The Vertical Distribution of Climate Forcings and Feedbacks from the Surface to Top of Atmosphere

Previdi, Michael; Liepert, Beate G.

The radiative forcings and feedbacks that determine Earth’s climate sensitivity are typically defined at the top-of-atmosphere (TOA) or tropopause, yet climate sensitivity itself refers to a change in temperature at the surface. In this paper, we describe how TOA radiative perturbations translate into surface temperature changes. It is shown using first principles that radiation changes at the TOA can be equated with the change in energy stored by the oceans and land surface. This ocean and land heat uptake in turn involves an adjustment of the surface radiative and non-radiative energy fluxes, with the latter being comprised of the turbulent exchange of latent and sensible heat between the surface and atmosphere. We employ the radiative kernel technique to decompose TOA radiative feedbacks in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report climate models into components associated with changes in radiative heating of the atmosphere and of the surface. (We consider the equilibrium response of atmosphere-mixed layer ocean models subjected to an instantaneous doubling of atmospheric CO2). It is shown that most feedbacks, i.e., the temperature, water vapor and cloud feedbacks, (as well as CO2 forcing) affect primarily the turbulent energy exchange at the surface rather than the radiative energy exchange. Specifically, the temperature feedback increases the surface turbulent (radiative) energy loss by 2.87 W m−2 K−1 (0.60 W m−2 K−1) in the multimodel mean; the water vapor feedback decreases the surface turbulent energy loss by 1.07 W m−2 K−1 and increases the surface radiative heating by 0.89 W m−2 K−1; and the cloud feedback decreases both the turbulent energy loss and the radiative heating at the surface by 0.43 and 0.24 W m−2 K−1, respectively. Since changes to the surface turbulent energy exchange are dominated in the global mean sense by changes in surface evaporation, these results serve to highlight the fundamental importance of the global water cycle to Earth’s climate sensitivity.



  • thumnail for Previdi_Liepert_2011_Climate_Dynamics.pdf Previdi_Liepert_2011_Climate_Dynamics.pdf application/pdf 290 KB Download File

Also Published In

Climate Dynamics

More About This Work

Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Ocean and Climate Physics
Published Here
December 5, 2011