FAQ 153.2 Is There Evidence for Changes in the Earth’s Water Cycle?

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The Earth’s water cycle involves evaporation and precipitation of moisture at the Earth’s surface. Changes in the atmosphere’s water vapour content provide strong evidence that the water cycle is already responding to a warming climate. Further evidence comes from changes in the distribution of ocean salinity, which, due to a lack of long-term observations of rain and evaporation over the global oceans, has become an important proxy rain gauge.

The water cycle is expected to intensify in a warmer climate, because warmer air can be moister: the atmosphere can hold about 7% more water vapour for each degree Celsius of warming. Observations since the 1970s show increases in surface and lower atmospheric water vapour (FAQ 3.2, Figure 1a), at a rate consistent with observed warming. Moreover, evaporation and precipitation are projected to intensify in a warmer climate.

Recorded changes in ocean salinity in the last 50 years support that projection. Seawater contains both salt and fresh water, and its salinity is a function of the weight of dissolved salts it contains. Because the total amount of salt—which comes from the weathering of rocks—does not change over human time scales, seawater’s salinity can only be altered—over days or centuries—by the addition or removal of fresh water.

The atmosphere connects the ocean’s regions of net fresh water loss to those of fresh water gain by moving evaporated water vapour from one place to another. The distribution of salinity at the ocean surface largely reflects the spatial pattern of evaporation minus precipitation, runoff from land, and sea ice processes. There is some shifting of the patterns relative to each other, because of the ocean’s currents.

Subtropical waters are highly saline, because evaporation exceeds rainfall, whereas seawater at high latitudes and in the tropics—where more rain falls than evaporates—is less so (FAQ 3.2, Figure 1b, d). The Atlantic, the saltiest ocean basin, loses more freshwater through evaporation than it gains from precipitation, while the Pacific is nearly neutral (i.e., precipitation gain nearly balances evaporation loss), and the Southern Ocean (region around Antarctica) is dominated by precipitation.

Changes in surface salinity and in the upper ocean have reinforced the mean salinity pattern. The evaporation- dominated subtropical regions have become saltier, while the precipitation-dominated subpolar and tropical regions have become fresher. When changes over the top 500 m are considered, the evaporation-dominated Atlantic has become saltier, while the nearly neutral Pacific and precipitation-dominated Southern Ocean have become fresher (FAQ 3.2, Figure 1c).

Observing changes in precipitation and evaporation directly and globally is difficult, because most of the exchange of fresh water between the atmosphere and the surface happens over the 70% of the Earth’s surface covered by ocean. Long-term precipitation records are available only from over the land, and there are no long-term measurements of evaporation.

Land-based observations show precipitation increases in some regions, and decreases in others, making it difficult to construct a globally integrated picture. Land-based observations have shown more extreme rainfall events, and more flooding associated with earlier snow melt at high northern latitudes, but there is strong regionality in the trends. Land-based observations are so far insufficient to provide evidence of changes in drought.

Ocean salinity, on the other hand, acts as a sensitive and effective rain gauge over the ocean. It naturally reflects and smoothes out the difference between water gained by the ocean from precipitation, and water lost by the ocean through evaporation, both of which are very patchy and episodic. Ocean salinity is also affected by water runoff from the continents, and by the melting and freezing of sea ice or floating glacial ice. Fresh water added by melting ice on land will change global-averaged salinity, but changes to date are too small to observe.

Data from the past 50 years show widespread salinity changes in the upper ocean, which are indicative of systematic changes in precipitation and runoff minus evaporation, as illustrated in FAQ 3.2, Figure 1. FAQ 3.2 is based on observations reported in Chapters 2 and 3, and on model analyses in Chapters 9 and 12.

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