlansky. “We were able to overcome some model shortcomings in simulating South Pacific climate by removing model deviations from observed sea surface temperatures.”

With the resulting improvements in climate model performance, Widlansky, Timmermann and colleagues could identify two competing mechanisms affecting rainfall trends in the South Pacific.

South Pacific Convergence Zone rainfall trends

“We have known for some time that rising tropical temperatures will lead to more water vapor in the atmosphere,” explained Timmermann. “Abundant moisture tends to bring about heavier rainfall in regions of converging winds such as the SPCZ.” Scientists refer to this as the “wet gets wetter” climate change mechanism.

“Nearly all climate change model simulations, however, suggest the equatorial Pacific will warm faster than the SPCZ region. This uneven warming is likely to pull the rainband away from its normal position, causing drying in the Southwest Pacific and more equatorial rainfall,” Timmerman continued. The study refers to this as the “warmest gets wetter” mechanism.

The scientists found that depending upon the degree of tropical warming expected this century, one or the other mechanism is more likely to win out. With moderate warming, weaker sea surface temperature gradients are likely to shift the rainband toward the equator, potentially causing drying during summer for most Southwest Pacific island nations. For much higher warming possible by the end of this century, the net effect of the opposing mechanisms is likely a shift toward more rainfall for the South Pacific islands.

“Before we have more confidence in our calculations of the delicate balance between the two climate change mechanisms, we need to be able to simulate cloud formations more realistically,” said Timmermann.

Adapted from an International Pacific Research Center news release

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