Yet more aerosols: Comment on Shindell and Faluvegi

We then used the regional forcing/response relationships to derive the aerosol forcing needed to explain the observed global and regional temperature trends. Our results have a substantial uncertainty range which arises primarily from the influence of unforced, internal variability. The global mean preindustrial to present-day aerosol forcing we calculate is -1.31 +- 0.52 W/m2, consistent with the IPCC AR4 range of -0.6 to -2.4 W/m2.

We also estimated aerosol forcing for the tropics and Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes for several time periods, and compared with historical emissions estimates to tie the forcings to sulfate or black carbon (BC) aerosols when possible. The results show, for example, that nearly all CMIP3 models require strong aerosol cooling at Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes during the 1931-1975 period to capture both the global mean trends and the NH mid-latitude versus Southern Hemisphere extratropics temperature trends (many CMIP3 models had both sulfate and BC, but not necessarily the correct amounts as modeling their forcing directly is quite uncertain, hence we compared the CMIP3 models’ responses to non-aerosol forcings with observations to see how well they could do without aerosols). During the last 3 decades (1976-2007), the best fit to the temperature responses in the models require negative forcing from tropical aerosols but positive forcing from Northern Hemisphere mid-latitude aerosols. It’s the latter, the positive Northern Hemisphere mid-latitude aerosol forcing that leads to the strong warming impact on the Arctic as well, as the Arctic responds to mid-latitude and local forcing, but the local forcing is primarily driven by mid-latitude emissions that are transported to the Arctic, so the overall climate response ends up being closely tied to Northern Hemisphere mid-latitude emissions. Given the strong sensitivity of the Northern Hemisphere extratropical zones to aerosol forcing, it’s then understandable that those areas could have cooled during the mid 20th century when the aerosol forcing we calculate was substantially larger than greenhouse gas forcing (in absolute magnitude).

A big uncertainty is still the influence of unforced internal variability, which we estimated from coupled ocean-atmosphere climate runs. Though that contribution is large, it was still not large enough to account for many of the mid-latitude and Arctic temperature trends without including aerosol forcing. For many cases, the influence of aerosols and internal variability were comparable in size. Though the influence of internal variability leads to a substantial uncertainty range in our results, they are nonetheless useful as other techniques of estimating aerosol forcing of climate have comparably large or larger uncertainties. These include ‘forward’ modeling from emissions to concentration to optical properties (e.g. see [Schulz et al., 2006]), and various estimates based at least in part on satellite observations (see this previous post).

Some of the most interesting conclusions of the study include those relating to the Arctic. For example, we estimate that black carbon contributed 0.9 +/- 0.5ºC to 1890-2007 Arctic warming (which has been 1.9ºC total), making BC potentially a very large fraction of the overall warming there. We also estimated that aerosols in total contributed 1.1 +/- 0.8ºC to the 1976-2007 Arctic warming. This latter aerosol contribution to Arctic warming results from both increasing BC and decreasing sulfate, and as both were happening at once their contributions cannot be easily separated (unlike several earlier time periods we analyzed, when one increased while the other remained fairly constant). Though the uncertainty ranges are quite large, it can be useful to remember that the 95% confidence level conventionally used by scientists is not the only criteria that may be of interest. As the total observed Arctic warming during 1976-2007 was 1.5 +/- 0.3ºC, our results can be portrayed in many ways: there is about a 95% chance that aerosols contributed at least 15% to net Arctic warming over the past 3 decades, there is a 50% chance that they contributed about 70% or more, etc.

It’s also worth considering how to interpret the effects of decreasing sulfate during the past 3 decades. To try to make sure that the complex role of aerosols wouldn’t be misunderstood, when referring to the recent warming due to aerosols at Northern Hemisphere mid-latitudes and in the Arctic, we stated in the conclusions of the paper:

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