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The reversibility of CO2 induced climate change

Abstract

This paper investigates the reversibility of CO2 induced climate change and in particular the potential impacts of different rates of CO2 reduction using a coupled climate model. Atmospheric CO2 concentration is ramped up by 0.5 %/year from the preindustrial value to 4×CO2 and then ramped down from 2×CO2 to 4×CO2 with different rates. How the response of the climate system is affected by the peak atmospheric CO2 concentration and the rate of long term decline is vital information for those considering hypothetical geoengineering options to remove CO2. Major components of the climate system including global mean surface air temperature and precipitation, contribution of thermal expansion to global sea level rise, loss of the Arctic sea ice, weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and the South Asia monsoon are analyzed. We have found no ‘tipping points’ or thresholds beyond which CO2 induced climate change in these components become irreversible within this model under the specific scenarios. However, there are strong inertias and path-dependent hysteresis in the climate system linked through oceanic memory. Initially the strengthened global hydrological cycle accelerates further in response to a CO2 ramp-down before weakening. Thermal expansion of the oceans continues for many decades after CO2 concentration starts to decrease. A 0.5 %/year reduction from 4×CO2 could see a further 25 % sea level rise. The weakening of the AMOC is reversible, but the build-up of highly saline subtropical waters during global warming drives an overshoot of the AMOC after the CO2 ramp-down and extends the warming of the northern high latitudes by many decades. The South Asia monsoon strengthens in response to a CO2 ramp-up marked by an increase in summer monsoon rainfall. This increase reverses rapidly following a CO2 ramp-down, displaying an undershoot in monsoon rainfall for rapid CO2 reductions.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the Joint DECC/Defra Met Office Hadley Centre Climate Programme—DECC/Defra (GA01101). We thank the two reviewers for helpful suggestions and comments.

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Correspondence to Peili Wu.

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Wu, P., Ridley, J., Pardaens, A. et al. The reversibility of CO2 induced climate change. Clim Dyn 45, 745–754 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-014-2302-6

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Reversibility
  • Geoengineering
  • Hydrological cycle
  • Sea level
  • Asian monsoon