Sources of rainfall over East Asia

By: Liang Guo

The East Asian monsoon causes intense rainfall over China, Japan and the Koreas every summer, and a cold, dry season every winter. This is driven by thermal and dynamical contrasts between the vast Pacific Ocean and the elevated Tibetan Plateau. Over 80% of East Asian rainfall is carried in from tropical oceans and mid-latitude land and oceans(Guo, Klingaman et al. 2018).

The strength of the monsoon varies each year, with stronger monsoon seasons associated with a higher total rainfall. However, the intensity of individual rainfall events is decided by smaller-scale perturbations in the weather, such as a vortex moving down from Tibet or a tropical cyclone from the Pacific.

As extreme rainfall events are damaging to both people and property, and occurring more often(Chevuturi, Klingaman et al. 2018), we wanted to know how much of the rainfall in East Asia is caused by the mean monsoon flow and how much is caused by perturbations in the weather.

To investigate this, we used a moisture tracking tool: the Water Accounting Model (WAM). This deconvolves atmospheric circulation and moisture using a spatial filter, and assumes that the atmosphere maintains the same hydrological balance at each grid point as occurred in reality (i.e. evaporation and precipitation are unchanged) except over East Asia.Figure 1: Annual cycles of rainfall over five East Asian subregions tracked using decomposed moisture fluxes (coloured lines). Sums of each components (solid grey line) are compared to precipitation of ERA-Interim (dotted grey line).

Figure 1 shows the results of applying this tool to five different regions of East Asia: southeastern China (region 1), Tibetan Plateau (region 2), central eastern China (region 3), northwestern China (region 4) and northeastern China (region 5). This shows the amount of rainfall which occurred due to the mean flow (black); the mean humidity gradient (red); the eddy flow (yellow); the eddy humidity gradient (blue) over the course of a year. The contributions from each of these components added together show the total rainfall for the region (solid grey line). This matches up well to the total precipitation in the ERA-Intermin dataset (dotted grey line), which can be used as a reference.

We found that the mean monsoon flow and mean monsoon gradient are the largest causes of rainfall, particularly in southeastern China and Tibet.


Chevuturi, A., et al. (2018). “Projected Changes in the Asian‐Australian Monsoon Region in 1.5°C and 2.0°C Global‐Warming Scenarios.” Earth’s Future 6(3): 339-358. 

Guo, L., et al. (2018). “The contributions of local and remote atmospheric moisture fluxes to East Asian precipitation and its variability.” Climate Dynamics.

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