Observed humidity trends in dry regions contradict climate models

by Simpson et al., Dec 26, 2023 in PNAS


Water vapor in the atmosphere is expected to rise with warming because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. However, over the last four decades, near-surface water vapor has not increased over arid and semi-arid regions. This is contrary to all climate model simulations in which it rises at a rate close to theoretical expectations, even over dry regions. This may indicate a major model misrepresentation of hydroclimate-related processes; models increase water vapor to satisfy the increased atmospheric demand, while this has not happened in reality. Given close links between water vapor and wildfire, ecosystem functioning, and temperature extremes, this issue must be resolved in order to provide more reliable climate projections for arid and semi-arid regions of the world.


Arid and semi-arid regions of the world are particularly vulnerable to greenhouse gas–driven hydroclimate change. Climate models are our primary tool for projecting the future hydroclimate that society in these regions must adapt to, but here, we present a concerning discrepancy between observed and model-based historical hydroclimate trends. Over the arid/semi-arid regions of the world, the predominant signal in all model simulations is an increase in atmospheric water vapor, on average, over the last four decades, in association with the increased water vapor–holding capacity of a warmer atmosphere. In observations, this increase in atmospheric water vapor has not happened, suggesting that the availability of moisture to satisfy the increased atmospheric demand is lower in reality than in models in arid/semi-arid regions. This discrepancy is most clear in locations that are arid/semi-arid year round, but it is also apparent in more humid regions during the most arid months of the year. It indicates a major gap in our understanding and modeling capabilities which could have severe implications for hydroclimate projections, including fire hazard, moving forward.
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