Water Vapor and Climate Change
ACS Climate Science Toolkit | Narratives
Although water vapor probably accounts for about 60% of the Earth’s greenhouse warming effect, water vapor does not control the Earth’s temperature. Instead, the amount of water vapor is controlled by the temperature. This is because the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere limits the maximum amount of water vapor the atmosphere can contain. If a volume of air contains its maximum amount of water vapor and the temperature is decreased, some of the water vapor will condense to form liquid water. This is why clouds form as warm air containing water vapor rises and cools at higher altitudes where the water condenses to the tiny droplets that make up clouds.
The greenhouse effect that has maintained the Earth’s temperature at a level warm enough for human civilization to develop over the past several millennia is controlled by non-condensable gases, mainly carbon dioxide, CO2, with smaller contributions from methane, CH4, nitrous oxide, N2O, and ozone, O3. Since the middle of the 20th century, small amounts of man-made gases, mostly chlorine- and fluorine-containing solvents and refrigerants, have been added to the mix. Because these gases are not condensable at atmospheric temperatures and pressures, the atmosphere can pack in much more of these gases. Thus, CO2 (as well as CH4, N2O, and O3) has been building up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution when we began burning large amounts of fossil fuel.
If there had been no increase in the amounts of non-condensable greenhouse gases, the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere would not have changed with all other variables remaining the same. The addition of the non-condensable gases causes the temperature to increase and this leads to an increase in water vapor that further increases the temperature. This is an example of a positive feedback effect. The warming due to increasing non-condensable gases causes more water vapor to enter the atmosphere, which adds to the effect of the non-condensables.
There is also a possibility that adding more water vapor to the atmosphere could produce a negative feedback effect. This could happen if more water vapor leads to more cloud formation. Clouds reflect sunlight and reduce the amount of energy that reaches the Earth’s surface to warm it. If the amount of solar warming decreases, then the temperature of the Earth would decrease. In that case, the effect of adding more water vapor would be cooling rather than warming. But cloud cover does mean more condensed water in the atmosphere, making for a stronger greenhouse effect than non-condensed water vapor alone – it is warmer on a cloudy winter day than on a clear one. Thus the possible positive and negative feedbacks associated with increased water vapor and cloud formation can cancel one another out and complicate matters. The actual balance between them is an active area of climate science research.