A NASA-funded study found some climate models might be overestimating the amount of water vapor entering the atmosphere as the Earth warms. Since water vapor is the most important heat-trapping greenhouse gas in our atmosphere, some climate forecasts may be overestimating future temperature increases.
Positive Water Vapor Feedback
This diagram shows the mechanisms behind a positive water vapor feedback loop. Increases in carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, cause a rise global air temperatures. Due to increased evaporation and since warmer air holds more water, water vapor levels in the atmosphere rise, which further increases greenhouse warming. The cycle reinforces itself. The background is a sunset through altocumulus clouds. Credit: NASA and NOAA Historic NWS Collection
Satellite Water Vapor Images on TV News
Television Weather Forecasters have made satellite images of water vapor popular lately. This image is from the NOAA GOES-12 satellite, and the lighter gray shades indicate water vapor, the lightest areas are likely where precipitation would be falling, and the black areas show drier air. Credit: NASA
In response to human emissions of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, the Earth warms, more water evaporates from the ocean, and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere increases. Since water vapor is also a greenhouse gas, this leads to a further increase in the surface temperature. This effect is known as "positive water vapor feedback." Its existence and size have been contentiously argued for several years.
Ken Minschwaner, a physicist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, N.M., and Andrew Dessler, a researcher with the University of Maryland, College Park, and NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md, did the study. It is in the March 15 issue of the American Meteorological Societys Journal of Climate. The researchers used data on water vapor in the upper troposphere (10-14 km or 6-9 miles altitude) from NASAs Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS).
Krishna Ramanujan | GSFC
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