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Mark D. Zelinka and Dennis L. Hartmann

Abstract

Currently available satellite data can be used to track the response of clouds and humidity to intense precipitation events. A compositing technique centered in space and time on locations experiencing high rain rates is used to detail the characteristic evolution of several quantities measured from a suite of satellite instruments. Intense precipitation events in the convective tropics are preceded by an increase in low-level humidity. Optically thick cold clouds accompany the precipitation burst, which is followed by the development of spreading upper-level anvil clouds and an increase in upper-tropospheric humidity over a broader region than that occupied by the precipitation anomalies. The temporal separation between the convective event and the development of anvil clouds is about 3 h. The humidity increase at upper levels and the associated decrease in clear-sky longwave emission persist for many hours after the convective event. Large-scale vertical motions from reanalysis show a coherent evolution associated with precipitation events identified in an independent dataset: precipitation events begin with stronger upward motion anomalies in the lower troposphere, which then evolve toward stronger upward motion anomalies in the upper troposphere, in conjunction with the development of anvil clouds. Greater upper-tropospheric moistening and cloudiness are associated with larger-scale and better-organized convective systems, but even weaker, more isolated systems produce sustained upper-level humidity and clear-sky outgoing longwave radiation anomalies.

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Mark D. Zelinka and Dennis L. Hartmann

Abstract

Feedbacks determine the efficiency with which the climate system comes back into equilibrium in response to a radiative perturbation. Although feedbacks are integrated quantities, the processes from which they arise have rich spatial structures that alter the distribution of top of atmosphere (TOA) net radiation. Here, the authors investigate the implications of the structure of climate feedbacks for the change in poleward energy transport as the planet warms over the twenty-first century in a suite of GCMs. Using radiative kernels that describe the TOA radiative response to small perturbations in temperature, water vapor, and surface albedo, the change in poleward energy flux is partitioned into the individual feedbacks that cause it.

This study finds that latitudinal gradients in the sum of climate feedbacks reinforce the preexisting latitudinal gradient in TOA net radiation, requiring that the climate system transport more energy to the poles on a warming planet. This is primarily due to structure of the water vapor and cloud feedbacks, which are strongly positive at low latitudes and decrease dramatically with increasing latitude. Using the change in surface fluxes, the authors partition the anomalous poleward energy flux between the atmosphere and ocean and find that reduced heat flux from the high-latitude ocean further amplifies the equator-to-pole gradient in atmospheric energy loss. This implied reduction in oceanic poleward energy flux requires the atmosphere to increase its share of the total poleward energy transport. As is the case for climate sensitivity, the largest source of intermodel spread in the change in poleward energy transport can be attributed to the shortwave cloud feedback.

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Mark D. Zelinka, Stephen A. Klein, and Dennis L. Hartmann

Abstract

This study proposes a novel technique for computing cloud feedbacks using histograms of cloud fraction as a joint function of cloud-top pressure (CTP) and optical depth (τ). These histograms were generated by the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP) simulator that was incorporated into doubled-CO2 simulations from 11 global climate models in the Cloud Feedback Model Intercomparison Project. The authors use a radiative transfer model to compute top of atmosphere flux sensitivities to cloud fraction perturbations in each bin of the histogram for each month and latitude. Multiplying these cloud radiative kernels with histograms of modeled cloud fraction changes at each grid point per unit of global warming produces an estimate of cloud feedback. Spatial structures and globally integrated cloud feedbacks computed in this manner agree remarkably well with the adjusted change in cloud radiative forcing. The global and annual mean model-simulated cloud feedback is dominated by contributions from medium thickness (3.6 < τ ≤ 23) cloud changes, but thick (τ > 23) cloud changes cause the rapid transition of cloud feedback values from positive in midlatitudes to negative poleward of 50°S and 70°N. High (CTP ≤ 440 hPa) cloud changes are the dominant contributor to longwave (LW) cloud feedback, but because their LW and shortwave (SW) impacts are in opposition, they contribute less to the net cloud feedback than do the positive contributions from low (CTP > 680 hPa) cloud changes. Midlevel (440 < CTP ≤ 680 hPa) cloud changes cause positive SW cloud feedbacks that are 80% as large as those due to low clouds. Finally, high cloud changes induce wider ranges of LW and SW cloud feedbacks across models than do low clouds.

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Chen Zhou, Mark D. Zelinka, Andrew E. Dessler, and Ping Yang

Abstract

The cloud feedback in response to short-term climate variations is estimated from cloud measurements combined with offline radiative transfer calculations. The cloud measurements are made by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Terra satellite and cover the period 2000–10. Low clouds provide a strong negative cloud feedback, mainly because of their impact in the shortwave (SW) portion of the spectrum. Midlevel clouds provide a positive net cloud feedback that is a combination of a positive SW feedback partially canceled by a negative feedback in the longwave (LW). High clouds have only a small impact on the net cloud feedback because of a close cancellation between large LW and SW cloud feedbacks. Segregating the clouds by optical depth, it is found that the net cloud feedback is set by a positive cloud feedback due to reductions in the thickest clouds (mainly in the SW) and a cancelling negative feedback from increases in clouds with moderate optical depths (also mainly in the SW). The global average SW, LW, and net cloud feedbacks are +0.30 ±1.10, −0.46 ±0.74, and −0.16 ±0.83 W m−2 K−1, respectively. The SW feedback is consistent with previous work; the MODIS LW feedback is lower than previous calculations and there are reasons to suspect it may be biased low. Finally, it is shown that the apparently small control that global mean surface temperature exerts on clouds, which leads to the large uncertainty in the short-term cloud feedback, arises from statistically significant but offsetting relationships between individual cloud types and global mean surface temperature.

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Peter M. Caldwell, Mark D. Zelinka, and Stephen A. Klein

Abstract

Emergent constraints are quantities that are observable from current measurements and have skill predicting future climate. This study explores 19 previously proposed emergent constraints related to equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS; the global-average equilibrium surface temperature response to CO2 doubling). Several constraints are shown to be closely related, emphasizing the importance for careful understanding of proposed constraints. A new method is presented for decomposing correlation between an emergent constraint and ECS into terms related to physical processes and geographical regions. Using this decomposition, one can determine whether the processes and regions explaining correlation with ECS correspond to the physical explanation offered for the constraint. Shortwave cloud feedback is generally found to be the dominant contributor to correlations with ECS because it is the largest source of intermodel spread in ECS. In all cases, correlation results from interaction between a variety of terms, reflecting the complex nature of ECS and the fact that feedback terms and forcing are themselves correlated with each other. For 4 of the 19 constraints, the originally proposed explanation for correlation is borne out by our analysis. These four constraints all predict relatively high climate sensitivity. The credibility of six other constraints is called into question owing to correlation with ECS coming mainly from unexpected sources and/or lack of robustness to changes in ensembles. Another six constraints lack a testable explanation and hence cannot be confirmed. The fact that this study casts doubt upon more constraints than it confirms highlights the need for caution when identifying emergent constraints from small ensembles.

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Chen Zhou, Jian Lu, Yongyun Hu, and Mark D. Zelinka

Abstract

Idealized experiments performed with the Community Atmospheric Model 5.3 indicate that the width and strength of the Hadley circulation (HC) are sensitive to the location of sea surface temperature (SST) increases. The HC edge shifts poleward in response to SST increases over the subtropical regions near and on the equatorward flank of the HC edge, and shifts equatorward in response to warming over the tropical area except for the western Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean. The HC is strengthened in response to SST increases over the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ) and is weakened in response to SST increases over the subsidence branch of the HC in the subtropics. Tropical SST increases off the ITCZ tend to weaken the HC in the corresponding hemisphere and strengthen the HC in the opposite hemisphere. These results could be used to explain the simulated HC changes induced by recent SST variations, and it is estimated that more than half of the SST-induced HC widening in 1980–2014 is caused by changes in the spatial pattern of SST.

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Mark D. Zelinka, Stephen A. Klein, and Dennis L. Hartmann

Abstract

Cloud radiative kernels and histograms of cloud fraction, both as functions of cloud-top pressure and optical depth, are used to quantify cloud amount, altitude, and optical depth feedbacks. The analysis is applied to doubled-CO2 simulations from 11 global climate models in the Cloud Feedback Model Intercomparison Project.

Global, annual, and ensemble mean longwave (LW) and shortwave (SW) cloud feedbacks are positive, with the latter nearly twice as large as the former. The robust increase in cloud-top altitude in both the tropics and extratropics is the dominant contributor to the positive LW cloud feedback. The negative impact of reductions in cloud amount offsets more than half of the positive impact of rising clouds on LW cloud feedback, but the magnitude of compensation varies considerably across the models. In contrast, robust reductions in cloud amount make a large and virtually unopposed positive contribution to SW cloud feedback, though the intermodel spread is greater than for any other individual feedback component. Overall reductions in cloud amount have twice as large an impact on SW fluxes as on LW fluxes, such that the net cloud amount feedback is moderately positive, with no models exhibiting a negative value. As a consequence of large but partially offsetting effects of cloud amount reductions on LW and SW feedbacks, both the mean and intermodel spread in net cloud amount feedback are smaller than those of the net cloud altitude feedback. Finally, the study finds that the large negative cloud feedback at high latitudes results from robust increases in cloud optical depth, not from increases in total cloud amount as is commonly assumed.

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Chad W. Thackeray, Alex Hall, Mark D. Zelinka, and Christopher G. Fletcher

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An emergent constraint (EC) is a popular model evaluation technique, which offers the potential to reduce intermodel variability in projections of climate change. Two examples have previously been laid out for future surface albedo feedbacks (SAF) stemming from loss of Northern Hemisphere (NH) snow cover (SAFsnow) and sea ice (SAFice). These processes also have a modern-day analog that occurs each year as snow and sea ice retreat from their seasonal maxima, which is strongly correlated with future SAF across an ensemble of climate models. The newly released CMIP6 ensemble offers the chance to test prior constraints through out-of-sample verification, an important examination of EC robustness. Here, we show that the SAFsnow EC is equally strong in CMIP6 as it was in past generations, while the SAFice EC is also shown to exist in CMIP6, but with different, slightly weaker characteristics. We find that the CMIP6 mean NH SAF exhibits a global feedback of 0.25 ± 0.05 Wm-2K-1, or ∼61% of the total global albedo feedback, largely in line with prior generations despite its increased climate sensitivity. The NH SAF can be broken down into similar contributions from snow and sea ice over the 21st century in CMIP6. Crucially, intermodel variability in seasonal SAFsnow and SAFice is largely unchanged from CMIP5 because of poor outlier simulations of snow cover, surface albedo, and sea ice thickness. These outliers act to mask the noted improvement from many models when it comes to SAFice, and to a lesser extent SAFsnow.

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Peter M. Caldwell, Mark D. Zelinka, Karl E. Taylor, and Kate Marvel

Abstract

This study clarifies the causes of intermodel differences in the global-average temperature response to doubled CO2, commonly known as equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS). The authors begin by noting several issues with the standard approach for decomposing ECS into a sum of forcing and feedback terms. This leads to a derivation of an alternative method based on linearizing the effect of the net feedback. Consistent with previous studies, the new method identifies shortwave cloud feedback as the dominant source of intermodel spread in ECS. This new approach also reveals that covariances between cloud feedback and forcing, between lapse rate and longwave cloud feedbacks, and between albedo and shortwave cloud feedbacks play an important and previously underappreciated role in determining model differences in ECS. Defining feedbacks based on fixed relative rather than specific humidity (as suggested by Held and Shell) reduces the covariances between processes and leads to more straightforward interpretations of results.

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Yong-Jhih Chen, Yen-Ting Hwang, Mark D. Zelinka, and Chen Zhou

Abstract

With the goal of understanding the relative roles of anthropogenic and natural factors in driving observed cloud trends, this study investigates cloud changes associated with decadal variability including the Pacific decadal oscillation (PDO) and the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation (AMO). In the preindustrial simulations of CMIP5 global climate models (GCMs), the spatial patterns and the vertical structures of the PDO-related cloud cover changes in the Pacific are consistent among models. Meanwhile, the models show consistent AMO impacts on high cloud cover in the tropical Atlantic, subtropical eastern Pacific, and equatorial central Pacific, and on low cloud cover in the North Atlantic and subtropical northeast Pacific. The cloud cover changes associated with the PDO and the AMO can be understood via the relationships between large-scale meteorological parameters and clouds on interannual time scales. When compared to the satellite records during the period of 1983–2009, the patterns of total and low cloud cover trends associated with decadal variability are significantly correlated with patterns of cloud cover trends in ISCCP observations. On the other hand, the pattern of the estimated greenhouse gas (GHG)-forced trends of total cloud cover differs from that related to decadal variability, and may explain the positive trends in the subtropical southeast Pacific, negative trends in the midlatitudes, and positive trends poleward of 50°N/S. In most models, the magnitude of the estimated decadal variability contribution to the observed cloud cover trends is larger than that contributed by GHG, suggesting the observed cloud cover trends are more closely related to decadal variability than to GHG-induced warming.

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