Many clouds surround the Southern Ocean. Lawrence Livermore scientists have found that climate models don't accurately portray clouds and in turn underestimate global warming. Photo: NASA

By Oliver Milman 
7 April 2016

(The Guardian) – Climate change projections have vastly underestimated the role that clouds play, meaning future warming could be far worse than is currently projected, according to new research.

Researchers said that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere compared with pre-industrial times could result in a global temperature increase of up to 5.3C – far warmer than the 4.6C older models predict.

The analysis of satellite data, led by Yale University, found that clouds have much more liquid in them, rather than ice, than has been assumed until now. Clouds with ice crystals reflect more solar light than those with liquid in them, stopping it reaching and heating the Earth’s surface.

The underestimation of the current level of liquid droplets in clouds means that models showing future warming are misguided, says the paper, published in Science. It also found that fewer clouds will change to a heat-reflecting state in the future – due to CO2 increases – than previously thought, meaning that warming estimates will have to be raised.

Such higher levels of warming would make it much more difficult for countries to keep the global temperature rise to below 2C, as they agreed to do at the landmark Paris climate summit last year, to avoid dangerous extreme weather and negative effects on food security. The world has already warmed by 1C since the advent of heavy industry, driven by CO2 concentrations soaring by more than 40%.

A lack of data and continuing uncertainty over the role of clouds is to blame for the confusion about warming estimates, said Ivy Tan, a graduate student at Yale who worked on the research with academics from Yale and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“Models have been systematically underestimating the amount of liquid in clouds, meaning that we aren’t fully appreciating the feedback,” she said. “It could mean our higher limit of warming is now even higher, depending on the model, which means serious consequences for us in terms of climate change.

“This is one of the largest uncertainties left in climate change. We need to understand these feedbacks a lot better.”

Scientists have been trying to get to grips with the extent clouds and water vapor will influence the warming already under way. A paper published last year found that short-term fluctuations in clouds have large impacts on the net rate of heat gain by the Earth.

One of this paper’s authors, Dr Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said research has already shown “major errors in climate simulations associated with clouds”. [more]

Global warming may be far worse than thought, cloud analysis suggests

By Anne M. Stark
7 April 2016

(LLNL) – Researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Yale University have found that climate models are aggressively making clouds “brighter” as the planet warms. This may be causing models to underestimate how much global warming will occur due to increasing carbon dioxide. The research appears in the 8 April 2016 edition of Science.

As the atmosphere warms, clouds become increasingly composed of liquid rather than ice, making them brighter. Because liquid clouds reflect more sunlight back to space than ice clouds, this “cloud phase feedback” acts as a brake on global warming in climate models.

But most models’ clouds contain too much ice that is susceptible to becoming liquid with warming, which makes their stabilizing cloud phase feedback unrealistically strong. Using a state-of-the-art climate model, the researchers modified parameters to bring the relative amounts of liquid and ice in clouds into agreement with clouds observed in nature. Correcting the bias led to a weaker cloud phase feedback and greater warming in response to carbon dioxide. 

“We found that the climate sensitivity increased from 4 degrees C in the default model to 5-5.3 degrees C in versions that were modified to bring liquid and ice amounts into closer agreement with observation,” said Yale researcher Ivy Tan, lead author of the paper. 

Climate sensitivity refers to the change in global mean surface temperature due to a doubling of carbon dioxide. Climate models predict between 2.1 and 4.7 degrees C (3.75 to 8.5 degrees F) of warming in response to a doubling of carbon dioxide.

“We saw a systematic weakening of the cloud phase feedback and increase in climate sensitivity as we transitioned from model versions that readily convert liquid to ice below freezing to model versions that can maintain liquid down to colder temperatures, as observed in nature,” Tan explained.

In nature, clouds containing both ice crystals and liquid droplets are common at temperatures well below freezing. As the atmosphere warms due to carbon dioxide emissions, the relative amount of liquid in these so-called mixed phase clouds will increase. Since liquid clouds tend to reflect more sunlight back to space than ice clouds, this phase feedback acts to reduce global warming. The icier the clouds to begin with, the more liquid is gained as the planet warms; this stabilizing feedback is stronger in models containing less liquid relative to ice at sub-freezing temperatures.

“Most climate models are a little too eager to glaciate below freezing, so they are likely exaggerating the increase in cloud reflectivity as the atmosphere warms,” said LLNL coauthor Mark Zelinka.  “This means they may be systematically underestimating how much warming will occur in response to carbon dioxide.”

These results add to a growing body of evidence (link is external) that the stabilizing cloud feedback at mid- to high latitudes in climate models is overstated. Moreover, several recent studies have concluded that other important cloud feedback also are likely to exacerbate warming rather than dampen it. These include amplifying feedback from increases in cloud top altitude (link is external) and from decreases in the coverage of subtropical low clouds (link is external).

“The evidence is piling up against an overall stabilizing cloud feedback,” concluded Zelinka. “Clouds do not seem to want to do us any favors when it comes to limiting global warming.”

This work was funded by the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program and the Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program in the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Climate models underestimate global warming by exaggerating cloud 'brightening'

ABSTRACT: Global climate model (GCM) estimates of the equilibrium global mean surface temperature response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2, measured by the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), range from 2.0° to 4.6°C. Clouds are among the leading causes of this uncertainty. Here we show that the ECS can be up to 1.3°C higher in simulations where mixed-phase clouds consisting of ice crystals and supercooled liquid droplets are constrained by global satellite observations. The higher ECS estimates are directly linked to a weakened cloud-phase feedback arising from a decreased cloud glaciation rate in a warmer climate. We point out the need for realistic representations of the supercooled liquid fraction in mixed-phase clouds in GCMs, given the sensitivity of the ECS to the cloud-phase feedback.

A more sensitive climate system

How much global average temperature eventually will rise depends on the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS), which relates atmospheric CO2 concentration to atmospheric temperature. For decades, ECS has been estimated to be between 2.0° and 4.6°C, with much of that uncertainty owing to the difficulty of establishing the effects of clouds on Earth's energy budget. Tan et al. used satellite observations to constrain the radiative impact of mixed phase clouds. They conclude that ECS could be between 5.0° and 5.3°C—higher than suggested by most global climate models.

Science, this issue p. 224

Observational constraints on mixed-phase clouds imply higher climate sensitivity


  1. Anonymous said...

    The first essay (milman) says that icy clouds reflect more photons than nucleating liquid does. This is contradicted in the second essay (starke) which states that warmer wetter clouds are more reflective than colder ones hosting crystals. Would I be wrong to root for the rightness of the latter?  


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