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How accurately can the climate sensitivity to CO₂ be estimated from historical climate change?

Gregory, J. M., Andrews, T., Ceppi, P., Mauritsen, T. and Webb, M. J. (2020) How accurately can the climate sensitivity to CO₂ be estimated from historical climate change? Climate Dynamics, 54 (1-2). pp. 129-157. ISSN 0930-7575

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1007/s00382-019-04991-y


Abstract The equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS, in K) to CO2 doubling is a large source of uncertainty in projections of future anthropogenic climate change. Estimates of ECS made from non-equilibrium states or in response to radiative forcings other than 2 × CO2 are called “effective climate sensitivity” (EffCS, in K). Taking a “perfect-model” approach, using coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation model (AOGCM) experiments, we evaluate the accuracy with which CO2 EffCS can be estimated from climate change in the “historical” period (since about 1860). We find that (1) for statistical reasons, unforced variability makes the estimate of historical EffCS both uncertain and biased; it is overestimated by about 10% if the energy balance is applied to the entire historical period, 20% for 30-year periods, and larger factors for interannual variability, (2) systematic uncertainty in historical radiative forcing translates into an uncertainty of ±30–45% (standard deviation) in historical EffCS, (3) the response to the changing relative importance of the forcing agents, principally CO2 and volcanic aerosol, causes historical EffCS to vary over multidecadal timescales by a factor of two. In recent decades it reached its maximum in the AOGCM historical experiment (similar to the multimodel-mean CO2 EffCS of 3.6 K from idealised experiments), but its minimum in the real world (1.6 K for an observational estimate for 1985–2011, similar to the multimodel-mean value for volcanic forcing). The real-world variations mean that historical EffCS underestimates CO2 EffCS by 30% when considering the entire historical period. The difference for recent decades implies that either unforced variability or the response to volcanic forcing causes a much stronger regional pattern of sea surface temperature change in the real world than in AOGCMs. We speculate that this could be explained by a deficiency in simulated coupled atmosphere–ocean feedbacks which reinforce the pattern (resembling the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation in some respects) that causes the low EffCS. We conclude that energy-balance estimates of CO2 EffCS are most accurate from periods unaffected by volcanic forcing. Atmosphere GCMs provided with observed sea surface temperature for the 1920s to the 1950s, which was such a period, give a range of about 2.0–4.5 K, agreeing with idealised CO2 AOGCM experiments; the consistency is a reason for confidence in this range as an estimate of CO2 EffCS. Unless another explosive volcanic eruption oc37 curs, the first 30 years of the present century may give a more accurate energy-balance historical estimate of this quantity.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Faculty of Science > School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences > NCAS
ID Code:86308


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