Research ArticleCLIMATOLOGY

The lightness of water vapor helps to stabilize tropical climate

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Science Advances  06 May 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 19, eaba1951
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aba1951


Moist air is lighter than dry air at the same temperature, pressure, and volume because the molecular weight of water is less than that of dry air. We call this the vapor buoyancy effect. Although this effect is well documented, its impact on Earth’s climate has been overlooked. Here, we show that the lightness of water vapor helps to stabilize tropical climate by increasing the outgoing longwave radiation (OLR). In the tropical atmosphere, buoyancy is horizontally uniform. Then, the vapor buoyancy in the moist regions must be balanced by warmer temperatures in the dry regions of the tropical atmosphere. These higher temperatures increase tropical OLR. This radiative effect increases with warming, leading to a negative climate feedback. At a near present-day surface temperature, vapor buoyancy is responsible for a radiative effect of 1 W/m2 and a negative climate feedback of about 0.15 W/m2 per kelvin.

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