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Aquaplanets, climate sensitivity, and low clouds

Brian Medeiros, Bjorn Stevens, Isaac M. Held, Ming Zhao,
David L. Williamson, Jerry G. Olson, and Christopher S. Bretherton


Cloud effects have repeatedly been pointed out as the leading source of uncertainty in projections of future climate, yet clouds remain poorly understood and simulated in climate models. Aquaplanets provide a simplified framework for comparing and understanding cloud effects, and how they are partitioned as function of regime, in large-scale models. This work uses two climate models to demonstrate that aquaplanets can successfully predict a climate model’s sensitivity to an idealized climate change. For both models, aquaplanet climate sensitivity is similar to that of the realistic configuration. Tropical low clouds appear to play a leading role in determining the sensitivity. Regions of largescale subsidence, which cover much of the tropics, are most directly responsible for the differences between the models. Although cloud effects and climate sensitivity are similar for aquaplanets and realistic configurations, the aquaplanets lack persistent stratocumulus in the tropical atmosphere. This, and an additional analysis of the cloud response in the realistically configured simulations, suggests the representation of shallow (trade-wind) cumulus convection, which is ubiquitous in the tropics, is largely responsible for differences in the simulated climate sensitivity of these two models.


AquaPlanet Experiment Project
NCAR Community Atmosphere Model
GFDL Atmospheric Model (via FMS)

Color Versions of B&W Figures:
Aquaplanet SSTs: [pdf]
Aquaplanet zonal mean precipitation: [pdf]
Aquaplanet B mean meridional circulation: [pdf]
Supplemental Figures (not included in paper):