Climate Change: An Appraisal of Atmospheric Feedback Mechanisms Employing Zonal Climatology

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  • 1 Laboratory for Planetary Atmospheres Research, State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook 11794
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Abstract

The sensitivity of the earth's surface temperature to factors which can induce long-term climate change, such as a variation in solar constant, is estimated by employing two readily observable climate changes. One is the latitudinal change in annual mean climate, for which an interpretation of climatological data suggests that cloud amount is not a significant climate feedback mechanism, irrespective of how cloud amount might depend upon surface temperature, since there are compensating changes in both the solar and infrared optical properties of the atmosphere. It is further indicated that all other atmospheric feedback mechanisms, resulting, for example, from temperature-induced changes in water vapor amount, cloud altitude and lapse rate, collectively double the sensitivity of global surface temperature to a change in solar constant. The same conclusion is reached by considering a second type of climate change, that associated with seasonal variations for a given latitude zone. The seasonal interpretation further suggests that cloud amount feedback is unimportant zonally as well as globally. Application of the seasonal data required a correction for what appears to be an important seasonal feedback mechanism. This is attributed to a variability in cloud albedo due to seasonal changes in solar zenith angle. No attempt was made to individually interpret the collective feedback mechanisms which contribute to the doubling in surface temperature sensitivity. It is suggested, however, that the conventional assumption of fixed relative humidity for describing feedback due to water vapor amount might not be as applicable as is generally believed. Climate models which additionally include ice-albedo feedback are discussed within the framework of the present results.

Abstract

The sensitivity of the earth's surface temperature to factors which can induce long-term climate change, such as a variation in solar constant, is estimated by employing two readily observable climate changes. One is the latitudinal change in annual mean climate, for which an interpretation of climatological data suggests that cloud amount is not a significant climate feedback mechanism, irrespective of how cloud amount might depend upon surface temperature, since there are compensating changes in both the solar and infrared optical properties of the atmosphere. It is further indicated that all other atmospheric feedback mechanisms, resulting, for example, from temperature-induced changes in water vapor amount, cloud altitude and lapse rate, collectively double the sensitivity of global surface temperature to a change in solar constant. The same conclusion is reached by considering a second type of climate change, that associated with seasonal variations for a given latitude zone. The seasonal interpretation further suggests that cloud amount feedback is unimportant zonally as well as globally. Application of the seasonal data required a correction for what appears to be an important seasonal feedback mechanism. This is attributed to a variability in cloud albedo due to seasonal changes in solar zenith angle. No attempt was made to individually interpret the collective feedback mechanisms which contribute to the doubling in surface temperature sensitivity. It is suggested, however, that the conventional assumption of fixed relative humidity for describing feedback due to water vapor amount might not be as applicable as is generally believed. Climate models which additionally include ice-albedo feedback are discussed within the framework of the present results.

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