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Changes in atmospheric shortwave absorption as important driver of dimming and brightening


The amount of solar (shortwave) radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface underwent substantial variations over recent decades. Since the 1950s, surface shortwave radiation gradually decreased at widespread locations. In Europe, this so-called surface dimming continued until the late 1980s, when surface brightening set in and surface shortwave radiation increased again. In China, the dimming levelled off in the 1980s, but did not turn into brightening until 2005. Changes in clouds and aerosol are the prime potential causes for the phenomenon, but the scientific community has not yet reached a consensus about the relative role of the different potential forcing agents. Here we bring together co-located long-term observational data from surface and space to study decadal changes of the shortwave energy balance in Europe and China from 1985 to 2015. Within this observation-based framework, we show that an increasing net shortwave radiation at the top of the atmosphere and a decreasing atmospheric shortwave absorption each contribute roughly half of the observed brightening trends in Europe. For China, we find that the continued dimming until 2005 and the subsequent brightening occurred despite opposing trends in the top-of-the-atmosphere net shortwave radiation. This shows that changes in atmospheric shortwave absorption are a major driver of European brightening and the dominant cause for the Chinese surface trends. Although the observed variations cannot be attributed unambiguously, we discuss potential causes for the observed changes.

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Fig. 1: Long-term mean (2000–2015) fractional Aatm.
Fig. 2: Anomaly time series of shortwave energy balance quantities.
Fig. 3: Trend matrices for the shortwave flux data.
Fig. 4: Comparison of TOA net shortwave fluxes from different data sources.

Data availability

The DEEP-C data are available via The GLASS data are available via The BSRN data are available via The GEBA data is available via The CMA data can be accessed from the China Meteorological Administration at

Code availability

All code used in this study to perform the analyses and to create the figures can be made available upon request to the corresponding author.


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This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation grant 20002_159938/1 (Towards an improved understanding of the Global Energy Balance: temporal variations of solar radiation in the climate system). S.Y. was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant 41805128). R.P.A. was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) SMURPHS Grant NE/N006054/1. We thank all the people who were involved in collecting, processing and storing the surface radiation data for the radiation networks BSRN, GEBA and CMA. GEBA is supported by the Federal Office of Meteorology and Climatology MeteoSwiss in the framework of GCOS Switzerland. We thank the CERES, ERBE and DEEP-C teams, and the AVHRR, MODIS and GLASS teams for collecting, creating and offering the datasets.

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M.S., D.F. and M.W. designed the study. Y.S. processed the in situ data for China. R.P.A. provided the DEEP-C data and helped interpret it. M.S. did the coding and data analysis with the help of all the co-authors. M.S., D.F. and M.W. wrote the paper with contributions from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to M. Schwarz.

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Schwarz, M., Folini, D., Yang, S. et al. Changes in atmospheric shortwave absorption as important driver of dimming and brightening. Nat. Geosci. 13, 110–115 (2020).

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