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The global atmospheric water cycle

Bengtsson, L. (2010) The global atmospheric water cycle. Environmental Research Letters, 5 (2). 025202. ISSN 1748-9326

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/5/2/025202


Water vapour plays a key role in the Earth's energy balance. Almost 50% of the absorbed solar radiation at the surface is used to cool the surface, through evaporation, and warm the atmosphere, through release of latent heat. Latent heat is the single largest factor in warming the atmosphere and in transporting heat from low to high latitudes. Water vapour is also the dominant greenhouse gas and contributes to a warming of the climate system by some 24°C (Kondratev 1972). However, water vapour is a passive component in the troposphere as it is uniquely determined by temperature and should therefore be seen as a part of the climate feedback system. In this short overview, we will first describe the water on planet Earth and the role of the hydrological cycle: the way water vapour is transported between oceans and continents and the return of water via rivers to the oceans. Generally water vapour is well observed and analysed; however, there are considerable obstacles to observing precipitation, in particular over the oceans. The response of the hydrological cycle to global warming is far reaching. Because different physical processes control the change in water vapour and evaporation/precipitation, this leads to a more extreme distribution of precipitation making, in general, wet areas wetter and dry areas dryer. Another consequence is a transition towards more intense precipitation. It is to be expected that the changes in the hydrological cycle as a consequence of climate warming may be more severe that the temperature changes.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Science > School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences > Department of Meteorology
ID Code:31645
Publisher:Institute of Physics

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