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Climate Sensitivity Research: 2014-2018

Posted on: August 15, 2018

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Climate sensitivity is defined by Jule Charney as the expected temperature increase for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. It is a measure and testable implication of the theory that surface temperature is responsive to atmospheric CO2 concentration in accordance with the so called “greenhouse effect”. Such responsiveness implies a linear relationship between surface temperature and the logarithm of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. In the observational data, this responsiveness can be measured as the linear OLS regression coefficient of surface temperature to log(CO2) and then converted to the Charney doubling convention with the appropriate ratio. The vexing issue in climate science research is that the large range of values reported implies that this crucial measure of the impact of atmospheric CO2 on climate may not exist because it can’t be found in the data. The bibliography presented here shows how climate science is responding to this unresolved issue. One surprising strategy found in these works is to reduce the width of the confidence interval for ECS simply by reducing its probability range from 90% (1.645 standard deviations) to 66% (one standard deviation).

  1. 2018: Dessler, A. E., and P. M. Forster. “An estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity from interannual variability.Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres (2018). Estimating the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS; the equilibrium warming in response to a doubling of CO2) from observations is one of the big problems in climate science. Using observations of interannual climate variations covering the period 2000 to 2017 and a model‐derived relationship between interannual variations and forced climate change, we estimate ECS is likely 2.4‐4.6 K (17‐83% confidence interval), with a mode and median value of 2.9 and 3.3 K, respectively. This analysis provides no support for low values of ECS (below 2 K) suggested by other analyses. The main uncertainty in our estimate is not observational uncertainty, but rather uncertainty in converting observations of short‐term, mainly unforced climate variability to an estimate of the response of the climate system to long‐term forced warming.: Plain language summary: Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is the amount of warming resulting from doubling carbon dioxide. It is one of the important metrics in climate science because it is a primary determinant of how much warming we will experience in the future. Despite decades of work, this quantity remains uncertain: the last IPCC report stated a range for ECS of 1.5‐4.5 deg. Celsius. Using observations of interannual climate variations covering the period 2000 to 2017, we estimate ECS is likely 2.4‐4.6 K. Thus, our analysis provides no support for the bottom of the IPCC’s range.
  2. 2018: Cox, Peter M., Chris Huntingford, and Mark S. Williamson. “Emergent constraint on equilibrium climate sensitivity from global temperature variability.” Nature 553.7688 (2018): 319. Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) remains one of the most important unknowns in climate change science. ECS is defined as the global mean warming that would occur if the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration were instantly doubled and the climate were then brought to equilibrium with that new level of CO2. Despite its rather idealized definition, ECS has continuing relevance for international climate change agreements, which are often framed in terms of stabilization of global warming relative to the pre-industrial climate. However, the ‘likely’ range of ECS as stated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has remained at 1.5–4.5 degrees Celsius for more than 25 years1. The possibility of a value of ECS towards the upper end of this range reduces the feasibility of avoiding 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, as required by the Paris Agreement. Here we present a new emergent constraint on ECS that yields a central estimate of 2.8 degrees Celsius with 66 per cent confidence limits (equivalent to the IPCC ‘likely’ range) of 2.2–3.4 degrees Celsius. Our approach is to focus on the variability of temperature about long-term historical warming, rather than on the warming trend itself. We use an ensemble of climate models to define an emergent relationship2between ECS and a theoretically informed metric of global temperature variability. This metric of variability can also be calculated from observational records of global warming, which enables tighter constraints to be placed on ECS, reducing the probability of ECS being less than 1.5 degrees Celsius to less than 3 per cent, and the probability of ECS exceeding 4.5 degrees Celsius to less than 1 per cent.
  3. 2018: Schurgers, Guy, et al. “Climate sensitivity controls uncertainty in future terrestrial carbon sink.” Geophysical Research Letters 45.9 (2018): 4329-4336. For the 21st century, carbon cycle models typically project an increase of terrestrial carbon with increasing atmospheric CO2 and a decrease with the accompanying climate change. However, these estimates are poorly constrained, primarily because they typically rely on a limited number of emission and climate scenarios. Here we explore a wide range of combinations of CO2 rise and climate change and assess their likelihood with the climate change responses obtained from climate models. Our results demonstrate that the terrestrial carbon uptake depends critically on the climate sensitivity of individual climate models, representing a large uncertainty of model estimates. In our simulations, the terrestrial biosphere is unlikely to become a strong source of carbon with any likely combination of CO2 and climate change in the absence of land use change, but the fraction of the emissions taken up by the terrestrial biosphere will decrease drastically with higher emissions.
  4. 2018: Wagner, Gernot, and Martin L. Weitzman. “Potentially large equilibrium climate sensitivity tail uncertainty.” Economics Letters 168 (2018): 144-146. Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), the link between concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and eventual global average temperatures, has been persistently and perhaps deeply uncertain. Its ‘likely’ range has been approximately between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Centigrade for almost 40 years (Wagner and Weitzman, 2015). Moreover, Roe and Baker (2007), Weitzman (2009), and others have argued that its right-hand tail may be long, ‘fat’ even. Enter Cox et al. (2018), who use an ‘emergent constraint’ approach to characterize the probability distribution of ECS as having a central or best estimate of 2.8  °C with a 66% confidence interval of 2.2–3.4  °C. This implies, by their calculations, that the probability of ECS exceeding 4.5  °C is less than 1%. They characterize such kind of result as “renewing hope that we may yet be able to avoid global warming exceeding 2[°C]”. We share the desire for less uncertainty around ECS Weitzman (2011)Wagner and Weitzman (2015). However, we are afraid that the upper-tail emergent constraint on ECS is largely a function of the assumed normal error terms in the regression analysis. We do not attempt to evaluate Cox et al. (2018)’s physical modeling (aside from the normality assumption), leaving that task to physical scientists. We take Cox et al. (2018)’s 66% confidence interval as given and explore the implications of applying alternative probability distributions. We find, for example, that moving from a normal to a log-normal distribution, while giving identical probabilities for being in the 2.2–3.4 °C range, increases the probability of exceeding 4.5 °C by over five times. Using instead a fat-tailed Pareto distribution, an admittedly extreme case, increases the probability by over forty times. (blogger’s commentsome statistical issues in the treatment of ECS by climate scientists.)
  5. 2018: Jonko, Alexandra, Nathan M. Urban, and Balu Nadiga. “Towards Bayesian hierarchical inference of equilibrium climate sensitivity from a combination of CMIP5 climate models and observational data.” Climatic Change 149.2 (2018): 247-260. Despite decades of research, large multi-model uncertainty remains about the Earth’s equilibrium climate sensitivity to carbon dioxide forcing as inferred from state-of-the-art Earth system models (ESMs). Statistical treatments of multi-model uncertainties are often limited to simple ESM averaging approaches. Sometimes models are weighted by how well they reproduce historical climate observations. Here, we propose a novel approach to multi-model combination and uncertainty quantification. Rather than averaging a discrete set of models, our approach samples from a continuous distribution over a reduced space of simple model parameters. We fit the free parameters of a reduced-order climate model to the output of each member of the multi-model ensemble. The reduced-order parameter estimates are then combined using a hierarchical Bayesian statistical model. The result is a multi-model distribution of reduced-model parameters, including climate sensitivity. In effect, the multi-model uncertainty problem within an ensemble of ESMs is converted to a parametric uncertainty problem within a reduced model. The multi-model distribution can then be updated with observational data, combining two independent lines of evidence. We apply this approach to 24 model simulations of global surface temperature and net top-of-atmosphere radiation response to abrupt quadrupling of carbon dioxide, and four historical temperature data sets. Our reduced order model is a 2-layer energy balance model. We present probability distributions of climate sensitivity based on (1) the multi-model ensemble alone and (2) the multi-model ensemble and observations.
  6. 2018: Skeie, Ragnhild Bieltvedt, et al. “Climate sensitivity estimates–sensitivity to radiative forcing time series and observational data.” Earth System Dynamics 9.2 (2018): 879-894. . Inferred effective climate sensitivity (ECSinf) is estimated using a method combining radiative forcing (RF) time series and several series of observed ocean heat content (OHC) and near-surface temperature change in a Bayesian framework using a simple energy balance model and a stochastic model. The model is updated compared to our previous analysis by using recent forcing estimates from IPCC, including OHC data for the deep ocean, and extending the time series to 2014. In our main analysis, the mean value of the estimated
    ECSinf is 2.0 ◦C, with a median value of 1.9 ◦C and a 90 % credible interval (CI) of 1.2–3.1 ◦C. The mean estimate has recently been shown to be consistent with the higher values for the equilibrium climate sensitivity estimated by climate models. The transient climate response (TCR) is estimated to have a mean value of 1.4 ◦C
    (90 % CI 0.9–2.0 ◦C), and in our main analysis the posterior aerosol effective radiative forcing is similar to the range provided by the IPCC. We show a strong sensitivity of the estimated ECSinf to the choice of a priori RF time series, excluding pre-1950 data and the treatment of OHC data. Sensitivity analysis performed by merging the upper (0–700 m) and the deep-ocean OHC or using only one OHC dataset (instead of four in the main analysis) both give an enhancement of the mean ECSinf by about 50 % from our best estimate. FULL TEXT PDF
  7. 2018: Qu, Xin, et al. “On the emergent constraints of climate sensitivity.” Journal of Climate 31.2 (2018): 863-875. Differences among climate models in equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS; the equilibrium surface temperature response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2) remain a significant barrier to the accurate assessment of societally important impacts of climate change. Relationships between ECS and observable metrics of the current climate in model ensembles, so-called emergent constraints, have been used to constrain ECS. Here a statistical method (including a backward selection process) is employed to achieve a better statistical understanding of the connections between four recently proposed emergent constraint metrics and individual feedbacks influencing ECS. The relationship between each metric and ECS is largely attributable to a statistical connection with shortwave low cloud feedback, the leading cause of intermodel ECS spread. This result bolsters confidence in some of the metrics, which had assumed such a connection in the first place. Additional analysis is conducted with a few thousand artificial metrics that are randomly generated but are well correlated with ECS. The relationships between the contrived metrics and ECS can also be linked statistically to shortwave cloud feedback. Thus, any proposed or forthcoming ECS constraint based on the current generation of climate models should be viewed as a potential constraint on shortwave cloud feedback, and physical links with that feedback should be investigated to verify that the constraint is real. In addition, any proposed ECS constraint should not be taken at face value since other factors influencing ECS besides shortwave cloud feedback could be systematically biased in the models.
  8. 2018: Rohling, Eelco J., et al. “Comparing climate sensitivity, past and present.” Annual review of marine science 10 (2018): 261-288. Climate sensitivity represents the global mean temperature change caused by changes in the radiative balance of climate; it is studied for both present/future (actuo) and past (paleo) climate variations, with the former based on instrumental records and/or various types of model simulations. Paleo-estimates are often considered informative for assessments of actuo-climate change caused by anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, but this utility remains debated because of concerns about the impacts of uncertainties, assumptions, and incomplete knowledge about controlling mechanisms in the dynamic climate system, with its multiple interacting feedbacks and their potential dependence on the climate background state. This is exacerbated by the need to assess actuo- and paleoclimate sensitivity over different timescales, with different drivers, and with different (data and/or model) limitations. Here, we visualize these impacts with idealized representations that graphically illustrate the nature of time-dependent actuo- and paleoclimate sensitivity estimates, evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, agreements, and differences of the two approaches. We also highlight priorities for future research to improve the use of paleo-estimates in evaluations of current climate change.
  9. 2017: Feldman, Daniel, et al. “How Continuous Observations of Shortwave Reflectance Spectra Can Narrow the Range of Shortwave Climate Feedbacks.” AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. 2017. Shortwave feedbacks are a persistent source of uncertainty for climate models and a large contributor to the diagnosed range of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) for the international multi-model ensemble. The processes that contribute to these feedbacks affect top-of-atmosphere energetics and produce spectral signatures that may be time-evolving. We explore the value of such spectral signatures for providing an observational constraint on model ECS by simulating top-of-atmosphere shortwave reflectance spectra across much of the energetically-relevant shortwave bandpass (300 to 2500 nm). We present centennial-length shortwave hyperspectral simulations from low, medium and high ECS models that reported to the CMIP5 archive as part of an Observing System Simulation Experiment (OSSE) in support of the CLimate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO). Our framework interfaces with CMIP5 archive results and is agnostic to the choice of model. We simulated spectra from the INM-CM4 model (ECS of 2.08 °K/2xCO2), the MIROC5 model (ECS of 2.70 °K/2xCO2), and the CSIRO Mk3-6-0 (ECS of 4.08 °K/2xCO2) based on those models’ integrations of the RCP8.5 scenario for the 21st Century. This approach allows us to explore how perfect data records can exclude models of lower or higher climate sensitivity. We find that spectral channels covering visible and near-infrared water-vapor overtone bands can potentially exclude a low or high sensitivity model with under 15 years’ of absolutely-calibrated data. These different spectral channels are sensitive to model cloud radiative effect and cloud height changes, respectively. These unprecedented calculations lay the groundwork for spectral simulations of perturbed-physics ensembles in order to identify those shortwave observations that can help narrow the range in shortwave model feedbacks and ultimately help reduce the stubbornly-large range in model ECS
  10. 2017: Schneider, Tapio, et al. “Climate goals and computing the future of clouds.” Nature Climate Change 7.1 (2017): 3. How clouds respond to warming remains the greatest source of uncertainty in climate projections. Improved computational and observational tools can reduce this uncertainty. Here we discuss the need for research focusing on high-resolution atmosphere models and the representation of clouds and turbulence within them
  11. 2016: Ullman, D. J., A. Schmittner, and N. M. Urban. “A new estimate of climate sensitivity using Last Glacial Maximum model-data constraints that includes parametric, feedback, and proxy uncertainties.” AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. 2016. The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) provides potentially useful constraints on equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) because it is the most recent period of large greenhouse gas and temperature change. In addition, the wealth of proxy data from ice cores, ocean cores, and terrestrial records during this time period helps to test the relationship between greenhouse gas concentrations and temperature. A previous study (Schmittner et al., 2011) has estimated probability distributions of ECS using a small ensemble of model simulations that varies model sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 concentrations by changing only one model parameter. However, that estimate neglected cloud feedbacks, although they are the largest source of uncertainty in comprehensive climate models. Here, we provide a new estimate of ECS using a much larger ensemble of simulations (>1000) including cloud feedbacks and other uncertainties. We apply a new method to diagnose separately shortwave and longwave cloud feedbacks from comprehensive models and include them in the University of Victoria Earth System Climate Model (UVic-ESCM). We also explore parametric uncertainties in dust forcing, snow albedo, and atmospheric diffusivities, which all influence important feedbacks in UVic-ECSM. Finally, we use Bayesian statistics to compare LGM proxy data with this new model ensemble and to provide a new probabilistic estimate of ECS that better includes dominant sources of model and data uncertainty.
  12. 2016: Marvel, Kate, et al. “Implications for climate sensitivity from the response to individual forcings.” Nature Climate Change 6.4 (2016): 386. Climate sensitivity to doubled CO2 is a widely used metric for the large-scale response to external forcing. Climate models predict a wide range for two commonly used definitions: the transient climate response (TCR: the warming after 70 years of CO2 concentrations that rise at 1% per year), and the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS: the equilibrium temperature change following a doubling of CO2 concentrations). Many observational data sets have been used to constrain these values, including temperature trends over the recent past inferences from palaeoclimate and process-based constraints from the modern satellite era However, as the IPCC recently reported, different classes of observational constraints produce somewhat incongruent ranges. Here we show that climate sensitivity estimates derived from recent observations must account for the efficacy of each forcing active during the historical period. When we use single-forcing experiments to estimate these efficacies and calculate climate sensitivity from the observed twentieth-century warming, our estimates of both TCR and ECS are revised upwards compared to previous studies, improving the consistency with independent constraints
  13. 2015: Ullman, D. J., A. Schmittner, and N. M. Urban. “Incorporating feedback uncertainties in a model-based assessment of equilibrium climate sensitivity using Last Glacial Maximum temperature reconstructions.” AGU Fall Meeting Abstracts. 2015. As the most recent period of large climate change, the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) has been a useful target for analysis by model-data comparison. In addition, significant changes in greenhouse gas forcing across the last deglaciation and the relative wealth of LGM temperature reconstructions by proxy data provide a potentially useful opportunity to quantify equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), the change in global mean surface air temperature due to a doubling of atmospheric CO2. Past model-data comparisons have attempted to estimate ECS using the LGM climate in two ways: (1) scaling of proxy data with results from general circulation model intercomparisons, and (2) comparing data with results from an ensemble of ECS-tuned simulations using a single intermediate complexity model. While the first approach includes the complexity of climate feedbacks, the sample size of the ECS-space may be insufficiently large to assess climate sensitivity. However, the second approach may be model dependent by not adequately incorporating uncertainty in climate feedbacks. Here, we present a new LGM-based assessment of ECS using the latter approach along with a simple linear parameterization of the longwave and shortwave cloud feedbacks derived from the CMIP5/PMIP3 results applied to the University of Victoria Earth System intermediate complexity model (UVIC). Cloud feedbacks are found to be the largest source of variability among the CMIP5/PMIP3 simulations, and our parameterization emulates these feedbacks in the UVIC model. In using this parameterization, we present a new ensemble of UVIC simulations to estimate ECS based on a Bayesian comparison with LGM temperature reconstructions that determines a probability distribution of optimal overlap between data and model results.
  14. 2015: Lewis, Nicholas, and Judith A. Curry. “The implications for climate sensitivity of AR5 forcing and heat uptake estimates.” Climate dynamics 45.3-4 (2015): 1009-1023. Energy budget estimates of equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) and transient climate response (TCR) are derived using the comprehensive 1750–2011 time series and the uncertainty ranges for forcing components provided in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Working Group I Report, along with its estimates of heat accumulation in the climate system. The resulting estimates are less dependent on global climate models and allow more realistically for forcing uncertainties than similar estimates based on forcings diagnosed from simulations by such models. Base and final periods are selected that have well matched volcanic activity and influence from internal variability. Using 1859–1882 for the base period and 1995–2011 for the final period, thus avoiding major volcanic activity, median estimates are derived for ECS of 1.64 K and for TCR of 1.33 K. ECS 17–83 and 5–95 % uncertainty ranges are 1.25–2.45 and 1.05–4.05 K; the corresponding TCR ranges are 1.05–1.80 and 0.90–2.50 K. Results using alternative well-matched base and final periods provide similar best estimates but give wider uncertainty ranges, principally reflecting smaller changes in average forcing. Uncertainty in aerosol forcing is the dominant contribution to the ECS and TCR uncertainty ranges.
  15. 2014: Sherwood, Steven C., Sandrine Bony, and Jean-Louis Dufresne. “Spread in model climate sensitivity traced to atmospheric convective mixing.” Nature 505.7481 (2014): 37.  Equilibrium climate sensitivity refers to the ultimate change in global mean temperature in response to a change in external forcing. Despite decades of research attempting to narrow uncertainties, equilibrium climate sensitivity estimates from climate models still span roughly 1.5 to 5 degrees Celsius for a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, precluding accurate projections of future climate. The spread arises largely from differences in the feedback from low clouds, for reasons not yet understood. Here we show that differences in the simulated strength of convective mixing between the lower and middle tropical troposphere explain about half of the variance in climate sensitivity estimated by 43 climate models. The apparent mechanism is that such mixing dehydrates the low-cloud layer at a rate that increases as the climate warms, and this rate of increase depends on the initial mixing strength, linking the mixing to cloud feedback. The mixing inferred from observations appears to be sufficiently strong to imply a climate sensitivity of more than 3 degrees for a doubling of carbon dioxide. This is significantly higher than the currently accepted lower bound of 1.5 degrees, thereby constraining model projections towards relatively severe future warming.

 

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