Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach.
For all of its faults, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) lays out their idea of the climate paradigm pretty clearly. A fundamental part of this paradigm is that the long-term change in global average surface temperature is a linear function of the long-term change in what is called the “radiative forcing”. Today I found myself contemplating the concept of radiative forcing, usually referred to just as “forcing”.
So … what is radiative forcing when it’s at home? Well, that gets a bit complex … in the history chapter of the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), the IPCC says of the origination of the concept (emphasis mine):
The concept of radiative forcing (RF) as the radiative imbalance (W m–2) in the climate system at the top of the atmosphere caused by the addition of a greenhouse gas (or other change) was established at the time and summarised in Chapter 2 of the WGI FAR [First Assessment Report].
Figure 1. A graph of temperature versus altitude, showing how the tropopause is higher in the tropics and lower at the poles. The tropopause marks the boundary between the troposphere (the lowest atmospheric layer) and the stratosphere. SOURCE
The concept of radiative forcing was clearly stated in the Third Assessment Report (TAR), which defined radiative forcing as follows:
The radiative forcing of the surface-troposphere system due to the perturbation in or the introduction of an agent (say, a change in greenhouse gas concentrations) is the change in net (down minus up) irradiance (solar plus long-wave; in Wm-2) at the tropopause AFTER allowing for stratospheric temperatures to readjust to radiative equilibrium, but with surface and tropospheric temperatures and state held fixed at the unperturbed values.
In the context of climate change, the term forcing is restricted to changes in the radiation balance of the surface-troposphere system imposed by external factors, with no changes in stratospheric dynamics, without any surface and tropospheric feedbacks in operation (i.e., no secondary effects induced because of changes in tropospheric motions or its thermodynamic state), and with no dynamically-induced changes in the amount and distribution of atmospheric water (vapour, liquid, and solid forms).
So what’s not to like about that definition of forcing?
Well, the main thing that I don’t like about the definition is that it is not a definition of a measurable physical quantity.
We can measure the average surface temperature, or at least estimate it in a consistent fashion from a number of measurements. But we can never measure the change in the radiation balance at the troposphere AFTER the stratosphere has readjusted, but with the surface and tropospheric temperatures held fixed. You can’t hold any part of the climate fixed. It simply can not be done. This means that the IPCC vision of radiative forcing is a purely imaginary value, forever incapable of experimental confirmation or measurement.
The problem is that the surface and tropospheric temperatures respond to changes in radiation with a time scale on the order of seconds. The instant that the sun hits the surface, it starts affecting the surface temperature. Even hourly measurements of radiative imbalances reflect the changing temperatures of the surface and the troposphere during that hour. There is no way that we can have the “surface and tropospheric temperatures and state held fixed at the unperturbed values” as is required by the IPCC formulation.
There is a second difficulty with the IPCC definition of radiative forcing, a practical problem. This is that the forcing is defined by the IPCC as being measured at the tropopause. The tropopause is the boundary between the troposphere (the lowest atmospheric layer, where weather occurs), and the stratosphere above it. Unfortunately, the tropopause varies in height from the tropics to the poles, from day to night, and from summer to winter. The tropopause is a most vaguely located, vagrant, and ill-mannered creature that is neither stratosphere nor troposphere. One authority defines it as:
The boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, where an abrupt change in lapse rate usually occurs. It is defined as the lowest level at which the lapse rate decreases to 2 °C/km or less, provided that the average lapse rate between this level and all higher levels within 2 km does not exceed 2 °C/km.
This is an interesting definition. It highlights that there can be two or more layers that look like the tropopause (little temperature change with altitude), and if there is more than one, this definition always chooses the one at the higher altitude.
In any case, the issue arises because under the IPCC definition the radiation balance is measured at the tropopause. But it is very difficult to measure the radiation, either upwelling or downwelling, at the tropopause. You can’t do it from the ground, and you can’t do it from a satellite. You have to do it from a balloon or an airplane, while taking continuous temperature measurements so you can identify the altitude of the tropopause at that particular place and time. As a result, we will never be able to measure it on a global basis.
So even if we were not already talking about an unmeasurable quantity (radiative change with stratosphere reacting and surface and tropospheric temperatures held fixed), because of practical difficulties we still wouldn’t be able to measure the radiation at the tropopause in any global, regional, or even local sense. All we have is scattered point measurements, far from enough to establish a global average.
This is very unfortunate. It means that “radiative forcing” as defined by the IPCC is not measurable for two separate reasons, one practical, the other that the definition involves an imaginary and physically impossible situation.
In my experience, this is unusual in theories of physical phenomena. I don’t know of other scientific fields that base fundamental concepts on an unmeasurable imaginary variable rather than a measurable physical variable. Climate science is already strange enough, because it studies averages rather than observations. But this definition of forcing pushes the field into unreality.
Here is the main problem. Under the IPCC’s definition, radiative forcing cannot ever be measured. This makes it impossible to falsify the central idea that the change in surface temperature is a linear function of the change in forcing. Since we cannot measure the forcing, how can that be falsified (or proven)?
It is for this reason that I use a slightly different definition of the forcing. This is the net radiative change, not at the troposphere, but at the TOA (top of atmosphere, often taken to mean 20 km for practical purposes).
And rather than some imaginary measurement after some but not all parts of the climate have reacted, I use the forcing AFTER all parts of the climate have readjusted to the change. Any measurement we can take already must include whatever readjustments of the surface and tropospheric temperatures that have taken place since the last measurement. It is this definition of “radiative forcing” that I used in my recent post, An Interim Look at Intermediate Sensitivity.
I don’t have any particular conclusions in this post, other than this is a heck of a way to run a railroad, using imaginary values that can never be measured or verified.