Water vapor and lapse rate feedbacks in the climate system

Robert Colman, Brian J. Soden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Water vapor is a greenhouse gas that dominates Earth's terrestrial radiation absorption. As the planetary temperature warms, forced by increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases, water vapor content of the atmosphere increases, thereby producing the strongest positive feedback in the climate system. At the same time, the rate at which atmospheric temperature drops with height (the "lapse rate") is expected to decrease with warming. This represents a smaller, but significant, negative feedback since it enables the planet to radiate more effectively to space. The two feedbacks are closely coupled to each other, and the combined result represents the foundational net positive feedback in the climate system, mandating substantial global warming in response to increased greenhouse gases. This review summarizes the published work that has provided an ever deepening understanding of these critical feedbacks. The historical context, beginning with the 19th century awakening to the importance of water vapor in the climate, is outlined before the review's focus shifts to the theoretical, observational, and modeling work in recent decades that has transformed our understanding of the feedbacks' role in climate change. It is shown that the evidence is now overwhelming that combined water vapor and lapse rate processes indeed provide the strongest positive feedback in the climate system. However, important challenges remain. This review provides physicists with a deeper understanding of these feedbacks and stimulates engagement with the climate research community. Together the scientific community can facilitate further rigor, understanding, and confidence in these most fundamental Earth system processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number045002
JournalReviews of Modern Physics
Volume93
Issue number4
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physics and Astronomy(all)

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