IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Surface and Lower-Tropospheric Water Vapour

Boundary layer moisture strongly determines the longwave (LW) radiative flux from the atmosphere to the surface. It also accounts for a significant proportion of the direct absorption of solar radiation by the atmosphere. The TAR reported widespread increases in surface water vapour in the NH. The overall sign of these trends has been confirmed from analysis of specific humidity over the USA (Robinson, 2000) and over China from 1951 to 1994 (Wang and Gaffen, 2001), particularly for observations made at night. Differences in the spatial, seasonal and diurnal patterns of these changes were found with strong sensitivity of the results to the network choice. Philipona et al. (2004) inferred rapid increases in surface water vapour over central Europe from cloud-cleared LW radiative flux measured over the period 1995 to 2003. Subsequent analyses (Philipona et al., 2005) confirmed that changes in integrated water vapour for this region are strongly coupled to the surface temperature, with regions of warming experiencing increasing moisture and regions of cooling experiencing decreasing moisture. For central Europe, Auer et al. (2007) demonstrated increasing moisture trends. Their vapour pressure series from the Greater Alpine Region closely follow the decadal- to centennial-scale warming at both urban lowland and rural summit sites. In Canada, van Wijngaarden and Vincent (2005) found a decrease in relative humidity of several percent in the spring for 75 stations, after correcting for instrumentation changes, but little change in relative humidity elsewhere or for other seasons. Ishii et al. (2005) reported that globally averaged dew points over the ocean have risen by about 0.25°C between 1950 and 2000. Increasing extremes in summer dew points, and increased humidity during summer heat waves, were found at three stations in northeastern Illinois (Sparks et al., 2002; Changnon et al., 2003) and attributed in part to changes in agricultural practices in the region.

Dai (2006) analysed near-global (60°S–75°N) synoptic data for 1976 to 2005 from ships and buoys and more than 15,000 land stations for specific humidity, temperature and relative humidity. Nighttime relative humidity was found to be greater than daytime by 2 to 15% over most land areas, as temperatures undergo a diurnal cycle, while moisture does not change much. The global trends of near-surface relative humidity are very small. Trends in specific humidity tend to follow surface temperature trends with a global average increase of 0.06 g kg–1 per decade (1976–2004). The rise in specific humidity corresponds to about 4.9% per 1°C warming over the globe. Over the ocean, the observed surface specific humidity increases at 5.7% per 1°C warming, which is consistent with a constant relative humidity. Over land, the rate of increase is slightly smaller (4.3% per 1°C), suggesting a modest reduction in relative humidity as temperatures increase, as expected in water-limited regions.

For the lower troposphere, water vapour information has been available from the TOVS since 1979 and from the Scanning Multichannel Microwave Radiometer (SMMR) from 1979 to 1984. However, the main improvement occurred with the introduction of the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I) in mid-1987 (Wentz and Schabel, 2000). Retrievals of column-integrated water vapour from SSM/I are generally regarded as providing the most reliable measurements of lower-tropospheric water vapour over the oceans, although issues pertaining to the merging of records from successive satellites do arise (Trenberth et al., 2005a; Sohn and Smith, 2003).

Significant interannual variability of column-integrated water vapour has been observed using TOVS, SMMR and SSM/I data. In particular, column water vapour over the tropical oceans increased by 1 to 2 mm during the 1982–1983, 1986–1987 and 1997–1998 El Niño events (Soden and Schroeder, 2000; Allan et al., 2003; Trenberth et al., 2005a) and decreased by a smaller magnitude in response to global cooling following the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 (Soden et al., 2002; Trenberth and Smith, 2005; see also Section The linear trend based on monthly SSM/I data over the oceans was 1.2% per decade (0.40 ± 0.09 mm per decade) for 1988 to 2004 (Figure 3.20). Since the trends are similar in magnitude to the interannual variability, it is likely that the latter affects the magnitude of the linear trends. The trends are overwhelmingly positive in spatial structure, but also suggestive of an ENSO influence. As noted by Trenberth et al. (2005a), most of the patterns associated with the interannual variability and linear trends can be reproduced from the observed SST changes over this period by assuming a constant relative humidity increase in water vapour mixing ratio. Given observed SST increases, this implies an overall increase in water vapour of order 5% over the 20th century and about 4% since 1970.


Figure 3.20. Linear trends in precipitable water (total column water vapour) in % per decade (top) and monthly time series of anomalies relative to the 1988 to 2004 period in % over the global ocean plus linear trend (bottom), from RSS SSM/I (updated from Trenberth et al., 2005a).

An independent check on globally vertically integrated water vapour amounts is whether the change in water vapour mass is reflected in the surface pressure field, as this is the only significant influence on the global atmospheric mass to within measurement accuracies. As Trenberth and Smith (2005) showed, such checks indicate considerable problems prior to 1979 in reanalyses, but results are in better agreement thereafter for ERA-40. Evaluations of column integrated water vapour from the NASA Water Vapor Project (NVAP; Randel et al., 1996), and reanalysis data sets from NRA, NCEP-2 and ERA-15/ERA-40 (see Appendix 3.B.5.4) reveal several deficiencies and spurious trends, which limit their utility for climate monitoring (Zveryaev and Chu, 2003; Trenberth et al., 2005a; Uppala et al., 2005). The spatial distributions, trends and interannual variability of water vapour over the tropical oceans are not always well reproduced by reanalyses, even after the 1970s (Allan et al., 2002, 2004; Trenberth et al., 2005a).

To summarise, global, local and regional studies all indicate increases in moisture in the atmosphere near the surface, but highlight differences between regions and between day and night. Satellite observations of oceanic lower-tropospheric water vapour reveal substantial variability during the last two decades. This variability is closely tied to changes in surface temperatures, with the water vapour mass changing at roughly the same rate at which the saturated vapour pressure does. A significant upward trend is observed over the global oceans and some NH land areas, although the calculated trend is likely influenced by large interannual variability in the record.