The anthropogenic influence on heat and humidity in the US Midwest

Friday, December 16, 2016 - 13:40
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Heatwaves, and extreme temperatures in general, have a wide range of negative impacts on society, and particularly on human health. In addition to temperature, humidity plays a key role in regulating human body temperature, with higher humidities tending to reduce the effectiveness of perspiration. There is recent theoretical and observational evidence that co-occurring extreme heat and humidity can potentially have a much more dramatic impact on human health than either extreme in isolation. There is an abundance of observational evidence indicating that anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gas (GHG) forcing have contributed to an increase in the intensity and frequency of temperature extremes on a global scale. However, aside from purely thermodynamically-driven increases in near-surface humidity, there is a paucity of similar evidence for anthropogenic impacts on humidity. Thermodynamic scaling would suggest that air masses originating from the ocean would be associated with higher specific humidity in a warmer world, and transpiration from irrigated crops could further increase humidity in warm air masses.

In order to explore the role of anthropogenic GHG forcing on the co-occurrence of temperature and humidity extremes in the Midwestern United States (US), we evaluate a large ensemble of global climate model simulations with and without anthropogenic GHG forcing. In particular, we examine differences between the probability distributions of near-surface temperature, humidity, wet-bulb temperature, and the joint distribution of temperature and humidity in this ensemble. Finally, we explore augmenting this experimental framework with additional simulations to explore the role of anthropogenic changes in the land surface, and in particular irrigated crops, on co-occurring extreme heat and humidity.

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