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Circulation response to warming shaped by radiative changes of clouds and water vapour


The atmospheric circulation controls how global climate change will be expressed regionally. Substantial circulation changes are expected under global warming, including a narrowing of the intertropical convergence zone1,2, a slow down and poleward expansion of the tropical circulation3,4, and a poleward shift of mid-latitude stormtracks and jets5,6. Yet, climate model projections of the circulation response to climate change remain uncertain7. Here we present simulations with two different aquaplanet climate models and analyse these simulations using the cloud and water-vapour locking method. We find that radiative changes of clouds and water vapour are key to the regional response of precipitation and circulation to global warming. Model disagreement in the response of key characteristics of the atmospheric circulation—the intertropical convergence zone, the strength of the Hadley circulation, and the trade winds—arises from disagreement between the models in radiative changes of tropical ice clouds and their coupling to the circulation. We find that cloud changes amplify a poleward shift of the extratropical jet, whereas water vapour changes oppose such a shift, but the degree of compensation is model-dependent. We conclude that radiative changes of clouds and water vapour are not only integral to the magnitude of future global-mean warming but also determine patterns of regional climate change.

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Figure 1: Precipitation response in two CMIP5 aquaplanet models under a uniform 4 K surface warming.
Figure 2: Decomposition of tropical precipitation and vertical velocity response to global warming.
Figure 3: Impact of radiative changes of clouds and water vapour on the atmospheric temperature and zonal wind response to global warming in MPI-ESM (top) and IPSL-CM5A (bottom).


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A.V. and T.A.S. are supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. T.A.S. is also supported by NSF award AGS-1255208. We thank L. Polvani for helpful comments, and H. Liu for downloading the CMIP5 aquaplanet data. 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 of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace for producing and making available their aquaControl and aqua4K aquaplanet simulations. 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.

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A.V. designed the study and conducted the simulations. A.V. and T.A.S. analysed the data and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Aiko Voigt.

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Voigt, A., Shaw, T. Circulation response to warming shaped by radiative changes of clouds and water vapour. Nature Geosci 8, 102–106 (2015).

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