28 November 2009

The link between rainfall intensity and global temperature

Posted by Dave Petley

The aftermath of a landslide in Taiwan caused by very heavy rainfall

One of the most interesting aspects of the global landslide database that we maintain at Durham is the way in which it has highlighted the importance of rainfall intensity in the triggering of fatal landslides. Generally speaking, to kill people a landslide needs to move quickly rapid, and rapid landslides appear to be primarily (but note not always) triggered by intense rainfall events (indeed in the reports the term “cloudburst” often crops up). So, a key component of trying to understand the impacts of human-induced global climate change on landslides is the likely nature of changes in rainfall intensity, rather than that of rainfall total. Put another way, it is possible that the average annual rainfall for an area might decrease but the occurrence of landslides increase if the rainfall arrives in more intense bursts.

There is of course a certain intuitive logic in the idea that rainfall intensity might increase with temperature. Warmer air is able to hold more moisture (as anyone who has been in the subtropics in the summer will know only too well!) and of course increased temperatures also drive greater convection, responsible for thunderstorm rainfall. Of course this is a very simplistic way to look at a highly complex system, so it is not enough to rely upon this chain of logical thought. However, until now there have been surprisingly few studies to actually quantify whether there is a relationship between global temperature and precipitation intensity, which has meant that for landslides understanding the likely impact of climate change has been quite difficult.

However, an important and rather useful paper examining exactly this issue has sneaked under the radar in the last few months. The paper, by Liu et al (2009) (see reference below), was published in Geophysical Research Letters a couple of months ago. The paper uses data from the Global Precipitation Climatology Project (GPCP). These data can be accessed online here (so no claims that climate scientists don’t publish their data, please!) The dataset provides daily rainfall totals for 2.5 x 2.5 degree grid squares across the globe, extending back almost 50 years. Liu et al. (2009) looked at the data from 1979 to 2007, comparing precipitation density with global temperature in this time period.

Their results are both unsurprising and surprising. The unsurprising part is that they found that the occurrence of the most intense precipitation events does increase with temperature. The surprising part is the magnitude of the change – they found that a 1 degree Kelvin (Centigrade) increase in global temperature causes a 94% increase in the most intense rainfall events, with a decrease in the moderate to light rainfall events. Indeed the median rainfall increased from 4.3 mm day−1 to 18 mm day−1, which is a surprisingly high shift as well.

So why is this important in the context of landslides? Well, I think that there are probably two key implications:

1. It has long been speculated that anthropogenic warming will lead to an increase in landslides, but with little real quantitative evidence to confirm or deny this. The demonstration that higher global temperatures does lead to increased precipitation intensity starts to put some meat on the bones of this idea. Furthermore, if it is possible to directly link rainfall intensity to landslide occurrence (and there is some evidence both from my own work and from that of others that this may be possible), then it should be possible to start to examine the likely increase in landslides as warming proceeds.
2. The current global climate models assume a much lower increase overall in precipitation intensity with increasing temperature than Liu et al. (2009) suggest. Indeed most of the models assume about a 7% increase per degree Kelvin (Centigrade) warming. For the most intense precipitation events this means that the models predict about a 9% increase, which is an order of magnitude lower Liu et al. (2009) found. This suggests that the rainfall projections that are derived from the models are probably overly-conservative, and possibly very much so, which is a concern. If so, then forecasts of landslide occurrence that are derived from these models are likely to under-estimate the true impact.

Of course, this is only one study, and it should also be noted that the most intense rainfall events are usually associated with tropical areas and with those in the path of hurricanes and in particular typhoons. There is a great deal more work to do on this topic, but the initial results provide real cause for concern.

Liu, S., Fu, C., Shiu, C., Chen, J., & Wu, F. (2009). Temperature dependence of global precipitation extremes Geophysical Research Letters, 36 (17) DOI: 10.1029/2009GL040218