Articles | Volume 17, issue 7
Research article
23 Jul 2013
Research article |  | 23 Jul 2013

Thermodynamic limits of hydrologic cycling within the Earth system: concepts, estimates and implications

A. Kleidon and M. Renner

Abstract. The hydrologic cycle results from the combination of energy conversions and atmospheric transport, and the laws of thermodynamics set limits to both. Here, we apply thermodynamics to derive the limits of the strength of hydrologic cycling within the Earth system and about the properties and processes that shape these limits. We set up simple models to derive analytical expressions of the limits of evaporation and precipitation in relation to vertical and horizontal differences in solar radiative forcing. These limits result from a fundamental trade-off by which a greater evaporation rate reduces the temperature gradient and thus the driver for atmospheric motion that exchanges moistened air from the surface with the drier air aloft. The limits on hydrologic cycling thus reflect the strong interaction between the hydrologic flux, motion, and the driving gradient. Despite the simplicity of the models, they yield estimates for the limits of hydrologic cycling that are within the observed magnitude, suggesting that the global hydrologic cycle operates near its maximum strength. We close with a discussion of how thermodynamic limits can provide a better characterization of the interaction of vegetation and human activity with hydrologic cycling.