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Florent Brient and Tapio Schneider

Abstract

Physical uncertainties in global-warming projections are dominated by uncertainties about how the fraction of incoming shortwave radiation that clouds reflect will change as greenhouse gas concentrations rise. Differences in the shortwave reflection by low clouds over tropical oceans alone account for more than half of the variance of the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) among climate models, which ranges from 2.1 to 4.7 K. Space-based measurements now provide an opportunity to assess how well models reproduce temporal variations of this shortwave reflection on seasonal to interannual time scales. Here such space-based measurements are used to show that shortwave reflection by low clouds over tropical oceans decreases robustly when the underlying surface warms, for example, by −(0.96 ± 0.22)% K−1 (90% confidence level) for deseasonalized variations. Additionally, the temporal covariance of low-cloud reflection with temperature in historical simulations with current climate models correlates strongly (r = −0.67) with the models’ ECS. Therefore, measurements of temporal low-cloud variations can be used to constrain ECS estimates based on climate models. An information-theoretic weighting of climate models by how well they reproduce the measured deseasonalized covariance of shortwave cloud reflection with temperature yields a most likely ECS estimate around 4.0 K; an ECS below 2.3 K becomes very unlikely (90% confidence).

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