Increased insolation threshold for runaway greenhouse processes on Earth-like planets

Abstract

The increase in solar luminosity over geological timescales should warm the Earth’s climate, increasing water evaporation, which will in turn enhance the atmospheric greenhouse effect. Above a certain critical insolation, this destabilizing greenhouse feedback can ‘run away’ until the oceans have completely evaporated1,2,3,4. Through increases in stratospheric humidity, warming may also cause evaporative loss of the oceans to space before the runaway greenhouse state occurs5,6. The critical insolation thresholds for these processes, however, remain uncertain because they have so far been evaluated using one-dimensional models that cannot account for the dynamical and cloud feedback effects that are key stabilizing features of the Earth’s climate. Here we use a three-dimensional global climate model to show that the insolation threshold for the runaway greenhouse state to occur is about 375 W m−2, which is significantly higher than previously thought6,7. Our model is specifically developed to quantify the climate response of Earth-like planets to increased insolation in hot and extremely moist atmospheres. In contrast with previous studies, we find that clouds have a destabilizing feedback effect on the long-term warming. However, subsident, unsaturated regions created by the Hadley circulation have a stabilizing effect that is strong enough to shift the runaway greenhouse limit to higher values of insolation than are inferred from one-dimensional models. Furthermore, because of wavelength-dependent radiative effects, the stratosphere remains sufficiently cold and dry to hamper the escape of atmospheric water, even at large fluxes. This has strong implications for the possibility of liquid water existing on Venus early in its history, and extends the size of the habitable zone around other stars.

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Figure 1: Temperature and radiative budget for the Earth under two insolations.
Figure 2: Evolution of the mean surface temperature, planetary albedo and cloud radiative forcing with the mean solar incoming flux.
Figure 3: Evolution of globally averaged vertical profiles.
Figure 4: Meridional distribution of relative humidity.

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Acknowledgements

We thank our referees, J. Kasting and Y. Abe, for their thorough review, and A. Spiga and F. Selsis for discussions. This work was supported by grants from Région Ile-de-France.

Author information

J.L. developed the ‘high temperature/humidity’ version of the generic global climate model, performed the calculations, and led the analysis and writing of the results. F.F. initiated the development of the generic global climate model and provided critical advice during analysis and writing. B.C. worked on the development of the model and helped perform the comparison with present Earth climatology. R.W. developed the original version of the generic model and implemented the radiative transfer scheme. A.P. performed comparison runs and sensitivity studies. All the authors commented on the manuscript.

Correspondence to Jérémy Leconte.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Validation of the radiative transfer model at high temperature.

Dependence of outgoing thermal radiation (a), Bond albedo (b) and effective solar constant (with respect to the current solar constant; c) on surface temperature with a 1D version of our GCM in the ‘reverse climate modelling’ mode4,6. The dashed curve is the pure-water case, and the solid curve is the case with a 1 bar N2 background atmosphere including 376 p.p.m.v. of CO2. The surface albedo is 0.25.

Extended Data Figure 2 Evolution of the cloud radiative forcing with mean solar incoming flux for the scenario with fixed cloud particle radii.

Solid, dotted and dashed curves are respectively the short-wave, long-wave and net radiative cloud forcing. Although fewer simulations have been run, the changes in the value of the slopes around 353 and 365 W m−2 seem to have the same origin as the behaviour change seen in Fig. 2c (although they occur at different fluxes). These changes in cloud behaviour might be due to the disappearance of both permanent ice caps (at lower fluxes) and seasonal snow cover (at higher fluxes).

Extended Data Figure 3 Comparison between 1D and 3D cloud-free aquaplanet simulations.

a, Mean surface temperature as a function of incoming stellar flux. b, Emitted thermal flux dependence on surface temperature. c, Water-vapour column as a function of surface temperature. In all panels, filled dots stand for the idealized 3D set of aquaplanet simulations, and grey curves stand for the 1D model. In both cases, a uniform surface albedo of 0.22 is used. In the 1D case, three values of relative humidity in the radiative transfer are used: 1 (solid), 0.6 (dashed) and 0.45 (dotted).

Extended Data Figure 4 Relative humidity and radiative budget for an idealized, cloud-free aquaplanet.

a, Annually and zonally averaged relative humidity in a latitude–altitude plane. b, Distributions of absorbed (grey dashed) and emitted (grey dotted) flux and surface temperature (solid black) with latitude (annually and zonally averaged). The red line is the asymptotic-limit infrared flux for a saturated atmosphere. Results are shown for the case with insolation 375 W m−2.

Extended Data Figure 5 Surface albedo map used for the Earth baseline case.

This map does not include the effect of the ice albedo, which is computed directly by the GCM. The albedo of Greenland and Antarctica, in particular, was set to 0.35. The altitude of these regions was, however, left unchanged, explaining in part the temperature contrasts around these areas in Fig. 1.

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Leconte, J., Forget, F., Charnay, B. et al. Increased insolation threshold for runaway greenhouse processes on Earth-like planets. Nature 504, 268–271 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12827

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