Letter | Published:

Disentangling greenhouse warming and aerosol cooling to reveal Earth’s climate sensitivity

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 286289 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

Earth’s climate sensitivity has long been subject to heated debate and has spurred renewed interest after the latest IPCC assessment report suggested a downward adjustment of its most likely range1. Recent observational studies have produced estimates of transient climate sensitivity, that is, the global mean surface temperature increase at the time of CO2 doubling, as low as 1.3 K (refs 2,3), well below the best estimate produced by global climate models (1.8 K). Here, we present an observation-based study of the time period 1964 to 2010, which does not rely on climate models. The method incorporates observations of greenhouse gas concentrations, temperature and radiation from approximately 1,300 surface sites into an energy balance framework. Statistical methods commonly applied to economic time series are then used to decompose observed temperature trends into components attributable to changes in greenhouse gas concentrations and surface radiation. We find that surface radiation trends, which have been largely explained by changes in atmospheric aerosol loading, caused a cooling that masked approximately one-third of the continental warming due to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations over the past half-century. In consequence, the method yields a higher transient climate sensitivity (2.0  ±  0.8 K) than other observational studies.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by an interdisciplinary seed grant awarded by the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI). P.C.B.P. acknowledges research support from the NSF under Grant No. SES 1258258.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • T. Storelvmo
  2. Graduate School of Business, Nord University, 8049 Bodø, Norway

    • T. Leirvik
  3. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • U. Lohmann
    •  & M. Wild
  4. Department of Economics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • P. C. B. Phillips

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Contributions

T.S. and P.C.B.P. designed the project. T.L. performed data quality checks and all technical analysis. M.W. and U.L. contributed data and helped with interpretation. T.S. and P.C.B.P. wrote the paper with contributions from all co-authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. Storelvmo.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2670

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