Climate response to regional radiative forcing during the twentieth century


Regional climate change can arise from three different effects: regional changes to the amount of radiative heating that reaches the Earth’s surface, an inhomogeneous response to globally uniform changes in radiative heating and variability without a specific forcing. The relative importance of these effects is not clear, particularly because neither the response to regional forcings nor the regional forcings themselves are well known for the twentieth century. Here we investigate the sensitivity of regional climate to changes in carbon dioxide, black carbon aerosols, sulphate aerosols and ozone in the tropics, mid-latitudes and polar regions, using a coupled ocean–atmosphere model. We find that mid- and high-latitude climate is quite sensitive to the location of the forcing. Using these relationships between forcing and response along with observations of twentieth century climate change, we reconstruct radiative forcing from aerosols in space and time. Our reconstructions broadly agree with historical emissions estimates, and can explain the differences between observed changes in Arctic temperatures and expectations from non-aerosol forcings plus unforced variability. We conclude that decreasing concentrations of sulphate aerosols and increasing concentrations of black carbon have substantially contributed to rapid Arctic warming during the past three decades.

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Figure 1: Regional climate response to forcing applied in various latitude bands.
Figure 2: Area-weighted mean observed surface temperatures39,40 over the indicated latitude bands.
Figure 3: Time evolution of observed (black; nine-year running mean) surface temperatures and values reconstructed from models.
Figure 4: Global mean and regional gradient surface temperature trends derived from observations and models and aerosol forcing estimates.


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We thank NASA’s Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling and Analysis Program for support and R. Reudy and H. Teich for technical assistance. We acknowledge the modelling groups, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison and the Working Group on Coupled Modelling for making available the CMIP3 data set, which is supported by the Office of Science, US Department of Energy.

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D.S. conceived and designed the experiments and wrote the paper, G.F. carried out the model simulations and both analysed the data.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Drew Shindell.

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Shindell, D., Faluvegi, G. Climate response to regional radiative forcing during the twentieth century. Nature Geosci 2, 294–300 (2009).

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