Despite continued growth in atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases, global mean surface and tropospheric temperatures have shown slower warming since 1998 than previously1,2,3,4,5. Possible explanations for the slow-down include internal climate variability3,4,6,7, external cooling influences1,2,4,8,9,10,11 and observational errors12,13. Several recent modelling studies have examined the contribution of early twenty-first-century volcanic eruptions1,2,4,8 to the muted surface warming. Here we present a detailed analysis of the impact of recent volcanic forcing on tropospheric temperature, based on observations as well as climate model simulations. We identify statistically significant correlations between observations of stratospheric aerosol optical depth and satellite-based estimates of both tropospheric temperature and short-wave fluxes at the top of the atmosphere. We show that climate model simulations without the effects of early twenty-first-century volcanic eruptions overestimate the tropospheric warming observed since 1998. In two simulations with more realistic volcanic influences following the 1991 Pinatubo eruption, differences between simulated and observed tropospheric temperature trends over the period 1998 to 2012 are up to 15% smaller, with large uncertainties in the magnitude of the effect. To reduce these uncertainties, better observations of eruption-specific properties of volcanic aerosols are needed, as well as improved representation of these eruption-specific properties in climate model simulations.
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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 for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. J-P. Vernier (NASA Langley) and M. Sato (GISS) supplied updated SAOD data. T.M.L. Wigley (University of Adelaide), N. Gillett (Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis), A. Robock (Rutgers University), K. Trenberth (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and S.F.B. Tett (University of Edinburgh) provided helpful comments. At PCMDI, work by B.D.S., J.P., M.Z. and K.E.T. was performed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy under contract DE-AC52-07NA27344; C.B. was supported by the DOE/OBER Early Career Research Program Award SCW1295.