The Water Cycle and Climate Change
Among the most serious Earth science and environmental policy issues confronting society are the potential changes in the Earth’s water cycle due to climate change. The science community now generally agrees that the Earth’s climate is undergoing changes in response to natural variability, including solar variability, and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols. Furthermore, agreement is widespread that these changes may profoundly affect atmospheric water vapor concentrations, clouds, precipitation patterns, and runoff and stream flow patterns.
For example, as the lower atmosphere becomes warmer, evaporation rates will increase, resulting in an increase in the amount of moisture circulating throughout the troposphere (lower atmosphere). An observed consequence of higher water vapor concentrations is the increased frequency of intense precipitation events, mainly over land areas. Furthermore, because of warmer temperatures, more precipitation is falling as rain rather than snow.
In parts of the Northern Hemisphere, an earlier arrival of spring-like conditions is leading to earlier peaks in snowmelt and resulting river flows. As a consequence, seasons with the highest water demand, typically summer and fall, are being impacted by a reduced availability of fresh water.
Warmer temperatures have led to increased drying of the land surface in some areas, with the effect of an increased incidence and severity of drought. The Palmer Drought Severity Index, which is a measure of soil moisture using precipitation measurements and rough estimates of changes in evaporation, has shown that from 1900 to 2002, the Sahel region of Africa has been experiencing harsher drought conditions. This same index also indicates an opposite trend in southern South America and the south central United States.
While the brief scenarios described above represent a small portion of the observed changes in the water cycle, it should be noted that many uncertainties remain in the prediction of future climate. These uncertainties derive from the sheer complexity of the climate system, insufficient and incomplete data sets, and inconsistent results given by current climate models. However, state of the art (but still incomplete and imperfect) climate models do consistently predict that precipitation will become more variable, with increased risks of drought and floods at different times and places.