New research shows complexity of global warming

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Gisela E Speidel, (808) 956-9252
Outreach Specialist, International Pacific Research Center
Bin Wang, (808) 956-2563
Chair and Professor of Oceanography
Posted: Jan 31, 2013

Clouds over the Pacific. Image courtesy Shang-Ping Xie.
Clouds over the Pacific. Image courtesy Shang-Ping Xie.

Global warming from greenhouse gases affects rainfall patterns in the world differently than that from solar heating, according to a study by an international team of scientists in the January 31 issue of Nature. Using computer model simulations, the scientists, led by Jian Liu (Chinese Academy of Sciences) and Bin Wang (International Pacific Research Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa), showed that global rainfall has increased less over the present-day warming period than during the Medieval Warm Period, even though temperatures are higher today than they were then.


The team examined global precipitation changes over the last millennium and projections to the end of the 21st century, comparing natural changes from solar heating and volcanism with changes from man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Using an atmosphere-ocean coupled climate model that simulates realistically both past and present-day climate conditions, the scientists found that for every degree rise in global temperature, the global rainfall rate since the Industrial Revolution has increased less by about 40% than during past warming phases of the earth.


Why does warming from solar heating and from greenhouse gases have such different effects on global precipitation?

"Our climate model simulations show that this difference results from different sea surface temperature patterns. When warming is due to increased greenhouse gases, the gradient of sea surface temperature (SST) across the tropical Pacific weakens, but when it is due to increased solar radiation, the gradient increases. For the same average global surface temperature increase, the weaker SST gradient produces less rainfall, especially over tropical land," said co-author Bin Wang, professor of meteorology at UH Mānoa.


But why does warming from greenhouse gases and from solar heating affect the tropical Pacific SST gradient differently?

"Adding long-wave absorbers - that is heat-trapping greenhouse gases - to the atmosphere decreases the usual temperature difference between the surface and the top of the atmosphere, making the atmosphere more stable," explained lead-author Jian Liu. "The increased atmospheric stability weakens the trade winds, resulting in stronger warming in the eastern than the western Pacific, thus reducing the usual SST gradient—a situation similar to El Niño."


Solar radiation, on the other hand, heats the earth's surface, increasing the usual temperature difference between the surface and the top of the atmosphere without weakening the trade winds. The result is that heating warms the western Pacific, while the eastern Pacific remains cool from the usual ocean upwelling.


"While during past global warming from solar heating the steeper tropical east-west SST pattern has won out, we suggest that with future warming from greenhouse gases, the weaker gradient and smaller increase in yearly rainfall rate will win out," concluded Wang.



Jian Liu, Bin Wang, Mark A. Cane, So-Young Yim, and June-Yi Lee: Divergent global precipitation changes induced by natural versus anthropogenic forcing. Nature, 493 (7434), 656-659; DOI: 10.1038/nature11784.


Funding for this work:

National Basic Research Program and Natural Science Foundation of China; Global Research Laboratory (GRL) Program from the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology; Department of Energy grant DE-SC0005108; NOAA grant NA08OAR4320912; institutional support of the International Pacific Research Center (JAMSTEC, NOAA, and NASA).


Researcher Contact:

Bin Wang is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Meteorology, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and at the International Pacific Research Center (IPRC). Tel.: (808) 956-2563; email:


International Pacific Research Center Media Contact: Gisela E. Speidel, tel.: (808) 956-9252;


The International Pacific Research Center (IPRC) of the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, is a climate research center founded to gain greater understanding of the climate system and the nature and causes of climate variation in the Asia-Pacific region and how global climate changes may affect the region. Established under the "U.S.-Japan Common Agenda for Cooperation in Global Perspective" in October 1997, the IPRC is a collaborative effort between agencies in Japan and the United States.