Changes in the occurrence of extreme precipitation events at the Paleocene–Eocene thermal maximum

Matthew J. Carmichael*, Richard D. Pancost, Daniel J. Lunt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)

9 Citations (Scopus)
272 Downloads (Pure)


Future global warming is widely anticipated to increase the occurrence of extreme precipitation events, but such hydrological changes have received limited attention within paleoclimate studies. Several proxy studies of the hydrological response to the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum hyperthermal, ∼56 Ma, have recently invoked changes in the occurrence of extreme precipitation events to explain observations, but these changes have not been studied for the geologic past using climate models. Here, we use a coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation model, HadCM3L, to study regional changes in metrics for extreme precipitation across the onset of the PETM by comparing simulations performed with possible PETM and pre-PETM greenhouse gas forcings. Our simulations show a shift in the frequency–intensity relationship of precipitation, with extreme events increasing in importance over tropical regions including equatorial Africa and southern America. The incidence of some extreme events increases by up to 70% across the PETM in some regions. While the most extreme precipitation rates tend to relate to increases in convective precipitation, in some regions dynamic changes in atmospheric circulation are also of importance. Although shortcomings in the ability of general circulation models to represent the daily cycle of precipitation and the full range of extreme events precludes a direct comparison of absolute precipitation rates, our simulations provide a useful spatial framework for interpreting hydrological proxies from this time period. Our results indicate that changes in extreme precipitation behaviour may be decoupled from those in mean annual precipitation, including, for example in east Africa, where the change in mean annual precipitation is small but a large increase in the size and frequency of extreme events occurs. This has important implications for the interpretation of the hydrological proxy record and our understanding of climatic, as well as biogeochemical, responses to global warming events.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-36
Number of pages13
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date29 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018


  • extreme precipitation
  • proxy-model comparisons
  • General Circulation Model
  • Eocene
  • PETM
  • paleoclimate

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