Predicting the Unpredictable: Tropical Hydrology

Unpredictable tropical storms from climate change and changing land-use patterns are going to mess with water cycles

WHO:  Ellen Wohl (Department of Geosciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado)
Ana Barros (Duke University, Pratt School of Engineering, Durham, North Carolina)
Nathaniel Brunsell (Department of Geography, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas)
Nick A. Chappell (Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK)
Michael Coe (Woods Hole Research Center, Falmouth, Massachusetts )
Thomas Giambelluca (Department of Geography, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii )
Steven Goldsmith (Department of Geography and the Environment, Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania)
Russell Harmon (Environmental Sciences Division, ARL Army Research Office, North Carolina)
Jan M. H. Hendrick (New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, New Mexico)
James Juvik (Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Hawaii-Hilo, Hilo, Hawaii)
Jeffrey McDonnell (Department of Forest Engineering, Resources, and Management, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon)
Fred Ogden (Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming)

WHAT: Looking at what we know about tropical water patterns and working out what we don’t know

WHEN: September 2012

WHERE: Nature Climate Change, Vol 2 Issue 9, September 2012

TITLE:  The hydrology of the humid tropics (subs. req)

This paper from Nature Climate Change does two things; it looks at what we know about tropical water cycles (hydrology) and also the gaps in our knowledge (scientists- always wanting to know more!).

So what do we know?

Firstly, let’s define the ‘tropics’. This paper looks specifically at the humid tropics which is anywhere that precipitation exceeds evaporation 270 days a year or more, and is generally 25⁰ latitude either side of the equator.

The tropics highlighted in red (Wikipedia)

Fun fact – the tropics is where the term ‘the doldrums’ comes from. It’s officially known as the ‘Intertropical Convergence Zone’ and is the area where the winds coming from the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere collide, creating erratic weather patterns and violent thunderstorms. This poses a few issues in the face of climate change. Climate change will make weather more extreme and the effects will be non-linear, so this means the tropics are about to get even less easy to predict.

There are many areas of the tropics where land-use changes are affecting water cycles. Deforested areas outnumber the remaining forest, which is already having a measurable effect on rain patterns in Brazil; extending the dry season and rain being more intense when it does occur. It’s estimated that deforestation in the South Eastern Amazon has increased the flow of water to the ocean by 20% in the last 40 years. These changes and others will likely be amplified with increased climate change effects.

Billions of people rely on the major rivers in the tropics for their fresh water, and flows of water, energy and carbon are all closely linked to the amount and age of vegetation in the area. Changes in water flows and rain patterns can be disastrous, and can occur from combinations of land-use change, deforestation and climate change. So messing with the systems can create large changes. The closely linked relationship between vegetation type and water cycles also means that my idea of trying to grow an Australian gum tree here in Vancouver when I feel homesick is a bad one.

However, while water cycles are being modified across the tropics by land-use changes, deforestation and climate change, the effects are going to vary region by region, making predictions difficult. There are far fewer weather measuring stations in tropical areas than temperate areas, so less data overall. The researchers identified moisture cycling, water catchment processes and long term data collection as areas that need improvement if we are going to be able to accurately predict global warming changes in the tropics.

Number of weather stations in temperate vs tropical areas (from paper)

In order to answer important questions that relate to the availability of fresh water for billions of people and extreme weather in areas that have earthquake activity as well as cyclones there needs to be a detailed body of data. Forewarned is forearmed, especially if systems are heading towards possible tipping points, and this paper would like researchers to study more tropical areas to better understand them.

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One thought on “Predicting the Unpredictable: Tropical Hydrology

  1. Pingback: Predicting the Unpredictable: Tropical Hydrology | Amy Huva

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