Article image

Weather in dry regions isn’t behaving as climate models predict

Contrary to the long-held Clausius-Clapeyron relationship, which suggests that a warmer atmosphere should contain more water vapor, a new study finds that atmospheric moisture has not increased as expected, particularly over dry and semi-arid regions.

This revelation raises new questions about the future of these regions in the face of climate change.

Recent research spearheaded by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NSF NCAR) has revealed a puzzling anomaly in our understanding of climate science.

Dry regions are getting dryer instead of wetter

The study’s results are alarming, as they suggest that dry and semi-arid regions could be more vulnerable to wildfires and extreme heat than previously projected.

“The impacts could be potentially severe,” said NSF NCAR scientist Isla Simpson, lead author of the study. “This is a global problem, and it’s something that is completely unexpected given our climate model results.”

The study, a collaborative effort involving scientists from various esteemed institutions, including UCLA, UCSB, Cornell University, Polar Bears International, and Columbia University, delved into decades of atmospheric data.

From 1980 to 2020, the team analyzed data from weather stations, weather balloons, and satellites, expecting to find an increase in atmospheric water vapor in line with climate models. However, the results were contrary to expectations.

Clausius-Clapeyron relationship challenged

The Clausius-Clapeyron relationship has been a fundamental principle in climate science, suggesting that with every 1°C rise in temperature, atmospheric moisture should increase by about 7%.

Surprisingly, the research found that over dry and semi-arid regions, moisture levels have remained constant or even declined, as observed in the Southwestern United States.

“This is contrary to all climate model simulations in which it rises at a rate close to theoretical expectations, even over dry regions,” the authors wrote in the new paper.

“Given close links between water vapor and wildfire, ecosystem functioning, and temperature extremes, this issue must be resolved in order to provide credible climate projections for dry and semi-arid regions of the world.”

Dry regions will face greater challenges

This discrepancy poses a significant challenge to climate models, which have consistently projected rising atmospheric moisture even over dry regions.

Simpson, who first noticed this trend while working on a NOAA report about climate change in the southwestern U.S., emphasizes the urgency of resolving this issue to provide credible climate projections.

“We could be facing even higher risks than what’s been projected for dry and semi-arid regions like the Southwest, which has already been affected by unprecedented water shortages and extreme wildfire seasons,” Simpson said.

Interestingly, the study found that humid regions exhibit a different pattern. Here, water vapor increased during wetter months as expected, but the increase was not as pronounced during the driest months.

This pattern contrasts sharply with the arid and semi-arid regions, further complicating the overall understanding of atmospheric moisture dynamics.

Exploring possible explanations

The researchers propose several theories to explain these unexpected findings. One possibility is that the transfer of moisture from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere is not occurring as the models suggest.

Another theory is that atmospheric circulation patterns may be moving moisture in unexpected ways. Additionally, the land surface itself might be retaining more moisture than anticipated, affecting its availability to the atmosphere.

Despite considering errors in observational data, the team found the discrepancy too consistent across different regions and time frames to be attributed to measurement errors.

Simpson emphasized the urgent need for more research to determine the cause.

“It is a really tricky problem to solve, because we don’t have global observations of all the processes that matter to tell us about how water is being transferred from the land surface to the atmosphere,” she said. 

“But we absolutely need to figure out what’s going wrong because the situation is not what we expected and could have very serious implications for the future.”

In summary, this study opens a new chapter in climate science, challenging existing models and highlighting the complexity of Earth’s climate system.

As the researchers continue to explore this surprising anomaly, their work reminds us of the ever-evolving nature of scientific understanding and the critical need for continuous observation and analysis in the face of global climate change.

The full study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day