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An Estimate of Low-Cloud Feedbacks from Variations of Cloud Radiative and Physical Properties with Sea Surface Temperature on Interannual Time Scales

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  • 1 Science Systems and Applications, Inc., Hampton, Virginia
  • | 2 NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia
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Abstract

Simulations of climate change have yet to reach a consensus on the sign and magnitude of the changes in physical properties of marine boundary layer clouds. In this study, the authors analyze how cloud and radiative properties vary with SST anomaly in low-cloud regions, based on five years (March 2000–February 2005) of Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES)–Terra monthly gridded data and matched European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) meteorological reanalaysis data. In particular, this study focuses on the changes in cloud radiative effect, cloud fraction, and cloud optical depth with SST anomaly. The major findings are as follows. First, the low-cloud amount (−1.9% to −3.4% K−1) and the logarithm of low-cloud optical depth (−0.085 to −0.100 K−1) tend to decrease while the net cloud radiative effect (3.86 W m−2 K−1) becomes less negative as SST anomalies increase. These results are broadly consistent with previous observational studies. Second, after the changes in cloud and radiative properties with SST anomaly are separated into dynamic, thermodynamic, and residual components, changes in the dynamic component (taken as the vertical velocity at 700 hPa) have relatively little effect on cloud and radiative properties. However, the estimated inversion strength decreases with increasing SST, accounting for a large portion of the measured decreases in cloud fraction and cloud optical depth. The residual positive change in net cloud radiative effect (1.48 W m−2 K−1) and small changes in low-cloud amount (−0.81% to 0.22% K−1) and decrease in the logarithm of optical depth (–0.035 to –0.046 K−1) with SST are interpreted as a positive cloud feedback, with cloud optical depth feedback being the dominant contributor. Last, the magnitudes of the residual changes differ greatly among the six low-cloud regions examined in this study, with the largest positive feedbacks (∼4 W m−2 K−1) in the southeast and northeast Atlantic regions and a slightly negative feedback (−0.2 W m−2 K−1) in the south-central Pacific region. Because the retrievals of cloud optical depth and/or cloud fraction are difficult in the presence of aerosols, the transport of heavy African continental aerosols may contribute to the large magnitudes of estimated cloud feedback in the two Atlantic regions.

Corresponding author address: Z. A. Eitzen, Mail Stop 420, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA 23681. Email: zachary.a.eitzen@nasa.gov

Abstract

Simulations of climate change have yet to reach a consensus on the sign and magnitude of the changes in physical properties of marine boundary layer clouds. In this study, the authors analyze how cloud and radiative properties vary with SST anomaly in low-cloud regions, based on five years (March 2000–February 2005) of Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES)–Terra monthly gridded data and matched European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) meteorological reanalaysis data. In particular, this study focuses on the changes in cloud radiative effect, cloud fraction, and cloud optical depth with SST anomaly. The major findings are as follows. First, the low-cloud amount (−1.9% to −3.4% K−1) and the logarithm of low-cloud optical depth (−0.085 to −0.100 K−1) tend to decrease while the net cloud radiative effect (3.86 W m−2 K−1) becomes less negative as SST anomalies increase. These results are broadly consistent with previous observational studies. Second, after the changes in cloud and radiative properties with SST anomaly are separated into dynamic, thermodynamic, and residual components, changes in the dynamic component (taken as the vertical velocity at 700 hPa) have relatively little effect on cloud and radiative properties. However, the estimated inversion strength decreases with increasing SST, accounting for a large portion of the measured decreases in cloud fraction and cloud optical depth. The residual positive change in net cloud radiative effect (1.48 W m−2 K−1) and small changes in low-cloud amount (−0.81% to 0.22% K−1) and decrease in the logarithm of optical depth (–0.035 to –0.046 K−1) with SST are interpreted as a positive cloud feedback, with cloud optical depth feedback being the dominant contributor. Last, the magnitudes of the residual changes differ greatly among the six low-cloud regions examined in this study, with the largest positive feedbacks (∼4 W m−2 K−1) in the southeast and northeast Atlantic regions and a slightly negative feedback (−0.2 W m−2 K−1) in the south-central Pacific region. Because the retrievals of cloud optical depth and/or cloud fraction are difficult in the presence of aerosols, the transport of heavy African continental aerosols may contribute to the large magnitudes of estimated cloud feedback in the two Atlantic regions.

Corresponding author address: Z. A. Eitzen, Mail Stop 420, NASA Langley Research Center, Hampton, VA 23681. Email: zachary.a.eitzen@nasa.gov

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