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What can decadal variability tell us about climate feedbacks and sensitivity?

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Abstract

Radiative feedbacks are known to determine climate sensitivity. Global top-of-atmosphere radiation correlations with surface temperature performed here show that decadal variability in surface temperature is also reinforced by strong positive feedbacks in models, both in the long wave (LW) and short wave (SW), offsetting much of the Planck radiative damping. Net top-of-atmosphere feedback is correlated with the magnitude of decadal temperature variability, particularly in the tropics. This indicates decadal-timescale radiative reinforcement of surface temperature variability. Assuming a simple global ocean mixed layer response, the reinforcement is found to be of a magnitude comparable to that required for typical decadal global scale anomalies. The magnitude of decadal variability in the tropics is uncorrelated with LW feedbacks, but it is correlated with total SW feedbacks, which are, in turn, correlated with tropical SW cloud feedback. Globally, water vapour/lapse rate, surface albedo and cloud feedbacks on decadal timescales are, on average, as strong as those operating under climate change. Together these results suggest that some of the physical processes responsible for setting the magnitude of global temperature change in the twenty-first century and climate sensitivity also help set the magnitude of the natural decadal variability. Furthermore, a statistically significant correlation exists between climate sensitivity and decadal variability in the tropics across CMIP5 models, although this is not apparent in the earlier generation of CMIP3 models. Thus although the link to sensitivity is not conclusive, this opens up potential paths to improve our understanding of climate feedbacks, climate sensitivity and decadal climate variability, and has the potential to reduce the associated uncertainty.

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Notes

  1. The Planck cooling refers to the hypothetical TOA LW radiative cooling that would take place for the climate system under a given surface warming if the atmosphere warmed uniformly with height at the same rate the surface temperature change (i.e. no lapse rate changes), and there were no changes to other radiatively sensitive parameters in the atmosphere/surface, such as to water vapour, clouds or surface albedo. The Planck cooling is not strictly a climate ‘feedback’ but instead represents the radiative damping of the climate system that would occur in the absence of feedbacks (Bony et al. 2006). Here it is listed in tables as a ‘feedback’ for simplicity of presentation.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Greg Kociuba for analysis and generating some of the figures and Guomin Wang, Lawson Hanson and François Delage with assistance with aspects of the analysis, and Josephine Brown, Christine Chung and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript. This work was supported by the Australian National Environmental Science Programme. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modelling groups for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the U.S. Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals.

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Colman, R., Power, S.B. What can decadal variability tell us about climate feedbacks and sensitivity?. Clim Dyn 51, 3815–3828 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00382-018-4113-7

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