Another Look at Climate Sensitivity

OK, a quick pop quiz. The average temperature of the planet is about 14°C (57°F). If the earth had no atmosphere, and if it were a blackbody at the same distance from the sun, how much cooler would it be than at present?

a) 33°C (59°F) cooler

b) 20°C (36°F) cooler

c) 8° C (15°F) cooler

The answer may come as a surprise. If the earth were a blackbody at its present distance from the sun, it would be only 8°C cooler than it is now. That is to say, the net gain from our entire complete system, including clouds, surface albedo, aerosols, evaporation losses, and all the rest, is only 8°C above blackbody no-atmosphere conditions.

Why is the temperature rise so small? Here’s a diagram of what is happening.

Figure 1. Global energy budget, adapted and expanded from Kiehl/Trenberth . Values are in Watts per square metre (W/m2). Note the top of atmosphere (TOA) emission of 147 W/m2. Tropopause is the altitude where temperature stops decreasing with altitude.

As you can see, the temperature doesn’t rise much because there are a variety of losses in the complete system. Some of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere. Some is radiated into space through the “atmospheric window”. Some is lost through latent heat (evaporation/transpiration), and some is lost as sensible heat (conduction/convection). Finally, some of this loss is due to the surface albedo.

The surface reflects about 29 W/m2 back into space. This means that the surface albedo is about 0.15 (15% of the solar radiation hitting the ground is reflected by the surface back to space). So let’s take that into account. If the earth had no atmosphere and had an average albedo like the present earth of 0.15, it would be about 20°C cooler than it is at present.

This means that the warming due to the complete atmospheric system (greenhouse gases, clouds, aerosols, latent and sensible heat losses, and all the rest) is about 20°C over no-atmosphere earth albedo conditions.

Why is this important? Because it allows us to determine the overall net climate sensitivity of the entire system. Climate sensitivity is defined by the UN IPCC as “the climate system response to sustained radiative forcing.” It is measured as the change in temperature from a given change in TOA atmospheric forcing.

As is shown in the diagram above, the TOA radiation is about 150W/m2. This 150 W/m2 TOA radiation is responsible for the 20°C warming. So the net climate sensitivity is 20°C/150W-m2, or a temperature rise  0.13°C per W/m2. If we assume the UN IPCC canonical value of 3.7 W/m2 for a doubling of CO2, this would mean that a doubling of CO2 would lead to a temperature rise of about half a degree.

The UN IPCC Fourth Assessment Report gives a much higher value for climate sensitivity. They say it is from 2°C to 4.5°C for a CO2 doubling, or from four to nine times higher than what we see in the real climate system. Why is their number so much higher? Inter alia, the reasons are:

1. The climate models assume that there is a large positive feedback as the earth warms. This feedback has never been demonstrated, only assumed.

2. The climate models underestimate the increase in evaporation with temperature.

3. The climate models do not include the effect of thunderstorms, which act to cool the earth in a host of ways .

4. The climate models overestimate the effect of CO2. This is because they are tuned to a historical temperature record which contains a large UHI (urban heat island) component. Since the historical temperature rise is overestimated, the effect of CO2 is overestimated as well.

5. The sensitivity of the climate models depend on the assumed value of the aerosol forcing. This is not measured, but assumed. As in point 4 above, the assumed size depends on the historical record, which is contaminated by UHI. See Kiehl for a full discussion.

6. Wind increases with differential temperature. Increasing wind increases evaporation, ocean albedo, conductive/convective loss, ocean surface area, total evaporative area, and airborne dust and aerosols, all of which cool the system. But thunderstorm winds are not included in any of the models, and many models ignore one or more of the effects of wind.

Note that the climate sensitivity figure of half a degree per W/m2 is an average. It is not the equilibrium sensitivity. The equilibrium sensitivity has to be lower, since losses increase faster than TOA radiation. This is because both parasitic losses and albedo are temperature dependent, and rise faster than the increase in temperature:

a) Evaporation increases roughly exponentially with temperature, and linearly with wind speed.

b) Tropical cumulus clouds increase rapidly with increasing temperature, cutting down the incoming radiation.

c) Tropical thunderstorms also increase rapidly with increasing temperature, cooling the earth.

d) Sensible heat losses increase with the surface temperature.

e) Radiation losses increases proportional to the fourth power of temperature. This means that each additional degree of warming requires more and more input energy to achieve. To warm the earth from 13°C to 14°C requires 20% more energy than to warm it from minus 6°C (the current temperature less 20°C) to minus 5°C.

This means that as the temperature rises, each additional W/m2 added to the system will result in a smaller and smaller temperature increase. As a result, the equilibrium value of the climate sensitivity (as defined by the IPCC) is certain to be smaller, and likely to be much smaller, than the half a degree per CO2 doubling as calculated above.