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Arctic winter warming amplified by the thermal inversion and consequent low infrared cooling to space


Pronounced warming in the Arctic region, coined Arctic amplification, is an important feature of observed and modelled climate change1,2. Arctic amplification is generally attributed to the retreat of sea-ice3 and snow, and the associated surface-albedo feedback4, in conjunction with other processes5,6,7,8. In addition, the predominant thermal surface inversion in winter has been suggested to pose a negative feedback to Arctic warming by enhancing infrared radiative cooling9. Here we use the coupled climate model EC-Earth10 in idealized climate change experiments to quantify the individual contributions of the surface and the atmosphere to infrared radiative cooling. We find that the surface inversion in fact intensifies Arctic amplification, because the ability of the Arctic wintertime clear-sky atmosphere to cool to space decreases with inversion strength. Specifically, we find that the cold layers close to the surface in Arctic winter, where most of the warming takes place, hardly contribute to the infrared radiation that goes out to space. Instead, the additional radiation that is generated by the warming of these layers is directed downwards, and thus amplifies the warming. We conclude that the predominant Arctic wintertime temperature inversion damps infrared cooling of the system, and thus constitutes a positive warming feedback.

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Figure 1: Arctic amplification of zonal mean surface air temperature change for a doubling of CO2.
Figure 2: Zonal mean winter (DJF) changes in clear-sky TOA infrared radiation for a doubling of CO2.
Figure 3: Zonal mean changes in wintertime (DJF) atmospheric cooling efficiency, inversion strength and vertical temperature profile for a doubling of CO2.
Figure 4: Change in DJF longwave all-sky longwave radiation components averaged over the Arctic region (70°–90° N) for a doubling of CO2.

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We are grateful to all members of the EC-Earth consortium for their help and support with the development of the EC-Earth climate model. R.G.G. is funded by the Ministry of Transport, Public Works and Water Management, The Netherlands, within the project Abrupt Climate Change, and by FORMAS, Sweden, through the ADSIMNOR project.

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R.B. and R.G.G. developed the ideas that lead to this paper. R.B. conducted the climate model experiments and analyses, and wrote the main paper and the Supplementary Information. All authors discussed the results and implications and commented on the manuscript at all stages.

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Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

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Bintanja, R., Graversen, R. & Hazeleger, W. Arctic winter warming amplified by the thermal inversion and consequent low infrared cooling to space. Nature Geosci 4, 758–761 (2011).

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