AR4 concluded that substantial increases are found in heavy precipitation events. It was likely that annual heavy precipitation events had disproportionately increased compared to mean changes between 1951 and 2003 over many mid-latitude regions, even where there had been a reduction in annual total precipitation. Rare precipitation (such as the highest annual daily precipitation total) events were likely to have increased over regions with sufficient data since the late 19th century. SREX supported this view, as have subsequent analyses, but noted large spatial variability within and between regions (Table 3.2 of Seneviratne et al., 2012).
Given the diverse climates across the globe, it has been difficult to provide a universally valid definition of ‘extreme precipitation’. However, Box 2.4 Table 1 indicates some of the common definitions that are used in the scientific literature. In general, statistical tests indicate changes in precipitation extremes are consistent with a wetter climate (Section 7.6.5), although with a less spatially coherent pattern of change than temperature, in that there are large areas that show increasing trends and large areas that show decreasing trends and a lower level of statistical significance than for temperature change (Alexander et al., 2006; Donat et al., 2013a, 2013c). Using R95p and SDII indices (Box 2.4), Figures 2.33a and 2.33b show these areas for heavy precipitation amounts and precipitation intensity where sufficient data are available in the HadEX2 data set (Donat et al., 2013c) although there are more areas showing significant increases than decreases. Although changes in large-scale circulation patterns have a substantial influence on precipitation extremes globally (Alexander et al., 2009; Kenyon and Hegerl, 2010), Westra et al. (2013) showed, using in situ data over land, that trends in the wettest day of the year indicate more increases than would be expected by chance. Over the tropical oceans satellite measurements show an increase in the frequency of the heaviest rainfall during warmer (El Niño) years (Allan and Soden, 2008).
Regional trends in precipitation extremes since the middle of the 20th century are varied (Table 2.13). In most continents confidence in trends is not higher than medium except in North America and Europe where there have been likely increases in either the frequency or intensity of heavy precipitation. This assessment increases to very likely for central North America. For North America it is also likely that increases have occurred during the whole of the 20th century (Pryor et al., 2009; Donat et al., 2013c; Villarini et al., 2013). For South America the most recent integrative studies indicate heavy rain events are increasing in frequency and intensity over the contient as a whole (Donat et al., 2013c; Skansi et al., 2013). For Europe and the Mediterranean, the assessment masks some regional and seasonal variation. For example, much of the increase reported in Table 2.13 is found in winter although with decreasing trends in some other regions such as northern Italy, Poland and some Mediterranean coastal sites (Pavan et al., 2008; Lupikasza, 2010; Toreti et al., 2010). There are mixed regional trends across Asia and Oceania but with some indication that increases are being observed in more regions than decreases while recent studies focused on Africa, in general, have not found significant trends in extreme precipitation (see Chapter 14 for more on regional variations and trends).
The above studies generally use indices which reflect ‘moderate’ extremes, for example, events occurring as often as 5% or 10% of the time (Box 2.4). Only a few regions have sufficient data to assess trends in rarer precipitation events reliably, for example, events occurring on average once in several decades. Using Extreme Value Theory, DeGaetano (2009) showed a 20% reduction in the return period for extreme precipitation events over large parts of the contiguous USA from 1950 to 2007. For Europe from 1951 to 2010, Van den Besselaar et al. (2012) reported a median reduction in 5- to 20-year return periods of 21%, with a range between 2% and 58% depending on the subregion and season. This decrease in return times for rare extremes is qualitatively similar to the increase in moderate extremes for these regions reported above, and also consistent with earlier local results for the extreme tail of the distribution reported in AR4.
The aforementioned studies refer to daily precipitation extremes, although rainfall will often be limited to part of the day only. The literature on sub-daily scales is too limited for a global assessment although it is clear that analysis and framing of questions regarding sub-daily precipitation extremes is becoming more critical (Trenberth, 2011). Available regional studies have shown results that are even more complex than for daily precipitation and with variations in the spatial patterns of trends depending on event formulation and duration. However, regional studies show indications of more increasing than decreasing trends (Sen Roy, 2009; for India) (Sen Roy and Rouault, 2013; for South Africa) (Westra and Sisson, 2011; for Australia). Some studies present evidence of scaling of sub-daily precipitation with temperature that is outside that expected from the Clausius–Clapeyron relation (about 7% per degree Celsius) (Lenderink and Van Meijgaard, 2008; Haerter et al., 2010; Jones et al., 2010; Lenderink et al., 2011; Utsumi et al., 2011), but scaling beyond that expected from thermodynamic theories is controversial (Section 7.6.5).
In summary, further analyses continue to support the AR4 and SREX conclusions that it is likely that since 1951 there have been statistically significant increases in the number of heavy precipitation events (e.g., above the 95th percentile) in more regions than there have been statistically significant decreases, but there are strong regional and subregional variations in the trends. In particular, many regions present statistically non-significant or negative trends, and, where seasonal changes have been assessed, there are also variations between seasons (e.g., more consistent trends in winter than in summer in Europe). The overall most consistent trends towards heavier precipitation events are found in central North America (very likely increase) but assessment for Europe shows likely increases in more regions than decreases.