Circulation response to warming shaped by radiative changes of clouds and water vapour

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
Volume:
8,
Pages:
102–106
Year published:
DOI:
doi:10.1038/ngeo2345
Received
Accepted
Published online

The atmospheric circulation controls how global climate change will be expressed regionally. Substantial circulation changes are expected under global warming, including a narrowing of the intertropical convergence zone1, 2, a slow down and poleward expansion of the tropical circulation3, 4, and a poleward shift of mid-latitude stormtracks and jets5, 6. Yet, climate model projections of the circulation response to climate change remain uncertain7. Here we present simulations with two different aquaplanet climate models and analyse these simulations using the cloud and water-vapour locking method. We find that radiative changes of clouds and water vapour are key to the regional response of precipitation and circulation to global warming. Model disagreement in the response of key characteristics of the atmospheric circulation—the intertropical convergence zone, the strength of the Hadley circulation, and the trade winds—arises from disagreement between the models in radiative changes of tropical ice clouds and their coupling to the circulation. We find that cloud changes amplify a poleward shift of the extratropical jet, whereas water vapour changes oppose such a shift, but the degree of compensation is model-dependent. We conclude that radiative changes of clouds and water vapour are not only integral to the magnitude of future global-mean warming but also determine patterns of regional climate change.

At a glance

Figures

  1. Precipitation response in two CMIP5 aquaplanet models under a uniform 4 K surface warming.
    Figure 1: Precipitation response in two CMIP5 aquaplanet models under a uniform 4 K surface warming.

    a, MPI-ESM model. b, IPSL-CM5A model. Time-mean values are shown.

  2. Decomposition of tropical precipitation and vertical velocity response to global warming.
    Figure 2: Decomposition of tropical precipitation and vertical velocity response to global warming.

    ad, Time- and zonal-mean precipitation response (a, crosses indicate the latitude of the precipitation maximum in aquaControl), contributions from the isolated SST increase (b), radiative changes of clouds (c) and radiative changes of water vapour (d). Dashed lines show the dynamic component of the precipitation response. Results according to the models MPI-ESM and IPSL-CMSA are shown in blue and red, respectively. ef, Same for time- and zonal-mean pressure velocity averaged between 300 and 800 hPa. Dashed vertical lines give the latitude that separates the ascending from the descending Hadley circulation branch in aquaControl.

  3. Impact of radiative changes of clouds and water vapour on the atmospheric temperature and zonal wind response to global warming in MPI-ESM (top) and IPSL-CM5A (bottom).
    Figure 3: Impact of radiative changes of clouds and water vapour on the atmospheric temperature and zonal wind response to global warming in MPI-ESM (top) and IPSL-CM5A (bottom).

    ac, Time- and zonal-mean contributions of the isolated SST increase (a), and radiative changes of clouds (b) and water vapour (c) to the temperature response. The dashed and solid lines mark the tropopause of the aquaControl and aqua4K simulations, respectively. d, Time- and zonal-mean response of the 925 hPa zonal wind (black line) and its decomposition by the locking method (coloured lines).

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Affiliations

  1. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, 61 Route 9W, Palisades, New York 10964, USA

    • Aiko Voigt &
    • Tiffany A. Shaw
  2. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Tiffany A. Shaw
  3. Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10025, USA

    • Tiffany A. Shaw

Contributions

A.V. designed the study and conducted the simulations. A.V. and T.A.S. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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