Articles | Volume 15, issue 10
Research article
25 Oct 2011
Research article |  | 25 Oct 2011

What do moisture recycling estimates tell us? Exploring the extreme case of non-evaporating continents

H. F. Goessling and C. H. Reick

Abstract. Moisture recycling estimates are diagnostic measures that could ideally be used to deduce the response of precipitation to modified land-evaporation. Recycling estimates are based on moisture-budget considerations in which water is treated as a passive tracer. But in reality water is a thermodynamically active component of the atmosphere. Accordingly, recycling estimates are applicable to deduce the response to a perturbation only if other mechanisms by which evaporation affects climate do not dominate the response – a condition that has not received sufficient attention in the literature. In our analysis of what moisture recycling estimates tell us, we discuss two such additional mechanisms that result from water's active role. These are (I) local coupling, by which precipitation is affected locally via the thermal structure of the atmosphere, and (II) the atmospheric circulation, by which precipitation is affected on a large spatial scale.

We perform two global climate model experiments: One with and another without continental evaporation. By this extreme perturbation we test the predictive utility of a certain type of recycling measure, the "continental recycling ratio". Moreover, by such a strong perturbation the whole spectrum of possible responses shows up simultaneously, giving us the opportunity to discuss all concurrent mechanisms jointly.

The response to this extreme perturbation largely disagrees with the hypothesis that moisture recycling is the dominant mechanism. Instead, most of the response can be attributed to changes in the atmospheric circulation, while the contributions to the response by moisture recycling as well as local coupling, though noticeable, are smaller. By our case study it is not possible to give a general answer to the question posed in the title, but it demonstrates that recycling estimates do not necessarily mirror the consequences of land-use change for precipitation.