Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
“Climate sensitivity” is the name for the measure of how much the earth’s surface is supposed to warm for a given change in what is called “forcing”. A change in forcing means a change in the net downwelling radiation at the top of the atmosphere, which includes both shortwave (solar) and longwave (“greenhouse”) radiation.
There is an interesting study of the earth’s radiation budget called “Long-term global distribution of Earth’s shortwave radiation budget at the top of atmosphere“, by N. Hatzianastassiou et al. Among other things it contains a look at the albedo by hemisphere for the period 1984-1998. I realized today that I could use that data, along with the NASA solar data, to calculate an observational estimate of equilibrium climate sensitivity.
Now, you can’t just look at the direct change in solar forcing versus the change in temperature to get the long-term sensitivity. All that will give you is the “instantaneous” climate sensitivity. The reason is that it takes a while for the earth to warm up or cool down, so the immediate change from an increase in forcing will be smaller than the eventual equilibrium change if that same forcing change is sustained over a long time period.
However, all is not lost. Figure 1 shows the annual cycle of solar forcing changes and temperature changes.
Figure 1. Lissajous figure of the change in solar forcing (horizontal axis) versus the change in temperature (vertical axis) on an annual average basis.
So … what are we looking at in Figure 1?
I began by combining the NASA solar data, which shows month-by-month changes in the solar energy hitting the earth, with the albedo data. The solar forcing in watts per square metre (W/m2) times (1 minus albedo) gives us the amount of incoming solar energy that actually makes it into the system. This is the actual net solar forcing, month by month.
Then I plotted the changes in that net solar forcing (after albedo reflections) against the corresponding changes in temperature, by hemisphere. First, a couple of comments about that plot.
The Northern Hemisphere (NH) has larger temperature swings (vertical axis) than does the Southern Hemisphere (SH). This is because more of the NH is land and more of the SH is ocean … and the ocean has a much larger specific heat. This means that the ocean takes more energy to heat it than does the land.
We can also see the same thing reflected in the slope of the ovals. The slope of the ovals is a measure of the “lag” in the system. The harder it is to warm or cool the hemisphere, the larger the lag, and the flatter the slope.
So that explains the red and the blue lines, which are the actual data for the NH and the SH respectively.
For the “lagged model”, I used the simplest of models. This uses an exponential function to approximate the lag, along with a variable “lambda_0” which is the instantaneous climate sensitivity. It models the process in which an object is warmed by incoming radiation. At first the warming is fairly fast, but then as time goes on the warming is slower and slower, until it finally reaches equilibrium. The length of time it takes to warm up is governed by a “time constant” called “tau”. I used the following formula:
ΔT(n+1) = λ∆F(n+1)/τ + ΔT(n) exp(-1/ τ)
where ∆T is change in temperature, ∆F is change in forcing, lambda (λ) is the instantaneous climate sensitivity, “n” and “n + 1” are the times of the observations,and tau (τ) is the time constant. I used Excel to calculate the values that give the best fit for both the NH and the SH, using the “Solver” tool. The fit is actually quite good, with an RMS error of only 0.2°C and 0.1°C for the NH and the SH respectively.
Now, as you might expect, we get different numbers for both lambda_0 and tau for the NH and the SH, as follows:
Hemisphere lambda_0 Tau (months) NH 0.08 1.9 SH 0.04 2.4
Note that (as expected) it takes longer for the SH to warm or cool than for the NH (tau is larger for the SH). In addition, as expected, the SH changes less with a given amount of heating.
Now, bear in mind that lambda_0 is the instantaneous climate sensitivity. However, since we also know the time constant, we can use that to calculate the equilibrium sensitivity. I’m sure there is some easy way to do that, but I just used the same spreadsheet. To simulate a doubling of CO2, I gave it a one-time jump of 3.7 W/m2 of forcing.
The results were that the equilibrium climate sensitivity to a change in forcing from a doubling of CO2 (3.7 W/m2) are 0.4°C in the Northern Hemisphere, and 0.2°C in the Southern Hemisphere. This gives us an overall average global equilibrium climate sensitivity of 0.3°C for a doubling of CO2.
Comments and criticisms gladly accepted, this is how science works. I put my ideas out there, and y’all try to find holes in them.
NOTE: The spreadsheet used to do the calculations and generate the graph is here.
NOTE: I also looked at modeling the change using the entire dataset which covers from 1984 to 1998, rather than just using the annual averages (not shown). The answers for lambda_0 and tau for the NH and the SH came out the same (to the accuracy reported above), despite the general warming over the time period. I am aware that the time constant “tau”, at only a few months, is shorter than other studies have shown. However … I’m just reporting what I found. When I try modeling it with a larger time constant, the angle comes out all wrong, much flatter.
While it is certainly possible that there are much longer-term periods for the warming, they are not evident in either of my analyses on this data. If such longer-term time lags exist, it appears that they are not significant enough to lengthen the lags shown in my analysis above. The details of the long-term analysis (as opposed to using the average as above) are shown in the spreadsheet.