Letter | Published:

Distinct energy budgets for anthropogenic and natural changes during global warming hiatus

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 2933 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The Earth’s energy budget for the past four decades can now be closed1, and it supports anthropogenic greenhouse forcing as the cause for climate warming. However, closure depends on invoking an unrealistically large increase in aerosol cooling2 during the so-called global warming hiatus since the late 1990s (refs 3,4) that was due partly to tropical Pacific Ocean cooling5,6,7. The difficulty with this closure lies in the assumption that the same climate feedback applies to both anthropogenic warming and natural cooling. Here we analyse climate model simulations with and without anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, and show that top-of-the-atmosphere radiation and global mean surface temperature are much less tightly coupled for natural decadal variability than for the greenhouse-gas-induced response, implying distinct climate feedback between anthropogenic warming and natural variability. In addition, we identify a phase difference between top-of-the-atmosphere radiation and global mean surface temperature such that ocean heat uptake tends to slow down during the surface warming hiatus. This result deviates from existing energy theory but we find that it is broadly consistent with observations. Our study highlights the importance of developing metrics that distinguish anthropogenic change from natural variations to attribute climate variability and to estimate climate sensitivity from observations.

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Acknowledgements

S.-P.X. and Y.M.O. are supported by the US National Science Foundation and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Y.K. is supported by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology through Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists 15H05466 and by the Japanese Ministry of Environment through the Environment Research and Technology Development Fund 2-1503. The CAM4-OML output is provided by R. Thomas and C. Deser of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

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Affiliations

  1. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, 9500 Gilman Drive MC 0206, La Jolla, California 92093, USA

    • Shang-Ping Xie
  2. Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Tokyo, 4-6-1 Komaba, Meguro-ku, Tokyo 153-8904, Japan

    • Yu Kosaka
  3. Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin, 10100 Burnet Road, Austin, Texas 78758, USA

    • Yuko M. Okumura

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Contributions

S.-P.X. conceived the study and wrote the paper. Y.K. and Y.M.O. contributed to the development of the idea and performed the analysis. All the authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shang-Ping Xie.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2581

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