Article | Published:

Spread in model climate sensitivity traced to atmospheric convective mixing

Nature volume 505, pages 3742 (02 January 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Equilibrium climate sensitivity refers to the ultimate change in global mean temperature in response to a change in external forcing. Despite decades of research attempting to narrow uncertainties, equilibrium climate sensitivity estimates from climate models still span roughly 1.5 to 5 degrees Celsius for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, precluding accurate projections of future climate. The spread arises largely from differences in the feedback from low clouds, for reasons not yet understood. Here we show that differences in the simulated strength of convective mixing between the lower and middle tropical troposphere explain about half of the variance in climate sensitivity estimated by 43 climate models. The apparent mechanism is that such mixing dehydrates the low-cloud layer at a rate that increases as the climate warms, and this rate of increase depends on the initial mixing strength, linking the mixing to cloud feedback. The mixing inferred from observations appears to be sufficiently strong to imply a climate sensitivity of more than 3 degrees for a doubling of carbon dioxide. This is significantly higher than the currently accepted lower bound of 1.5 degrees, thereby constraining model projections towards relatively severe future warming.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the FP7-ENV-2009-1 European project EUCLIPSE (number 244067). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output, especially the participants contributing additional CFMIP2 experiments and diagnostics crucial to our study. The US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support for CMIP and led the development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organisation for Earth System Science Portals. We also thank the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Earth System Grid Federation for providing access to PCM output, the Australian National Computational Infrastructure, and the IPSL Prodiguer-Ciclad facility for providing a convenient archive of CMIP data. Finally, we thank B. Stevens, C. Bretherton and G. Schmidt for comments on early versions of the manuscript.

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Affiliations

  1. Climate Change Research Centre and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney 2052, Australia

    • Steven C. Sherwood
  2. Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique and Institut Pierre Simon Laplace (LMD/IPSL), CNRS, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris 75252, France

    • Sandrine Bony
    •  & Jean-Louis Dufresne

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Contributions

S.C.S. led the study and the writing of the paper, and did the calculations of LTMI and related diagnostics. S.B. computed cloud radiative effect and assisted in interpreting results and writing the paper. J.-L.D. computed ECS and assisted in interpreting results and writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steven C. Sherwood.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12829

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