Precipitation extremes and water vapor: Relationships in current climate and implications for climate change

Purpose of Review:

Review our current understanding of how precipitation is related to its thermodynamic environment, i.e., the water vapor and temperature in the surroundings, and implications for changes in extremes in a warmer climate.

Recent Findings:

Multiple research threads have i) sought empirical relationships that govern onset of strong convective precipitation, or that might identify how precipitation extremes scale with changes in temperature; ii) examined how such extremes change with water vapor in global and regional climate models under warming scenarios; iii) identified fundamental processes that set the characteristic shapes of precipitation distributions.


While water vapor increases tend to be governed by the Clausius-Clapeyron relationship to temperature, precipitation extreme changes are more complex and can increase more rapidly, particularly in the tropics. Progress may be aided by bringing separate research threads together and by casting theory in terms of a full explanation of the precipitation probability distribution.

Neelin, J.D., Martinez-Villalobos, C., Stechmann, S.N. et al. Precipitation Extremes and Water Vapor. Curr Clim Change Rep 8, 17–33 (2022).

Figure 5. Examples of changes in key aspects of precipitation pdfs under warming. a US Northeast daily precipitation pdfs in CESM2 simulated for historical (blue; 1990–2014) and end-of-century (red; 2075 2099) SSP5-8.5 scenario radiative forcing. Note increases in the extreme tail under global warming associated with an increase in the precipitation scale PL. b Daily precipitation risk ratios in two different regions (indicated by red boxes in c) for CESM2. Systematic increases for the largest events are controlled by Delta PL versus PL. c Percent change in PL between 2075–2099 compared to 1990–2014 in CESM2. d Same as a but for GFDL-CM4. The 7% K−1 contour interval corresponds approximately to multiples of CC scaling.

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