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What controls the isotopic composition of tropical tropospheric water vapor? Results from general circulation models and large-eddy simulations, and thoughts on the usefulness of the isotopic tool
  • Camille Risi,
  • Caroline Muller,
  • Peter Blossey
Camille Risi

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Caroline Muller
Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique
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Peter Blossey
University of Washington
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The isotopic composition of water vapor (e.g. its Deuterium content) evolves along the water cycle as phase changes are associated with isotopic fractionation. In the tropics, it is especially sensitive to convective processes. Consequently the isotopic composition of precipitation recorded in paleoclimate archives has significantly contributed to the reconstruction of past hydrological changes. It has also been suggested that observed isotopic composition of water vapor could help better understand convective processes and evaluate their representation in climate models. Yet, water isotopes remain rarely used beyond the isotopic community to answer today’s pressing climate questions. A prerequisite to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of the isotopic tool is to better understand what controls spatio-temporal variations in water vapor isotopic composition through the tropical atmosphere. A first step towards this better understanding is to understand what controls the isotopic composition of the sub-cloud layer water vapor over the ocean. Isotopic measurements show that the water vapor is the most enriched in trade-wind regions, and becomes more depleted as precipitation increases. To understand this pattern, we use global simulations with the isotope-enabled general circulation model LMDZ, large-eddy simulation in radiative-convective equilibrium and with large-scale ascent or descent, with the isotope-enabled model SAM and simple analytical models. We show that increased precipitation rate is associated with increased isotopic depletion if it is associated with stronger large-scale ascent, but with decreased isotopic depletion if it is associated with warmer surface temperature. As large-scale ascent increases, the isotopic vertical gradient in the lower troposphere is steeper, which makes downdrafts and updrafts more efficient in depleting the sub-cloud layer water vapor. The steeper gradient is caused mainly by the larger quantity of snow falling down to the melting level, forming rain whose evaporation depletes the water vapor.