Thermodynamic and dynamic contributions to future changes in regional precipitation variance: focus on the Southeastern United States

Laifang Li, Wenhong Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The frequency and severity of extreme events are tightly associated with the variance of precipitation. As climate warms, the acceleration in hydrological cycle is likely to enhance the variance of precipitation across the globe. However, due to the lack of an effective analysis method, the mechanisms responsible for the changes of precipitation variance are poorly understood, especially on regional scales. Our study fills this gap by formulating a variance partition algorithm, which explicitly quantifies the contributions of atmospheric thermodynamics (specific humidity) and dynamics (wind) to the changes in regional-scale precipitation variance. Taking Southeastern (SE) United States (US) summer precipitation as an example, the algorithm is applied to the simulations of current and future climate by phase 5 of Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP5) models. The analysis suggests that compared to observations, most CMIP5 models (~60 %) tend to underestimate the summer precipitation variance over the SE US during the 1950–1999, primarily due to the errors in the modeled dynamic processes (i.e. large-scale circulation). Among the 18 CMIP5 models analyzed in this study, six of them reasonably simulate SE US summer precipitation variance in the twentieth century and the underlying physical processes; these models are thus applied for mechanistic study of future changes in SE US summer precipitation variance. In the future, the six models collectively project an intensification of SE US summer precipitation variance, resulting from the combined effects of atmospheric thermodynamics and dynamics. Between them, the latter plays a more important role. Specifically, thermodynamics results in more frequent and intensified wet summers, but does not contribute to the projected increase in the frequency and intensity of dry summers. In contrast, atmospheric dynamics explains the projected enhancement in both wet and dry summers, indicating its importance in understanding future climate change over the SE US. The results suggest that the intensified SE US summer precipitation variance is not a purely thermodynamic response to greenhouse gases forcing, and cannot be explained without the contribution of atmospheric dynamics. Our analysis provides important insights to understand the mechanisms of SE US summer precipitation variance change. The algorithm formulated in this study can be easily applied to other regions and seasons to systematically explore the mechanisms responsible for the changes in precipitation extremes in a warming climate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2216
Pages (from-to)67-82
Number of pages16
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 26 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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