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The missing aerosol response in twentieth-century mid-latitude precipitation observations


Regional temperature change over the twentieth century has been strongly influenced by aerosol forcing1,2. The aerosol effect is also expected to be pronounced on regional precipitation change3. Changes in historical precipitation—for the global mean and land mean of certain regions—should be more sensitive to spatially heterogeneous aerosol forcing than greenhouse gas forcing4,5,6,7. Here, we investigate whether regional precipitation and temperature respond predictably to a significant strengthening in mid-twentieth-century Northern Hemisphere mid-latitude (NHML) aerosol forcing. Using the latest climate model experiments, we find that observed regional temperature changes and observed Northern Hemisphere tropical land precipitation changes are consistent with the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report8 aerosol forcing estimate, but observed NHML land precipitation changes show little evidence of an aerosol response. This may be a result of changes in precipitation measurement practice that increased observed precipitation totals at the same time that aerosol forcing was expected to reduce them9. Investigating this inconsistency, we calculate the required increase in early-twentieth-century observed NHML land precipitation to bring this result in line with aerosol forcing. Biases greater than this calculated correction have been identified in countries within the NHML region previously, notably the former Soviet Union9,10. These observations are frequently used as a metric for the quality of model-simulated precipitation. More homogeneity studies would be of huge benefit.

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Figure 1: Five-year precipitation–temperature relationships for three twentieth-century experiments with CanESM2 for 1905–2004.
Figure 2: Time series of mean temperature and precipitation for 1905–2004.
Figure 3: Comparing temperature gradient and precipitation offsets with the strength of Northern Hemisphere mid-latitude (NHML) surface aerosol forcing.

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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 (listed in Supplementary Table 1 of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. 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. We thank X. Zhang for provision of the Zhang data set and for useful discussions. We also thank C. Ferro for helpful insight. J.M.O. is supported by an EPSRC studentship.

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Both authors designed the study, discussed results and revised the manuscript. J.M.O. performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Joe M. Osborne.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Osborne, J., Lambert, F. The missing aerosol response in twentieth-century mid-latitude precipitation observations. Nature Clim Change 4, 374–378 (2014).

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