Letter | Published:

Impact of decadal cloud variations on the Earth’s energy budget

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 871874 (2016) | Download Citation


Feedbacks of clouds on climate change strongly influence the magnitude of global warming1,2,3. Cloud feedbacks, in turn, depend on the spatial patterns of surface warming4,5,6,7,8,9, which vary on decadal timescales. Therefore, the magnitude of the decadal cloud feedback could deviate from the long-term cloud feedback4. Here we present climate model simulations to show that the global mean cloud feedback in response to decadal temperature fluctuations varies dramatically due to time variations in the spatial pattern of sea surface temperature. We find that cloud anomalies associated with these patterns significantly modify the Earth’s energy budget. Specifically, the decadal cloud feedback between the 1980s and 2000s is substantially more negative than the long-term cloud feedback. This is a result of cooling in tropical regions where air descends, relative to warming in tropical ascent regions, which strengthens low-level atmospheric stability. Under these conditions, low-level cloud cover and its reflection of solar radiation increase, despite an increase in global mean surface temperature. These results suggest that sea surface temperature pattern-induced low cloud anomalies could have contributed to the period of reduced warming between 1998 and 2013, and offer a physical explanation of why climate sensitivities estimated from recently observed trends are probably biased low4.

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The authors thank J. Norris for providing the corrected ISCCP and PATMOS-x data, and thank J. Gregory, A. Dessler, A. Hall, H. Su, X. Qu, C. Terai and A. DeAngelis for valuable discussions. This work was supported by the Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program of the Office of Science at the US Department of Energy (DOE) under the project ‘Identifying Robust Cloud Feedbacks in Observations and Models’ and was performed under the auspices of DOE by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory under Contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. IM Release #LLNL-JRNL-692260.

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  1. Cloud Processes Research Group, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, USA

    • Chen Zhou
    • , Mark D. Zelinka
    •  & Stephen A. Klein


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C.Z. performed the analysis. C.Z. and M.D.Z. designed the experiments. S.A.K. proposed the cloud analyses. The paper was discussed and written by all authors.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Chen Zhou.

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