Article

Causes of differences in model and satellite tropospheric warming rates

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Abstract

In the early twenty-first century, satellite-derived tropospheric warming trends were generally smaller than trends estimated from a large multi-model ensemble. Because observations and coupled model simulations do not have the same phasing of natural internal variability, such decadal differences in simulated and observed warming rates invariably occur. Here we analyse global-mean tropospheric temperatures from satellites and climate model simulations to examine whether warming rate differences over the satellite era can be explained by internal climate variability alone. We find that in the last two decades of the twentieth century, differences between modelled and observed tropospheric temperature trends are broadly consistent with internal variability. Over most of the early twenty-first century, however, model tropospheric warming is substantially larger than observed; warming rate differences are generally outside the range of trends arising from internal variability. The probability that multi-decadal internal variability fully explains the asymmetry between the late twentieth and early twenty-first century results is low (between zero and about 9%). It is also unlikely that this asymmetry is due to the combined effects of internal variability and a model error in climate sensitivity. We conclude that model overestimation of tropospheric warming in the early twenty-first century is partly due to systematic deficiencies in some of the post-2000 external forcings used in the model simulations.

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Acknowledgements

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 for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP, the US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. We thank M. Zelinka (PCMDI) for providing CMIP5 climate sensitivity results, S. Solomon (M.I.T.) for helpful discussions, and N. Swart and V. Arora (both CCCma) for constructive comments. The views, opinions, and findings contained in this report are those of the authors and should not be construed as a position, policy, or decision of the US Government, the US Department of Energy, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI), Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, California 94550, USA

    • Benjamin D. Santer
    • , Giuliana Pallotta
    • , Jeffrey F. Painter
    • , Céline Bonfils
    • , Ivana Cvijanovic
    •  & Stephen Po-Chedley
  2. Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis (CCCma), Environment and Climate Change Canada, Victoria, British Columbia V8W 2Y2, Canada

    • John C. Fyfe
    •  & Gregory M. Flato
  3. National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado 80307, USA

    • Gerald A. Meehl
  4. ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of New South Wales, New South Wales 2052, Australia

    • Matthew H. England
  5. National Centre for Atmospheric Science, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6BB, UK

    • Ed Hawkins
  6. Department of Meteorology and Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16802, USA

    • Michael E. Mann
  7. Remote Sensing Systems, Santa Rosa, California 95401, USA

    • Carl Mears
    •  & Frank J. Wentz
  8. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

    • Qiang Fu
  9. Center for Satellite Applications and Research, NOAA/NESDIS, College Park, Maryland 20740, USA

    • Cheng-Zhi Zou

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Contributions

B.D.S., J.C.F., G.P., G.M.F. and E.H. designed the analysis. B.D.S. performed all statistical analyses. J.F.P. calculated synthetic satellite temperatures from model simulation output and provided assistance with processing of observed temperature data. C.M., F.J.W., S.P.-C., Q.F. and C.-Z.Z. provided satellite temperature data. I.C., C.B. and J.F.P. assisted with the processing of the CMIP5 simulations analysed here. All authors contributed to the writing and review of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin D. Santer.

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