Transport of water vapor from tropical cyclones to the upper troposphere

Tair Plotnik, Colin Price*, Joydeb Saha, Anirban Guha

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper investigates the influence of tropical cyclones on water vapor concentrations in the upper atmosphere above these storms. We use independent data sets of tropical storm intensity, water vapor and lightning activity to investigate this relationship. Water vapor in the upper troposphere is a key greenhouse gas, with direct impacts on surface temperatures. Both the amount and altitude of water vapor impact the radiative balance and the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere. The water vapor enters the upper troposphere through deep convective storms, often associated with lightning activity. The intensity of the lightning activity represents the intensity of the convection in these storms, and hence the amount of water vapor transported aloft. In this paper, we investigate the role of tropical cyclones on the contribution of water vapor to the upper atmosphere moistening. Tropical cyclones are the largest most intense storms on Earth and can last for up to two weeks at a time. There is also evidence that the intensity of tropical cyclones is increasing, and will continue to increase, due to global warming. In this study we find that the maximum moistening of the upper atmosphere occurs at the 200 hPa level (~12 km altitude), with a lag of 1–2 days after the maximum sustained winds in the tropical cyclone. While the water vapor peaks after the maximum of the storm intensity, the lightning activity peaks before the maximum intensity of the storms, as shown previously. We show here that the absolute amount of water vapor in the upper troposphere above tropical storms increases linearly with the intensity of the storms. For every 10 hPa decrease in the minimum pressure of tropical storms, the specific humidity increases around 0.2 g/kg at the 200 hPa level.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1506
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Lightning
  • Tropical cyclones
  • Upper tropospheric water vapor


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