The mystery of recent stratospheric temperature trends



A new data set of middle- and upper-stratospheric temperatures based on reprocessing of satellite radiances provides a view of stratospheric climate change during the period 1979–2005 that is strikingly different from that provided by earlier data sets. The new data call into question our understanding of observed stratospheric temperature trends and our ability to test simulations of the stratospheric response to emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances. Here we highlight the important issues raised by the new data and suggest how the climate science community can resolve them.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Global-mean stratospheric temperature anomalies since 1979.
Figure 2: Trends in global-mean stratospheric temperatures between 1979 and 2005.
Figure 3: The north–south structure of zonal-mean stratospheric temperature trends between 1979 and 2005.


  1. 1

    Ramaswamy, V. et al. Stratospheric temperature trends: observations and model simulations. Rev. Geophys. 39, 71–122 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Shine, K. P. et al. A comparison of model-simulated trends in stratospheric temperatures. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 129, 1565–1588 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Randel, W. J. et al. An update of observed stratospheric temperature trends. J. Geophys. Res. 114, D02107 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Seidel, D. J., Gillett, N. P., Lanzante, J. R., Shine, K. P. & Thorne, P. W. Stratospheric temperature trends: our evolving understanding. Wiley Interdisc. Rev. Clim. Change 2, 592–616 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Forster, P. M. et al. in Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2010, Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project Report No. 52, Ch. 4 (World Meteorological Organization, 2011)

  6. 6

    Hansen, J. et al. Forcings and chaos in interannual to decadal climate change. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 25679–25720 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Trenberth, K. E. et al. in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) Ch. 3 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007)

  8. 8

    Lanzante, J., Klein, S. & Seidel, D. J. Temporal homogenization of monthly radiosonde temperature data. Part II: Trends, sensitivities and MSU comparisons. J. Clim. 16, 241–262 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Keckhut, P. et al. Review of ozone and temperature lidar validations performed within the framework of the Network for the Detection of Stratospheric Change. J. Environ. Monit. 6, 721–733 (2004)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Mears, C. A. & Wentz, F. J. Construction of the Remote Sensing Systems V3.2 atmospheric temperature records from the MSU and AMSU microwave sounders. J. Atmos. Ocean. Technol. 26, 1040–1056 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Christy, J. R., Spencer, R. W., Norris, W. B., Braswell, W. D. & Parke, D. E. Error estimates of version 5.0 of MSU-AMSU bulk atmospheric temperatures. J. Atmos. Ocean. Technol. 20, 613–629 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Zou, C.-Z. et al. Recalibration of microwave sounding unit for climate studies using simultaneous nadir overpasses. J. Geophys. Res. 111, D19114 (2006)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Nash, J. & Forrester, G. F. Long-term monitoring of stratospheric temperature trends using radiance measurements obtained by the TIROS-N series of NOAA spacecraft. Adv. Space Res. 6, 37–44 (1986). These authors pioneered the use of infrared radiances from the SSU instrument for climate studies and produced the first SSU data set.

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Nash, J. Extension of explicit radiance observations by the Stratospheric Sounding Unit into the lower stratosphere and lower mesosphere. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 114, 1153–1171 (1988)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Shine, K. P., Barnett, J. J. & Randel, W. J. Temperature trends derived from Stratospheric Sounding Unit radiances: the effect of increasing CO2 on the weighting function. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L02710 (2008). These authors were the first to quantify the effect of increasing carbon dioxide on the SSU weighting function, and their work highlighted the need to revisit and reprocess the SSU data set of ref. 13.

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Wang, L., Zou, C.-Z. & Qian, H. Construction of stratospheric temperature data records from stratospheric sounding units. J. Clim. 25, 2931–2946 (2012). These authors provided the first full reprocessing of the original SSU radiances, and their findings have raised serious questions regarding our understanding of stratospheric temperature trends.

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    SPARC Report on the Evaluation of Chemistry-Climate Models (eds Eyring, V., Shepherd, T. G. & Waugh, D. W. ) SPARC Report No. 5, WCRP-132, WMO/TD-No. 1526 (SPARC, 2010).

  18. 18

    Forster, P. M. et al. Evaluation of radiation scheme performance within chemistry climate models. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D10302 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Butchart, N. et al. Simulations of anthropogenic change in the strength of the Brewer-Dobson circulation. Clim. Dyn. 27, 727–741 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Garcia, R. R. & Randel, W. J. Acceleration of the Brewer-Dobson circulation due to increases in greenhouse gases. J. Atmos. Sci. 65, 2731–2739 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Butchart, N. et al. Chemistry-climate model simulations of 21st century stratospheric climate and circulation changes. J. Clim. 23, (2010)

  22. 22

    McLandress, C. & Shepherd, T. G. Simulated anthropogenic changes in the Brewer-Dobson circulation, including its extension to high latitudes. J. Clim. 22, 1516–1540 (2009)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Shepherd, T. G. & McLandress, C. A robust mechanism for strengthening of the Brewer-Dobson circulation in response to climate change: critical-layer control of subtropical wave breaking. J. Atmos. Sci. 68, 784–797 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Garny, H., Dameris, M., Randel, W. J., Bodeker, G. E. & Deckert, R. Dynamically forced increase of tropical upwelling in the lower stratosphere. J. Atmos. Sci. 68, 1214–1233 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Randel, W. J. & Thompson, A. M. Interannual variability and trends in tropical ozone derived from SAGE II satellite data and SHADOZ ozonesondes. J. Geophys. Res. 116, D07303 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Douglas, A. et al. in Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2010, Global Ozone Research and Monitoring Project Report No. 52, Ch. 2 (World Meteorological Organization, 2011)

  27. 27

    Free, M. et al. Radiosonde Atmospheric Temperature Products for Assessing Climate (RATPAC): a new data set of large-area anomaly time series. J. Geophys. Res. 110, D22101 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Thompson, D. W. J. & Solomon, S. Recent stratospheric climate trends as evidenced in radiosonde data: global structure and tropospheric linkages. J. Clim. 18, 4785–4795 (2005)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Young, P. J. et al. Changes in stratospheric temperatures and their implications for changes in the Brewer Dobson Circulation, 1979–2005. J. Clim. 25, 1759–1772 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Wang, L. & Waugh, D. W. Chemistry-climate model simulations of recent trends in lower stratospheric temperature and stratospheric residual circulation. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D09109 (2012)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Deshler, T. A review of global stratospheric aerosol: measurements, importance, life cycle, and local stratospheric aerosol. Atmos. Res. 90, 223–232 (2008)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Solomon, S., Young, P. J. & Hassler, B. Uncertainties in the evolution of statospheric ozone and implications for recent temperature changes in the tropical lower stratosphere. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L17706 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

    Seidel, D. J. et al. Reference upper-air observations for climate: rationale, progress, and plans. Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 90, 361–369 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank K. Shine, M. Dameris, M. Free and R. Saunders for suggestions and comments on the manuscript. D.W.J.T. is supported by the National Science Foundation Climate Dynamics Program under budget number AGS-0936255. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s (WCRP) Working Group on Coupled Modelling and the WCRP CCM Validation project (CCMVal), which are responsible for archiving the CMIP5 and CCMVal2 output, respectively. We also thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output as listed in Table 1. For CMIP the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

Author information




D.W.J.T. led the analyses and the writing of the text. D.J.S., W.J.R. and C.-Z.Z. contributed to the text and analysis design and provided guidance on all aspects of the study. A.H.B. provided the CMIP5 output, assisted with the analyses of the model output, and provided advice on the text. C.M. provided expertise on the data sets used in the study and advice on the text. A.O. assisted with the analyses and data processing and provided advice on the text. C.L. and R.L. provided advice on the text.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David W. J. Thompson.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Thompson, D., Seidel, D., Randel, W. et al. The mystery of recent stratospheric temperature trends. Nature 491, 692–697 (2012).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing