Intertropical Convergence Zone of Heavy Preciptiation Moving North
Research funded by the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington indicates that the rain band near the equator that determines the supply of freshwater to nearly a billion people throughout the tropics and subtropics has been creeping north for more than 300 years, probably because of a warmer world, according to research published in the July issue of Nature Geoscience.
If the band continues to migrate at just less than a mile (1.4 kilometers) a year, which is the average for all the years it has been moving north, then some Pacific islands near the equator -- even those that currently enjoy abundant rainfall -- may be drier within decades and starved of freshwater by midcentury or sooner. The prospect of additional warming because of greenhouse gases means that situation could happen even sooner.
The new article presents surprising evidence that the intertropical convergence zone hugged the equator some 3 Â½ centuries ago during Earth's little ice age, which lasted from 1400 to 1850.
The authors analyzed the record of rainfall in lake and lagoon sediments from four Pacific islands at or near the equator.
One of the islands they studied, Washington Island, is about 5 degrees north of the equator. Today it is at the southern edge of the intertropical convergence zone and receives nearly 10 feet (2.9 meters) of rain a year. But cores reveal a very different Washington Island in the past: It was arid, especially during the little ice age.
Among other things, the scientists looked for evidence in sediment cores of salt-tolerant microbes. On Washington Island they found that evidence in 400- to 1,000-year-old sediment underlying what is now a freshwater lake. Such organisms could only have thrived if rainfall was much reduced from today's high levels on the island. Additional evidence for changes in rainfall were provided by ratios of hydrogen isotopes of material in the sediments that can only be explained by large changes in precipitation.
"If the intertropical convergence zone was 550 kilometers, or 5 degrees, south of its present position as recently as 1630, it must have migrated north at an average rate of 1.4 kilometers -- just less than a mile -- a year," Sachs says. "Were that rate to continue, the intertropical convergence zone will be 126 kilometers -- or more than 75 miles -- north of its current position by the latter part of this century."
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