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Potential Problems Measuring Climate Sensitivity from the Historical Record

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  • 1 Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas
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Abstract

This study investigates potential biases between equilibrium climate sensitivity inferred from warming over the historical period (ECShist) and the climate system’s true ECS (ECStrue). This paper focuses on two factors that could contribute to differences between these quantities. First is the impact of internal variability over the historical period: our historical climate record is just one of an infinity of possible trajectories, and these different trajectories can generate ECShist values 0.3 K below to 0.5 K above (5%–95% confidence interval) the average ECShist. Because this spread is due to unforced variability, I refer to this as the unforced pattern effect. This unforced pattern effect in the model analyzed here is traced to unforced variability in loss of sea ice, which affects the albedo feedback, and to unforced variability in warming of the troposphere, which affects the shortwave cloud feedback. There is also a forced pattern effect that causes ECShist to depart from ECStrue due to differences between today’s transient pattern of warming and the pattern of warming at 2×CO2 equilibrium. Changes in the pattern of warming lead to a strengthening low-cloud feedback as equilibrium is approached in regions where surface warming is delayed: the Southern Ocean, eastern Pacific, and North Atlantic near Greenland. This forced pattern effect causes ECShist to be on average 0.2 K lower than ECStrue (~8%). The net effect of these two pattern effects together can produce an estimate of ECShist as much as 0.5 K below ECStrue.

© 2020 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Andrew Dessler, adessler@tamu.edu

Abstract

This study investigates potential biases between equilibrium climate sensitivity inferred from warming over the historical period (ECShist) and the climate system’s true ECS (ECStrue). This paper focuses on two factors that could contribute to differences between these quantities. First is the impact of internal variability over the historical period: our historical climate record is just one of an infinity of possible trajectories, and these different trajectories can generate ECShist values 0.3 K below to 0.5 K above (5%–95% confidence interval) the average ECShist. Because this spread is due to unforced variability, I refer to this as the unforced pattern effect. This unforced pattern effect in the model analyzed here is traced to unforced variability in loss of sea ice, which affects the albedo feedback, and to unforced variability in warming of the troposphere, which affects the shortwave cloud feedback. There is also a forced pattern effect that causes ECShist to depart from ECStrue due to differences between today’s transient pattern of warming and the pattern of warming at 2×CO2 equilibrium. Changes in the pattern of warming lead to a strengthening low-cloud feedback as equilibrium is approached in regions where surface warming is delayed: the Southern Ocean, eastern Pacific, and North Atlantic near Greenland. This forced pattern effect causes ECShist to be on average 0.2 K lower than ECStrue (~8%). The net effect of these two pattern effects together can produce an estimate of ECShist as much as 0.5 K below ECStrue.

© 2020 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Andrew Dessler, adessler@tamu.edu
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