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Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008


The extent of snow cover1 and sea ice2 in the Northern Hemispherehas declined since 1979, coincident with hemispheric warming and indicative of a positive feedback of surface reflectivity on climate. This albedo feedback of snow on land has been quantified from observations at seasonal timescales3,4,5,6, and century-scale feedback has been assessed using climate models7,8,9,10. However, the total impact of the cryosphere on radiative forcing and albedo feedback has yet to be determined from measurements. Here we assess the influence of the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere on Earth’s radiation budget at the top of the atmosphere—termed cryosphere radiative forcing—by synthesizing a variety of remote sensing and field measurements. We estimate mean Northern Hemisphere forcing at −4.6 to −2.2 W m−2, with a peak in May of −9.0±2.7 W m−2. We find that cyrospheric cooling declined by 0.45 W m−2 from 1979 to 2008, with nearly equal contributions from changes in land snow cover and sea ice. On the basis of these observations, we conclude that the albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere falls between 0.3 and 1.1 W m−2 K−1, substantially larger than comparable estimates obtained from 18 climate models.

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Figure 1: Seasonal cycles of Northern Hemisphere CrRF and changes in forcing from 1979 to 2008.
Figure 2: Annual-mean CrRF and change in CrRF from 1979 to 2008.


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We thank C. Fowler and J. Maslanik for providing multi-year sea-ice data, T. Estilow and M. J. Brodzik for providing snow and sea-ice data and advice, and S. Warren for reviewing the manuscript. MODIS data are distributed by the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center, located at the US Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science Center ( The ISCCP D2 data were obtained from the International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project web site ( maintained by the ISCCP research group at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. We acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison and the WCRP’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling for their roles in making available the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model data set. Research was supported by NSF ATM-0852775 (M.G.F.) and ATM-0904092 (K.M.S.).

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M.G.F. wrote the manuscript and combined all data sets to quantify CrRF. K.M.S. provided radiative kernel data, quantified CMIP3 model feedbacks and helped write the manuscript. M.B. provided land snow-covered albedo data. D.K.P. and M.A.T. provided, respectively, field-measured and remote sensing sea-ice albedo data.

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Correspondence to M. G. Flanner.

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Flanner, M., Shell, K., Barlage, M. et al. Radiative forcing and albedo feedback from the Northern Hemisphere cryosphere between 1979 and 2008. Nature Geosci 4, 151–155 (2011).

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