Letter | Published:

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

Nature Geoscience volume 4, pages 758761 (2011) | Download Citation


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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    & Polar amplification of climate change in coupled models. Clim. Dyn. 21, 221–232 (2003).

  2. 2.

    , , , & The emergence of surface-based Arctic amplification. Cryosphere 3, 11–19 (2009).

  3. 3.

    & The central role of diminshing sea ice in recent Arctic temperature amplification. Nature 464, 1334–1337 (2010).

  4. 4.

    The role of surface albedo feedback in climate. J. Clim. 17, 1550–1568 (2004).

  5. 5.

    Surface albedo feedback estimates for the AR4 climate models. J. Clim. 19, 359–365 (2006).

  6. 6.

    & Quantifying contributions to polar warming amplification in an idealized coupled general circulation model. Clim. Dyn. 34, 669–687 (2009).

  7. 7.

    , , , & Vertical structure of recent Arctic warming. Nature 541, 53–56 (2008).

  8. 8.

    & Polar amplification in a coupled climate model with locked albedo. Clim. Dyn. 33, 629–643 (2009).

  9. 9.

    , & Current GCM’s unrealistic negative feedback in the Arctic. J. Clim. 22, 4682–4695 (2009).

  10. 10.

    et al. EC-Earth: A seamless Earth system prediction approach in action. Bull. Am. Meterol. Soc. 91, 1357–1363 (2010).

  11. 11.

    et al. Attribution of polar warming to human influence. Nature Geosci. 1, 750–754 (2008).

  12. 12.

    , & Trend in Northern Hemisphere winter atmospheric circulation during the last half of the twentieth century. J. Clim. 17, 3745–3760 (2006).

  13. 13.

    , & Influence of low Arctic sea-ice minima on anomously cold Eurasian winters. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L08707 (2009).

  14. 14.

    & Large-scale atmospheric circulation changes are associated with recent loss of Arctic sea ice. Tellus 62, 1–9 (2009).

  15. 15.

    et al. Partitioning recent Greenland Mass Loss. Science 326, 984–986 (2009).

  16. 16.

    et al. Greenland’s contribution to global sea level rise by the end of the 21st century. Clim. Dyn.  (2010).

  17. 17.

    & The Arctic amplification debate. Clim. Change 76, 241–264 (2006).

  18. 18.

    Solomon, S. (ed.) in Climate Change 2006: The Physical Science Basis 996 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  19. 19.

    & The effect of doubling the CO2 concentration on the climate of a general circulation model. J. Atmos. Sci. 32, 5529–5554 (1975).

  20. 20.

    , & Polar amplification of surface warming on an aquaplanet in ghost forcing experiments without sea ice feedbacks. Clim. Dyn. 24, 655–666 (2005).

  21. 21.

    , , & The seasonal atmospheric response to projected arctic sea ice loss in the late twenty-first century. J. Clim. 23, 333–351 (2010).

  22. 22.

    et al. Towards a warmer Arctic Ocean: Spreading of the early 21st century Atlantic water warm anomaly along the Eurasian Basin margins. J. Geophys. Res. 113, C05023 (2008).

  23. 23.

    et al. Enhanced modern heat transfer to the Arctic by warm Atlantic water. Science 331, 450–253 (2011).

  24. 24.

    et al. How well do we understand and evaluate climate change feedback processes? J. Clim. 19, 3445–3482 (2006).

  25. 25.

    et al. Response of the NCAR climate system model to increased CO2 and the role of physical processes. J. Clim. 13, 1879–1898 (2000).

  26. 26.

    Longwave atmospheric radiation over Antarctica. Ant. Sci. 8, 105–109 (1996).

  27. 27.

    & Seasonality of polar surface warming amplification in climate simulations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L16704 (2009).

  28. 28.

    et al. A new method for diagnosing radiative forcing and climate sensitivity. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31, L03205 (2004).

  29. 29.

    , , & The representation of soil moisture freezing and its impact on the stable boundary layer. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 125, 2401–2426 (1999).

Download references


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.

Author information

Author notes

    • R. G. Graversen

    Present address: Meteorological Institute, Stockholm University (MISU), Stockholm 10691, Sweden


  1. Global Climate Division, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), Wilhelminalaan 10, 3732 GK De Bilt, The Netherlands

    • R. Bintanja
    • , R. G. Graversen
    •  & W. Hazeleger
  2. Meteorology and Air Quality Group, Wageningen University, Droevendaalsesteeg 4, 6708 PB Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • W. Hazeleger


  1. Search for R. Bintanja in:

  2. Search for R. G. Graversen in:

  3. Search for W. Hazeleger in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to R. Bintanja.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading