As the atmosphere warms, part of the cloud population shifts from ice and mixed-phase (‘cold’) to liquid (‘warm’) clouds. Because warm clouds are more reflective and longer-lived, this phase change reduces the solar flux absorbed by the Earth and constitutes a negative radiative feedback. This cooling feedback is weaker in the sixth phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6) than in the fifth phase (CMIP5), contributing to greater greenhouse warming. Although this change is often attributed to improvements in the simulated cloud phase, another model bias persists: warm clouds precipitate too readily, potentially leading to underestimated negative lifetime feedbacks. In this study we modified a climate model to better simulate warm-rain probability and found that it exhibits a cloud lifetime feedback nearly three times larger than the default model. This suggests that model errors in cloud-precipitation processes may bias cloud feedbacks by as much as the CMIP5-to-CMIP6 climate sensitivity difference. Reliable climate model projections therefore require improved cloud process realism guided by process-oriented observations and observational constraints.
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The summary data files of the model runs used in this article are available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4587416.
The code that was used to perform model analysis and produce the figures and tables is freely available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4603964. The ECHAM–HAMMOZ model code is available at https://hammoz.ethz.ch, subject to acknowledgment of a license; the modifications made for this analysis are freely available at https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4604019.
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We thank C. Bretherton, S. Burrows, S. Klein, J. Mace, D. McCoy, I. McCoy, C. Sackmann, I. Tan, R. Wood and three reviewers for their comments. The ECHAM–HAMMOZ model was developed by a consortium composed of ETH Zurich, Max Planck Institut für Meteorologie, Forschungszentrum Jülich, University of Oxford, the Finnish Meteorological Institute and the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research, and managed by the Center for Climate Systems Modeling (C2SM) at ETH Zurich. Computing resources were provided by Deutsches Klimarechenzentrum (DKRZ). Ice water path data were provided by F. Li. The GPCP data were provided by the NOAA/OAR/ESRL PSL, Boulder, CO, USA, from their web site at https://psl.noaa.gov/. The public domain map data were provided by https://naturalearthdata.com. J.M. and J.Q. were supported by European Research Council (ERC) project ‘QUAERERE’, grant agreement 306284. J.M. and P.-L.M. were supported by the US Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Regional and Global Model Analysis Program. P.-L.M. was supported by the Leibniz Invitations program at Universität Leipzig. J.E.K. was supported by NSF CAREER AGS 1554659 and NASA Award 80NSSC20K0133. The work of M.D.Z. was supported by the US DOE Regional and Global Model Analysis Program and was performed under the auspices of the US DOE under Contract DE-AC52-07NA27344. The work of J.Q. was supported by the European Union through its Horizon 2020 projects CONSTRAIN (GA 820829) and FORCeS (GA 821205). The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is operated on behalf of the US DOE by the Battelle Memorial Institute under contract DE-AC05-76RL01830.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Mülmenstädt, J., Salzmann, M., Kay, J.E. et al. An underestimated negative cloud feedback from cloud lifetime changes. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 508–513 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01038-1
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