Climate Feedbacks

Guest Commentary by Brian Soden (RSMAS, Miami)

Current model estimates of the climate sensitivity, defined as the equilibrated change in global-mean surface temperature resulting from a doubling of CO2, range from 2.6 to 4.1 K, consistent with observational constraints (see previous article). This range in climate sensitivity is attributable to differences in the strength of ‘radiative feedbacks’ between models and is one of the reasons why projections of future climate change are less certain than policy makers would like.

Although radiative forcings and radiative feedbacks both influence the climate by altering the radiative fluxes at the top of the atmosphere, it is important to distinguish between the two. A radiative forcing results from changes that are external to the climate system and may be either natural or anthropogenic in origin. For example, anthropogenic emissions of CO2, changes in solar flux, and the reflection of sunlight from volcanic aerosols are all examples of radiative forcings. A radiative forcing initiates a change in climate that is distinct from the system’s internal variability. A radiative feedback, on the other hand, arises from the response of the climate to either external forcing or internal variability. These responses can either amplify (a positive feedback) or dampen (a negative feedback) the initial perturbation. The exact boundary between a feedback and a forcing depends on what is considered to be part of the ‘system’ and can sometimes be a little fuzzy. This discussion addresses just the feedbacks associated with the atmospheric physical system (see this earlier article for why that is), but other, less well understood, feedbacks (changes in land vegetation, biogeochemical processes, and atmospheric chemical feedbacks – see the NRC 2003 report), while potentially important, are not part of the generally understood definition of ‘climate sensitivity’.

In the absence of radiative forcings, the amount of sunlight absorbed by the earth roughly balances its thermal emission to space; i.e., the earth is in a quasi-steady radiative equilibrium. Doubling the concentration of CO2 decreases the emission of thermal radiation by ~4 W/m2. Because the earth is now emitting less radiation than it absorbs, there is a surplus of energy going into the system and its surface must warm. Because the thermal emission of energy increases as an object warms, the increasing temperature acts to restore radiative equilibrium. In the absence of any feedbacks, a doubling of CO2 would result in an increase in global surface temperature of ~1 K. However, as the climate warms in an attempt to restore radiative equilibrium, other changes occur. These changes can also influence the top-of-atmosphere radiative fluxes and thus act to either decrease (a negative feedback) or to increase (a positive feedback) the radiative surplus. For example, as the climate warms the amount of snow and ice cover decreases which leads to more sunlight being absorbed, thus enhancing the initial radiative surplus and requiring greater warming to restore equilibrium.

There are a number of different radiative feedbacks in the climate system, some more complex than others. Those which are most commonly represented in climate models are feedbacks from water vapor, snow/ice cover, clouds and lapse rate (the change in temperature with height).

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