Climate Insensitivity

Guest post by Tamino

In a paper, “Heat Capacity, Time Constant, and Sensitivity of Earth’s Climate System” soon to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (and discussed briefly at RealClimate a few weeks back), Stephen Schwartz of Brookhaven National Laboratory estimates climate sensitivity using observed 20th-century data on ocean heat content and global surface temperature. He arrives at the estimate 1.1±0.5 deg C for a doubling of CO2 concentration (0.3 deg C for every 1 W/m^2 of climate forcing), a figure far lower than most estimates, which fall generally in the range 2 to 4.5 deg C for doubling CO2. This paper has been heralded by global-warming denialists as the death-knell for global warming theory (as most such papers are).

Schwartz’s results would imply two important things. First, that the impact of adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will be much smaller than most estimates; second, that almost all of the warming due to the greenhouse gases we’ve put in the atmosphere so far has already been felt, so there’s almost no warming “in the pipeline” due to greenhouse gases already in the air. Both ideas contradict the consensus view of climate scientists, and both ideas give global-warming skeptics a warm fuzzy feeling (but not too warm).

Despite the celebratory reaction from the denialist blogosphere (and U.S. Senator James Inhofe), this is not a “denialist” paper. Schwartz is a highly respected researcher (deservedly so) in atmospheric physics, mainly working on aerosols. He doesn’t pretend to smite global-warming theories with a single blow, he simply explores one way to estimate climate sensitivity and reports his results. He seems quite aware of many of the caveats inherent in his method, and invites further study, saying in the “conclusions” section:

Finally, as the present analysis rests on a simple single-compartment energy balance model, the question must inevitably arise whether the rather obdurate climate system might be amenable to determination of its key properties through empirical analysis based on such a simple model. In response to that question it might have to be said that it remains to be seen. In this context it is hoped that the present study might stimulate further work along these lines with more complex models.

What is Schwartz’s method? First, assume that the climate system can be effectively modeled as a zero-dimensional energy balance model. This would mean that there would be a single effective heat capacity for the climate system, and a single effective time constant for the system as well. Climate sensitivity will then be


where S is the climate sensitivity, τ is the time constant, and C is the heat capacity. Simple!

To estimate those parameters, Schwartz uses observed climate data. He assumes that the time series of global temperature can effectively be modeled as a linear trend, plus a one-dimensional, first-order “autoregressive” or “Markov” or simply “AR(1)” process [an AR(1) process is a random process with some ‘memory’ of its previous value; subsequent values y_t are statistically dependent on the immediately preceding value y_(t-1) through an equation of the form y_t = ρ y_(t-1) + ε, where ρ is typically required to be between 0 and 1, and ε is a series of random values conforming to a normal distribution. The AR(1) model is a special case of a more general class of linear time series models known as “Autoregressive moving average” models].

In such as case, the autocorrelation of the global temperature time series (its correlation with a time-delayed copy of itself) can be analyzed to determine the time constant τ. He further assumes that ocean heat content represents the bulk of the heat absorbed by the planet due to climate forces, and that its changes are roughly proportional to the observed surface temperature change; the constant of proportionality gives the heat capacity. The conclusion is that the time constant of the planet is 5±1 years and its heat capacity is 16.7±7 W • yr / (dec C • m^2), so climate sensitivity is 5/16.7 = 0.3 deg C/(W/m^2).

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