Drying of Indian subcontinent by rapid Indian Ocean warming and a weakening land-sea thermal gradient

This new study led by an Indian scientist Dr Roxy Mathew Koll, from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM) Pune,  points out a significant decreasing trend in the summer monsoon rainfall over the central Indian subcontinent during the past century. It suggests an important role of the rapid warming in the Indian Ocean in weakening of monsoon circulation and rainfall. 

There are large uncertainties looming over the status and fate of the South Asian summer monsoon, with several studies debating whether the monsoon is weakening or strengthening in a changing climate. Our analysis using multiple observed datasets demonstrates a significant weakening trend in summer rainfall during 1901–2012 over the central-east and northern regions of India, along the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basins and the Himalayan foothills, where agriculture is still largely rain-fed. Earlier studies have suggested an increase in moisture availability and land-sea thermal gradient in the tropics due to anthropogenic warming, favouring an increase in tropical rainfall. Here we show that the land-sea thermal gradient over South Asia has been decreasing, due to rapid warming in the Indian Ocean and a relatively subdued warming over the subcontinent. Using long-term observations and coupled model experiments, we provide compelling evidence that the enhanced Indian Ocean warming potentially weakens the land-sea thermal contrast, dampens the summer monsoon Hadley circulation, and thereby reduces the rainfall over parts of South Asia.

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