Tropical Convective Onset Statistics and Establishing Causality in the Water Vapor-Precipitation Relation

Friday, December 18, 2015 - 13:40
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Previous work by various authors has pointed to the role of humidity in the lower free troposphere in affecting the onset of deep convection in the tropics. Empirical relations between column water vapor and the onset of precipitation have been inferred to be related to this. Evidence includes deep-convective conditional instability calculations for entraining plumes, in which the lower free-tropospheric environment affects the onset of deep convection due to the impact on buoyancy of turbulent entrainment of dry versus moist air. Tropical Western Pacific in situ observations, and tropical ocean basin satellite retrievals in comparison to climate model diagnostics each indicate that substantial entrainment is required to explain the observed relationship. In situ observations from the GoAmazon field campaign confirm that the basic relationship holds over tropical land much as it does over tropical ocean (although with greater additional sensitivity to boundary layer variations and to freezing processes). The relationship between deep convection and water vapor is, however, a two-way street, with convection moistening the free troposphere. One might thus argue that there has not yet been a smoking gun in terms of establishing the causality of the precipitation-water vapor relationship. Parameter perturbation experiments in the coupled Community Earth System Model show that when the deep convective scheme has low values of entrainment, the set of statistics associated with the transition to deep convection are radically altered, and the observed pickup of precipitation with column water vapor is no longer seen. In addition to cementing the dominant direction of causality in the fast timescale precipitation-column water vapor relationship, the results point to impacts of this mechanism on the climatology. Because at low entrainment the convection can fire before the lower troposphere is moistened, the climatology of water vapor remains lower than observed. These differences can be consequential to both climatological biases and simulations of climate change, underscoring the importance of this causal pathway.