Article | Published:

Tug of war on summertime circulation between radiative forcing and sea surface warming

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 560566 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

During summertime, monsoons and subtropical anticyclones shape precipitation and regional circulation patterns across the globe. In state-of-the-art climate models, the average response of the Asian monsoon cyclone, Pacific ocean anticyclone and jet stream to global warming is weak and responses of different models are diverse. Here we use a suite of simulations with atmospheric general circulation models with prescribed sea surface temperatures to separate the circulation responses to direct radiative forcing and indirect sea surface temperature warming. We find that the two contributions oppose each other. Using idealized aquaplanet simulations, we show that the different circulation responses are directly connected to the opposite responses of land–sea thermal contrast to the two forcing components. This tug of war on the circulation response to global warming is analogous to the seasonal response to insolation, which involves opposite land–sea thermal contrasts and circulation patterns governed by quasi-equilibrium thermodynamics and stationary-wave dynamics. We conclude that it is important to distinguish weak circulation responses to global warming that arise owing to compensating effects that are robust and physically understood from those that are associated with genuine uncertainty. We note that compensation places fundamental limits on the detection and attribution of circulation responses to global warming.

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Acknowledgements

T.A.S. and A.V. are supported by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. T.A.S. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation (Grant AGS-125520). We thank I. Simpson, R. Seager, M. Ting and A. Sobel for helpful discussions and N. Henderson and H. Liu for help downloading the CMIP5 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 (listed in the Supplementary Methods) for producing and making available their model output. 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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Affiliations

  1. Department of the Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60640, USA

    • T. A. Shaw
  2. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, New York, New York 100964, USA

    • T. A. Shaw
    •  & A. Voigt
  3. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • T. A. Shaw
  4. Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics, Columbia University, New York, New York 10027, USA

    • T. A. Shaw

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Contributions

T.A.S. designed the study, performed the analysis and wrote the manuscript. A.V. and T.A.S. performed the aquaplanet model simulations. Both authors discussed and interpreted the results and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. A. Shaw.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2449