Contrasting Observed Atmospheric Responses to Tropical Sea Surface Temperature Warming Patterns

Anna Mackie, Helen E. Brindley, Paul I. Palmer

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Abstract / Description of output

Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is a theoretical concept which describes the change in global mean surface temperature that results from a sustained doubling of atmospheric CO2. Current ECS estimates range from ∼1.8 to 5.6 K, reflecting uncertainties in climate feedbacks. The sensitivity of the lower (1,000–700 hPa) and upper (500–200 hPa) troposphere to changes in spatial patterns of tropical sea surface temperature (SST) have been proposed by recent model studies as key feedbacks controlling climate sensitivity. We examine empirical evidence for these proposed mechanisms using 14 years of satellite data. We examine the response of temperature and humidity profiles, clouds, and top‐of‐the‐atmosphere radiation to relative warming in tropical ocean regions when there is either strong convection or subsidence. We find warmer SSTs in regions of strong subsidence are coincident with a decrease in lower tropospheric stability (−0.9 ± 0.4 KK−1) and low cloud cover (∼−6% K−1). This leads to a warming associated with the weakening in the shortwave cooling effect of clouds (4.2 ± 1.9 Wm−2K−1), broadly consistent with model calculations. In contrast, warmer SSTs in regions of strong convection are coincident with an increase in upper tropospheric humidity (3.2 ± 1.5% K−1). In this scenario, the dominant effect is the enhancement of the warming longwave cloud radiative effect (3.8 ± 3.0 Wm−2K−1) from an increase in high cloud cover (∼7% K−1), though changes in the net (longwave and shortwave) effect are not statistically significant (p < 0.003). Our observational evidence supports the existence of mechanisms linking contrasting atmospheric responses to patterns in SST, mechanisms which have been linked to climate sensitivity.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres
Issue number7
Early online date22 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 16 Apr 2021


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