Global Dimming and climate models

Guest posting from Beate Liepert (LDEO)

On April 18th PBS will air the NOVA documentary “Dimming the Sun” which stirred up lively discussions among scientists and non-scientists when originally shown by BBC in the UK (under the name ‘Global Dimming’ – see our previous posts). [The NOVA version has been thoroughly re-edited and some of the more controversial claims have apparently been excised or better put into context [and we look forward to seeing it! - Ed.].

Global dimming is the phenomena of an observed reduction (about 1-2% per decade since ~1960) of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth caused by air pollution (aerosols – small particles) and cloud changes. Some of this solar energy is reflected back out to space and this cooling effect is believed to have counteracted part of the greenhouse gas warming. The original version of the film focused mainly on the observational recognition of global dimming, but one aspect did not receive much attention in the film – namely the oft-claimed lack of global dimming in climate models. This led some to assume that climate modelers were ignoring air pollution other than greenhouse gases emissions from fossil fuel burning. Another implication was that climate models are not capable of adequately simulating the transfer of sunlight through the atmosphere and the role of clouds, sunlight extinction of aerosols and aerosol effects on clouds etc, and therefore model projections should not be trusted. The NOVA version will address this issue more prominently by adding an interview with Jim Hansen from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Along this line, I’d like to elaborate on aerosols in climate models in more detail.

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