Paltridge, G., Arking, A. and Pook, M. 2009. Trends in middle- and upper-level tropospheric humidity from NCEP reanalysis data. Theoretical and Applied Climatology: 10.1007/s00704-009-0117-x.
The authors write that "water vapor feedback in climate models is large and positive," and that "the various model representations and parameterizations of convection, turbulent transfer, and deposition of latent heat generally maintain a more-or-less constant relative humidity (i.e., an increasing specific humidity q) at all levels in the troposphere as the planet warms," and they say that this "increasing q amplifies the response of surface temperature to increasing CO2 by a factor or 2 or more." Consequently, knowledge of how q responds to atmospheric warming is of paramount importance to the task of correctly predicting how air temperatures respond to increasing CO2 concentrations.
What was done
Paltridge et al. explored this important subject by determining trends in relative and specific humidity at various levels in the atmosphere based on reanalysis data of the National Centers for Environmental Prediction (NCEP) for the period 1973-2007.
What was learned
The three researchers report that "the face-value 35-year trend in zonal-average annual-average specific humidity q is significantly negative at all altitudes above 850 hPa (roughly the top of the convective boundary layer) in the tropics and southern midlatitudes and at altitudes above 600 hPa in the northern midlatitudes."
What it means
Paltridge et al. conclude that "negative trends in q as found in the NCEP data would imply that long-term water vapor feedback is negative - that it would reduce rather than amplify the response of the climate system to external forcing such as that from increasing atmospheric CO2." The ultimate outcome of this dilemma must therefore await a thorough study of the reliability of the pertinent NCEP data, in order to establish, in the words of the three scientists, "what (if any) aspects of the observed [humidity] trends survive detailed examination of the impact of past changes of radiosonde instrumentation and protocol within the various international networks" that collected the globe-spanning data that comprise the NCEP reanalysis archive. And until such an examination is completed, it would foolish in the extreme to forge ahead with any type of "cap and trade" legislation, such as is currently under consideration in the U.S. Senate, or with any international treaties designed to limit anthropogenic CO2 emissions, because the findings of Paltridge et al. suggest that the future warming predicted by today's climate models may well be far greater than what could actually occur in the real world.