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Understanding changes in the tropical Pacific atmospheric circulation with global warming

The weakening of the Walker circulation in the tropical Pacific is a robust response to global warming in climate models. This can have a global impact on climate, because the convection in the ascending branch of the Walker circulation triggers planetary scale waves that radiate to higher latitudes. In a recent article in the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences (Wills et al. 2017), we study the physical mechanisms responsible for the Walker circulation weakening in an idealized model. Here, we discuss how this work applies to the real-world climate system and how Walker circulation changes are related to tropical Pacific sea-surface temperature changes.

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Challenges and Solutions in LES of Stratocumulus Clouds

In a recent article in JAMES (Pressel et al., 2017), we explore how numerical error and subgrid-scale modeling in LES interact to determine the quality of LES of stratocumulus clouds and show that a technique called implicit large eddy simulation provides particularly high fidelity LES. Here we offer a bit of background and a discussion of that work. If you are not familiar with stratocumulus clouds you can see a high resolution LES of stratocumulus here.
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Cloud Simulations Set in Stone

How much does a cloud weigh? That was the question Karen LaMonte asked us in an email a year and a half ago. LaMonte—an artist who lives in Prague and is known for monumental sculptures in ceramic, bronze, and glass—wanted to create a marble cloud sculpture of similar weight as a real cloud. What resulted is LaMonte’s sculpture Cumulus, which is an accurate visualization, in marble, of a numerically simulated tropical cumulus cloud. Cumulus is currently on display during the Biennale in Venice.

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Climate Change Town Hall

Last Friday, on the eve of Earth day, Congressman Adam Schiff hosted a town hall on climate change at Caltech. Schiff and Francesca Hopkins from UC Riverside, Alex Hall from UCLA, and I gave introductory remarks and answered questions from the audience. Here is a summary, and here the recording of the official live feed (from a phone, hence with apologies for the poor audio quality):

Starting my town hall in Pasadena at Caltech to discuss the perils of climate change and the Trump Administration's counterproductive — and destructive efforts — to reverse the gains we are making. Watch here:

Geplaatst door Congressman Adam Schiff op vrijdag 21 april 2017

Paris and the future of clouds

How low clouds respond to warming remains the greatest source of uncertainty in climate projections. Climate models projecting that much less sunlight will be reflected by low clouds when the climate warms indicate that CO2 concentrations can only reach 470 ppm before the 2℃ warming threshold of the Paris agreement is crossed—a CO2 concentration that will probably be reached in the 2030s. By contrast, models projecting a weak decrease or increase in low-cloud reflection indicate that CO2 concentrations may reach almost 600 ppm before the Paris threshold is crossed. In a new paper, we outline how new computational and observational tools enable us to reduce these vast uncertainties.

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The role of the surface energy balance in the low-cloud response to global warming

Figure 1: Top-right: ISCCP low cloud cover (%) climatology for June-July-August, with the GPCI transect and the three locations used in our study (adapted from Teixeira et al. 2011). Bottom-left: schematic of cloud regimes in the tropical overturning circulations (Stevens 2005, adapted from Arakawa 1975).

Large-eddy simulation (LES) of clouds can help resolve one of the most important and challenging question in climate dynamics, namely, how subtropical low clouds respond to global warming. However, earlier LES studies have generally prescribed large-scale conditions (e.g., surface temperatures) in a way that does not guarantee energy balance. We have developed an energetically consistent framework for driving LES, in which the LES domain is coupled to a simple slab ocean. In this framework, the cloud responses to global warming can be very different than in the traditional frameworks that prescribe surface temperatures.

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Summer School on Turbulent Flows in Climate Dynamics

We are organizing a summer school for graduate students and early career scientists on Fundamental Aspects of turbulent flows in climate dynamics, to take place from July 31 through August 25, 2017 at the Ecole de Physique in Les Houches, in the French Alps. The program will feature international renowned principal lecturers and visitors.

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Reducing uncertainties in climate projections with emergent constraints. Part 1: Concept

Global-mean surface temperature anomaly relative to the end of the 19th century (1850-1900) for 29 models. Historical and RCP8.5 experiments are used. Colors scale with ECS values (from lowest in yellow to highest in red)

Steadily increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are warming the Earth. Today (2006-2014) it is 0.8°C warmer than in the preindustrial period in the middle of the 19th century. Climate models try to project how this global warming will continue, but they differ in their response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. Emergent constraints attempt to use information about the current climate to constrain the evolution of climate in the future.

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Constraints on climate sensitivity from space-based measurements of low-cloud reflection

Through their reflection of sunlight and absorption/re-emission of thermal radiation, clouds regulate Earth’s energy balance. But it remains uncertain, in particular, how the fraction of sunlight reflected by clouds will change as greenhouse gas concentrations rise. Projections differ widely among climate models, and differences in the solar reflection by low clouds over tropical oceans account for much of the spread in climate projections across current models. We investigate to what extent this uncertainty can be reduced through the use of observations from space.

A convenient yardstick to measure how sensitive the climate system is to increases in the concentration of greenhouse gases is the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS)—the surface warming eventually reached after a sustained doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations. ECS ranges from 2.1 to 4.7 K across current climate models (IPCC AR5).  More than half of the ECS variance across models can be traced to differences in the reflection of sunlight by tropical low clouds (TLCs) (Bony and Dufresne 2005; Vial et al. 2013). Neither the sign nor the strength of this TLC feedback are well constrained. Yet constraining the TLC feedback is essential for narrowing the wide range of ECS projected by current models.

A number of observational studies points to a weakening of solar reflection by TLCs under warming (Clement et al. 2009; Dessler 2010, 2013; Zhou et al. 2013), suggesting a positive TLC feedback. Other studies indicate that models with strongly positive low-cloud feedback are more consistent with observations than models with weakly positive or negative feedback (Qu et al. 2014, 2015b, Myers and Norris 2016). This is in line with other model–observation comparisons that also point to higher ECS (Fasullo and Trenberth 2012; Sherwood et al. 2014; Tian 2015). By contrast, studies focusing on Earth’s energy budget generally point to a lower ECS (Otto et al. 2013), albeit with large uncertainties that still allow a high ECS. In Brient and Schneider (2016), we show how space-based observations can be used to robustly constrain the TLC feedback and constrain ECS.

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Atmospheric circulation changes control patterns of wetting and drying with global warming

The hydrological cycle will change substantially in response to global warming. For the most part, wet regions will get wetter and dry regions will get drier as the amount of water the atmosphere can carry increases with warming. But regional patterns of precipitation minus evaporation are influenced by planetary-scale stationary waves, which are subject to substantial shifts and changes in strength as the planet warms. These stationary-wave changes lead to large regional changes in the hydrological cycle and modify the sensitivity of the hydrological cycle to global warming.

One of the most substantial climate changes in response to global warming is the increase in atmospheric water vapor content. Because of the increase in moisture content, existing wind patterns carry more moisture and strengthen the atmospheric branch of the hydrological cycle: storms bring more rainfall, wet regions get wetter, and dry regions get drier (Held and Soden 2006, O’Gorman and Schneider 2009).

Changes in the winds lead to further changes in the hydrological cycle with global warming. For example, there is an expansion of the subtropical dry zones associated with the poleward expansion of the Hadley circulation with global warming (Lu et al. 2009). Even bigger changes can result from shifts or changes in strength of tropical and subtropical convergence zones. These circulation changes lead to regional departures from the “wet gets wetter, dry gets drier” idea (Chou and Neelin 2004, Seager et al. 2010).

Wills et al. (2016) present an analysis of how circulation changes influence the global pattern of change in net precipitation (precipitation minus evaporation, P – E). The focus is on the east-west (or zonal) variations of P – E, and how they change with global warming. Here, we overview some of the findings from this paper.

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