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The authors investigated the changes of extreme European winter (December-February) precipitation back …

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- On the variability of return periods of European winter precipitation extremes over the last three centuries

The most prominent aspect of climate change is the global warming trend during the 20th century (IPCC, 2001). Beside temperature, however, precipitation is a key climate variable as well, as it affects both human economies and terrestrial ecosystems in different areas of the globe (e.g. Jones and Mann, 2004; Xoplaki et al., 2004; Touchan et al., 2003, 2005). From a societal point of view it may be even more important than temperature as in past centuries crop failures in central Europe were often connected to precipitation anomalies (Pfister, 1999). Even nowadays agricultural success strongly depends on the timely availability of water. Over the past 50 years water demand increased strongly as a consequence of the increase of wealth and irrigation, changes in lifestyle, and population growth and is expected to further increase in the future.

Precipitation trends have been observed on both global and hemispheric scales during the 20th century, which may influence future water supply (Easterling et al., 2000; Folland et al., 2001; Mann, 2002; Cullen et al., 2002; Touchan et al., 2003, 2005; Xoplaki et al., 2004). Additionally, water vapour is the most important greenhouse gas and has a strong feedback mechanism to temperature. Hence, a key question are the future changes of precipitation and its extremes at different temporal and spatial scales. Modelling precipitation changes allows to assess possible changes. A coupled climate model applied by Kharin and Zwiers (2000) suggests that extreme daily precipitation will increase almost everywhere on the globe. However, more profound understanding of the variability of extreme precipitation may help to improve the models and to interpret the model results.

One way to address this question is to analyse past precipitation anomalies. Apart from changes in the mean, changes in the variability are of great importance as the impact of changes in extremes on societies is larger than in the mean (Katz and Brown, 1992; Schaeffer et al., 2005; Sch¨ar et al., 2004). So far, most studies dealing with changes in precipitation extremes concentrated on daily data (e.g. Easterling et al., 2000; Frei and Sch¨ar, 2001; Groisman et al., 1999; Heino et al., 1999; Van den Brink et al., 2005; Zhang et al., 2004). Xoplaki et al. (2005) investigated the change of European spring and autumn temperature extremes over the last 500 years. So far, very few studies deal with changes in European seasonal precipitation extremes (e.g. Luterbacher et al., 2006).

For the understanding of the climate system, it is crucial to investigate seasonal extremes rather than annual extremes as each season has its specific dynamics and also the impacts on the society are season-specific. Central and northern European precipitation extremes in summer affect harvests (Pfister, 1999), while in the Mediterranean region winter precipitation is paramount for water availability over the whole year (Xoplaki, 2002; Xoplaki et al., 2004). Moreover, European winter precipitation can be linked to large-scale circulation, which may help to improve our understanding of the climate system (e.g. Xoplaki et al., 2004; Pauling et al., 2006) whereas summer precipitation is more local and reconstructive skill is lower for that season (Pauling et al., 2006).

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