Climate Dynamics

, Volume 50, Issue 7–8, pp 3097–3116 | Cite as

The influence of extratropical cloud phase and amount feedbacks on climate sensitivity

  • William R. Frey
  • Jennifer E. Kay


Global coupled climate models have large long-standing cloud and radiation biases, calling into question their ability to simulate climate and climate change. This study assesses the impact of reducing shortwave radiation biases on climate sensitivity within the Community Earth System Model (CESM). The model is modified by increasing supercooled cloud liquid to better match absorbed shortwave radiation observations over the Southern Ocean while tuning to reduce a compensating tropical shortwave bias. With a thermodynamic mixed-layer ocean, equilibrium warming in response to doubled CO2 increases from 4.1 K in the control to 5.6 K in the modified model. This 1.5 K increase in equilibrium climate sensitivity is caused by changes in two extratropical shortwave cloud feedbacks. First, reduced conversion of cloud ice to liquid at high southern latitudes decreases the magnitude of a negative cloud phase feedback. Second, warming is amplified in the mid-latitudes by a larger positive shortwave cloud feedback. The positive cloud feedback, usually associated with the subtropics, arises when sea surface warming increases the moisture gradient between the boundary layer and free troposphere. The increased moisture gradient enhances the effectiveness of mixing to dry the boundary layer, which decreases cloud amount and optical depth. When a full-depth ocean with dynamics and thermodynamics is included, ocean heat uptake preferentially cools the mid-latitude Southern Ocean, partially inhibiting the positive cloud feedback and slowing warming. Overall, the results highlight strong connections between Southern Ocean mixed-phase cloud partitioning, cloud feedbacks, and ocean heat uptake in a climate forced by greenhouse gas changes.


Climate sensitivity Cloud feedback Ocean heat uptake Greenhouse gas forcing 



We thank Brian Medeiros, Isla Simpson and Kris Karnauskas for helpful conversations related to this work and useful suggestions on the manuscript. We thank Dave Bailey and Bob Tomas for their help with setting up our model runs. We gratefully acknowledge high-performance computing support from Yellowstone (ark:/85065/d7wd3xhc) provided by NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. This work was supported by start-up funds awarded to J. E. Kay by the University of Colorado Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences and NSF award AGS 1554659. W. R. Frey is also supported by the Air Force Institute of Technology. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the US Government.


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© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (ATOC)University of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA

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