On sensitivity: Part I

All of these methods are philosophically equivalent. There is a ‘model’ which has a certain sensitivity to 2xCO2 (that is either explicitly set in the formulation or emergent), and observations to which it can be compared (in various experimental setups) and, if the data are relevant, models with different sensitivities can be judged more or less realistic (or explicitly fit to the data). This is true whether the model is a simple 1-D energy balance, an intermediate-complexity model or a fully coupled GCM – but note that there is always a model involved. This formulation highlights a couple of important issues – that the observational data doesn’t need to be direct (and the more complex the model, the wider range of possible constraints there are) and that the relationship between the observations and the sensitivity needs to be demonstrated (rather than simply assumed). The last point is important – while in a 1-D model there might be an easy relationship between the measured metric and climate sensitivity, that relationship might be much more complicated or non-existent in a GCM. This way of looking at things lends itself quite neatly into a Bayesian framework (as we shall see).

There are two recent papers on paleo constraints: the already mentioned PALAEOSENS (2012) paper which gives a good survey of existing estimates from paleo-climate and the hierarchy of different definitions of sensitivity. Their survey gives a range for the fast-feedback CS of 2.2-4.8ºC. Another new paper, taking a more explicitly Bayesian approach, from Hargreaves et al. suggests a mean 2.3°C and a 90% range of 0.5–4.0°C (with minor variations dependent on methodology). This can be compared to an earlier estimate from Köhler et al. (2010) who gave a range of 1.4-5.2ºC, with a mean value near 2.4ºC.

One reason why these estimates keep getting revised is that there is a continual updating of the observational analyses that are used – as new data are included, as non-climatic factors get corrected for, and models include more processes. For instance, Köhler et al used an estimate of the cooling at the Last Glacial Maximum of 5.8±1.4ºC, but a recent update from Annan and Hargreaves and used in the Hargreaves et al estimate is 4.0±0.8ºC which would translate into a lower CS value in the Köhler et al calculation (roughly 1.1 – 3.3ºC, with a most likely value near 2.0ºC). A paper last year by Schmittner et al estimated an even smaller cooling, and consequently lower sensitivity (around 2ºC on a level comparison), but the latest estimates are more credible. Note however, that these temperature estimates are strongly dependent on still unresolved issues with different proxies – particularly in the tropics – and may change again as further information comes in.

There was also a recent paper based on a climatological constraint from Fasullo and Trenberth (see Karen Shell’s commentary for more details). The basic idea is that across the CMIP3 models there was a strong correlation of mid-tropospheric humidity variations with the model sensitivity, and combined with observations of the real world variations, this gives a way to suggest which models are most realistic, and by extension, what sensitivities are more likely. This paper suggests that models with sensitivity around 4ºC did the best, though they didn’t give a formal estimation of the range of uncertainty.

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  1. J.C. Hargreaves, J.D. Annan, M. Yoshimori, and A. Abe-Ouchi, "Can the Last Glacial Maximum constrain climate sensitivity?", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 39, pp. n/a-n/a, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2012GL053872
  2. P. Köhler, R. Bintanja, H. Fischer, F. Joos, R. Knutti, G. Lohmann, and V. Masson-Delmotte, "What caused Earth's temperature variations during the last 800,000 years? Data-based evidence on radiative forcing and constraints on climate sensitivity", Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 29, pp. 129-145, 2010. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.09.026
  3. J.D. Annan, and J.C. Hargreaves, "A new global reconstruction of temperature changes at the Last Glacial Maximum", Climate of the Past Discussions, vol. 8, pp. 5029-5051, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.5194/cpd-8-5029-2012
  4. A. Schmittner, N.M. Urban, J.D. Shakun, N.M. Mahowald, P.U. Clark, P.J. Bartlein, A.C. Mix, and A. Rosell-Mele, "Climate Sensitivity Estimated from Temperature Reconstructions of the Last Glacial Maximum", Science, vol. 334, pp. 1385-1388, 2011. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1203513
  5. J.T. Fasullo, and K.E. Trenberth, "A Less Cloudy Future: The Role of Subtropical Subsidence in Climate Sensitivity", Science, vol. 338, pp. 792-794, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1227465