In a previous post, I described the concept of emergent constraints, which allow us to narrow uncertainties in climate change projections through empirical relationships that relate a model’s climate response to observable metrics. The credibility of an emergent constraint relies upon the strength of the statistical relationship, a clear understanding of the mechanisms underlying the relationship, and the accuracy of observations. A number of emergent constraints have already been identified, with different weaknesses and strengths. This post aims to summarize some of them.
Various attempts have been made to narrow the likely range of the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) through exploitation of “emergent constraints.” They generally use correlations between the response of climate models to increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations and a quantity in principle observable in the present climate (e.g., an amplitude of natural fluctuations) to constrain ECS given measurements of the present-day observable. However, recent studies have arrived at different conclusions about likely ECS ranges. The different conclusions arise at least in part because the studies have systematically underestimated statistical uncertainties.
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.
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.