Oceanic Influences On Recent Continental Warming – An Important New Research Paper: Compo and Sardeshmukh, 2008

Climate Science has previously weblogged on an important new perspective on the role of regional climate forcings on climate variability and change which involves ocean-atmosphere interactions (e.g. see and see). Now there is a very significant new paper on this subject by this research group which should attract major attention. It is

Compo,G.P., and P.D. Sardeshmukh, 2008: Oceanic influences on recent continental warming. Climate Dynamics, in press.

The abstract reads

“Evidence is presented that the recent worldwide land warming has occurred largely in response to a worldwide warming of the oceans rather than as a direct response to increasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) over land. Atmospheric model simulations of the last half-century with prescribed observed ocean temperature changes, but without prescribed GHG changes, account for most of the land warming. The oceanic influence has occurred through hydrodynamic-radiative teleconnections, primarily by moistening and warming the air over land and increasing the downward longwave radiation at the surface. The oceans may themselves have warmed from a combination of natural and anthropogenic influences.”

The conclusion of the paper reads

“In summary, our results emphasize the significant role of remote oceanic influences, rather than the direct local effect of anthropogenic radiative forcings, in the recent continental warming. They suggest that the recent oceanic warming has caused the continents to warm through a different set of mechanisms than usually identified with the global impacts of SST changes. It has increased the humidity of the atmosphere, altered the atmospheric vertical motion and associated cloud fields, and perturbed the longwave and shortwave radiative fluxes at the continental surface. While continuous global measurements of most of these changes are not available through the 1961-2006 period, some humidity observations are available and do show upward trends over the continents. These include near-surface observations (Dai 2006) as well as satellite radiance measurements sensitive to upper tropospheric moisture (Soden et al. 2005).”

 Although not a focus of this study, the degree to which the oceans themselves have recently warmed due to increased GHG, other anthropogenic, natural solar and volcanic forcings, or internal multi-decadal climate variations is a matter of active investigation (Stott et al. 2006; Knutson et al. 2006; Pierce et al. 2006). Reliable assessments of these contributing factors depend critically on reliable estimations of natural climate variability, either from the observational record or from coupled climate model simulations without anthropogenic forcings. Several recent studies suggest that the observed SST variability may be misrepresented in the coupled models used in preparing the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, with substantial errors on interannual and decadal scales (e.g., Shukla et al. 2006, DelSole, 2006; Newman 2007; Newman et al. 2008). There is a hint of an underestimation of simulated decadal SST variability even in the published IPCC Report (Hegerl et al. 2007, FAQ9.2 Figure 1). Given these and other misrepresentations of natural oceanic variability on decadal scales (e.g., Zhang and McPhaden 2006), a role for natural causes of at least some of the recent oceanic warming should not be ruled out.

Regardless of whether or not the rapid recent oceanic warming has occurred largely from anthropogenic or natural influences, our study highlights its importance in accounting for the recent observed continental warming. Perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from our analysis is that the recent acceleration of global warming may not be occurring in quite the manner one might have imagined. The indirect and substantial role of the oceans in causing the recent continental warming emphasizes the need to generate reliable projections of ocean temperature changes over the next century, in order to generate more reliable projections of not just the global mean temperature and precipitation changes (Barsugli et al. 2006), but also regional climate changes.”

This is a major scientific conclusion, and the authors should be recognized for this achievement. If these results are robust, it further documents that a regional perspective of climate variabilty and change must be adopted, rather than a focus on a global average surface temperature change, as emphasized in the 2007 IPCC WG1 report.  This work also provides support for the perspective on climate sensitivity that Roy Spencer has reported on in his powerpoint presentation last week (see).

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