Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis

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D.1 Climate Processes and Feedbacks

Processes in the climate system determine the natural variability of the climate system and its response to perturbations, such as the increase in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Many basic climate processes of importance are well-known and modelled exceedingly well. Feedback processes amplify (a positive feedback) or reduce (a negative feedback) changes in response to an initial perturbation and hence are very important for accurate simulation of the evolution of climate.

Water vapour

A major feedback accounting for the large warming predicted by climate models in response to an increase in CO2 is the increase in atmospheric water vapour. An increase in the temperature of the atmosphere increases its water-holding capacity; however, since most of the atmosphere is undersaturated, this does not automatically mean that water vapour, itself, must increase. Within the boundary layer (roughly the lowest 1 to 2 km of the atmosphere), water vapour increases with increasing temperature. In the free troposphere above the boundary layer, where the water vapour greenhouse effect is most important, the situation is harder to quantify. Water vapour feedback, as derived from current models, approximately doubles the warming from what it would be for fixed water vapour. Since the SAR, major improvements have occurred in the treatment of water vapour in models, although detrainment of moisture from clouds remains quite uncertain and discrepancies exist between model water vapour distributions and those observed. Models are capable of simulating the moist and very dry regions observed in the tropics and sub-tropics and how they evolve with the seasons and from year to year. While reassuring, this does not provide a check of the feedbacks, although the balance of evidence favours a positive clear-sky water vapour feedback of the magnitude comparable to that found in simulations.


As has been the case since the first IPCC Assessment Report in 1990, probably the greatest uncertainty in future projections of climate arises from clouds and their interactions with radiation. Clouds can both absorb and reflect solar radiation (thereby cooling the surface) and absorb and emit long wave radiation (thereby warming the surface). The competition between these effects depends on cloud height, thickness and radiative properties. The radiative properties and evolution of clouds depend on the distribution of atmospheric water vapour, water drops, ice particles, atmospheric aerosols and cloud thickness. The physical basis of cloud parametrizations is greatly improved in models through inclusion of bulk representation of cloud microphysical properties in a cloud water budget equation, although considerable uncertainty remains. Clouds represent a significant source of potential error in climate simulations. The possibility that models underestimate systematically solar absorption in clouds remains a controversial matter. The sign of the net cloud feedback is still a matter of uncertainty, and the various models exhibit a large spread. Further uncertainties arise from precipitation processes and the difficulty in correctly simulating the diurnal cycle and precipitation amounts and frequencies.


There has been a growing appreciation of the importance of the stratosphere in the climate system because of changes in its structure and recognition of the vital role of both radiative and dynamical processes. The vertical profile of temperature change in the atmosphere, including the stratosphere, is an important indicator in detection and attribution studies. Most of the observed decreases in lower-stratospheric temperatures have been due to ozone decreases, of which the Antarctic "ozone hole" is a part, rather than increased CO2 concentrations. Waves generated in the troposphere can propagate into the stratosphere where they are absorbed. As a result, stratospheric changes alter where and how these waves are absorbed, and the effects can extend downward into the troposphere. Changes in solar irradiance, mainly in the ultraviolet (UV), lead to photochemically-induced ozone changes and, hence, alter the stratospheric heating rates, which can alter the tropospheric circulation. Limitations in resolution and relatively poor representation of some stratospheric processes adds uncertainty to model results.


Major improvements have taken place in modelling ocean processes, in particular heat transport. These improvements, in conjunction with an increase in resolution, have been important in reducing the need for flux adjustment in models and in producing realistic simulations of natural large-scale circulation patterns and improvements in simulating El Niño (see Box 4). Ocean currents carry heat from the tropics to higher latitudes. The ocean exchanges heat, water (through evaporation and precipitation) and CO2 with the atmosphere. Because of its huge mass and high heat capacity, the ocean slows climate change and influences the time-scales of variability in the ocean-atmosphere system. Considerable progress has been made in the understanding of ocean processes relevant for climate change. Increases in resolution, as well as improved representation (parametrization) of important sub-grid scale processes (e.g., mesoscale eddies), have increased the realism of simulations. Major uncertainties still exist with the representation of small-scale processes, such as overflows (flow through narrow channels, e.g., between Greenland and Iceland), western boundary currents (i.e., large-scale narrow currents along coastlines), convection and mixing. Boundary currents in climate simulations are weaker and wider than in nature, although the consequences of this for climate are not clear.

Box 4: Climate Models: How are they built and how are they applied?

The strongest natural fluctuation of climate on interannual time-scales is the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon. The term "El Niño" originally applied to an annual weak warm ocean current that ran southwards along the coast of Peru about Christmas-time and only subsequently became associated with the unusually large warmings. The coastal warming, however, is often associated with a much more extensive anomalous ocean warming to the International Dateline, and it is this Pacific basinwide phenomenon that forms the link with the anomalous global climate patterns. The atmospheric component tied to "El Niño" is termed the "Southern Oscillation". Scientists often call this phenomenon, where the atmosphere and ocean collaborate together, ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation).

ENSO is a natural phenomenon, and there is good evidence from cores of coral and glacial ice in the Andes that it has been going on for millennia. The ocean and atmospheric conditions in the tropical Pacific are seldom average, but instead fluctuate somewhat irregularly between El Niño events and the opposite "La Niña" phase, consisting of a basinwide cooling of the tropical Pacific, with a preferred period of about three to six years. The most intense phase of each event usually lasts about a year.

A distinctive pattern of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean sets the stage for ENSO events. Key features are the "warm pool" in the tropical western Pacific, where the warmest ocean waters in the world reside, much colder waters in the eastern Pacific, and a cold tongue along the equator that is most pronounced about October and weakest in March. The atmospheric easterly trade winds in the tropics pile up the warm waters in the west, producing an upward slope of sea level along the equator of 0.60 m from east to west. The winds drive the surface ocean currents, which determine where the surface waters flow and diverge. Thus, cooler nutrient-rich waters upwell from below along the equator and western coasts of the Americas, favouring development of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and hence fish. Because convection and thunderstorms preferentially occur over warmer waters, the pattern of sea surface temperatures determines the distribution of rainfall in the tropics, and this in turn determines the atmospheric heating patterns through the release of latent heat. The heating drives the large-scale monsoonal-type circulations in the tropics, and consequently determines the winds. This strong coupling between the atmosphere and ocean in the tropics gives rise to the El Niño phenomenon.

During El Niño, the warm waters from the western tropical Pacific migrate eastward as the trade winds weaken, shifting the pattern of tropical rainstorms, further weakening the trade winds, and thus reinforcing the changes in sea temperatures. Sea level drops in the west, but rises in the east by as much as 0.25 m, as warm waters surge eastward along the equator. However, the changes in atmospheric circulation are not confined to the tropics, but extend globally and influence the jet streams and storm tracks in mid-latitudes. Approximately reverse patterns occur during the opposite La Niña phase of the phenomenon.

Changes associated with ENSO produce large variations in weather and climate around the world from year to year. These often have a profound impact on humanity and society because of associated droughts, floods, heat waves and other changes that can severely disrupt agriculture, fisheries, the environment, health, energy demand, air quality and also change the risks of fire. ENSO also plays a prominent role in modulating exchanges of CO2 with the atmosphere. The normal upwelling of cold nutrient-rich and CO2-rich waters in the tropical Pacific is suppressed during El Niño.


The representation of sea-ice processes continues to improve, with several climate models now incorporating physically based treatments of ice dynamics. The representation of land-ice processes in global climate models remains rudimentary. The cryosphere consists of those regions of Earth that are seasonally or perennially covered by snow and ice. Sea ice is important because it reflects more incoming solar radiation than the sea surface (i.e., it has a higher albedo), and it insulates the sea from heat loss during the winter. Therefore, reduction of sea ice gives a positive feedback on climate warming at high latitudes. Furthermore, because sea ice contains less salt than sea water, when sea ice is formed the salt content (salinity) and density of the surface layer of the ocean is increased. This promotes an exchange of water with deeper layers of the ocean, affecting ocean circulation. The formation of icebergs and the melting of ice shelves returns fresh water from the land to the ocean, so that changes in the rates of these processes could affect ocean circulation by changing the surface salinity. Snow has a higher albedo than the land surface; hence, reductions in snow cover lead to a similar positive albedo feedback, although weaker than for sea ice. Increasingly complex snow schemes and sub-grid scale variability in ice cover and thickness, which can significantly influence albedo and atmosphere-ocean exchanges, are being introduced in some climate models.

Land surface

Research with models containing the latest representations of the land surface indicates that the direct effects of increased CO2 on the physiology of plants could lead to a relative reduction in evapotranspiration over the tropical continents, with associated regional warming and drying over that predicted for conventional greenhouse warming effects. Land surface changes provide important feedbacks as anthropogenic climate changes (e.g., increased temperature, changes in precipitation, changes in net radiative heating, and the direct effects of CO2) will influence the state of the land surface (e.g., soil moisture, albedo, roughness and vegetation). Exchanges of energy, momentum, water, heat and carbon between the land surface and the atmosphere can be defined in models as functions of the type and density of the local vegetation and the depth and physical properties of the soil, all based on land-surface data bases that have been improved using satellite observations. Recent advances in the understanding of vegetation photosynthesis and water use have been used to couple the terrestrial energy, water and carbon cycles within a new generation of land surface parametrizations, which have been tested against field observations and implemented in a few GCMs, with demonstrable improvements in the simulation of land-atmosphere fluxes. However, significant problems remain to be solved in the areas of soil moisture processes, runoff prediction, land-use change and the treatment of snow and sub-grid scale heterogeneity.

Changes in land-surface cover can affect global climate in several ways. Large-scale deforestation in the humid tropics (e.g., South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia) has been identified as the most important ongoing land-surface process, because it reduces evaporation and increases surface temperature. These effects are qualitatively reproduced by most models. However, large uncertainties still persist on the quantitative impact of large-scale deforestation on the hydrological cycle, particularly over Amazonia.

Carbon cycle

Recent improvements in process-based terrestrial and ocean carbon cycle models and their evaluation against observations have given more confidence in their use for future scenario studies. CO2 naturally cycles rapidly among the atmosphere, oceans and land. However, the removal of the CO2 perturbation added by human activities from the atmosphere takes far longer. This is because of processes that limit the rate at which ocean and terrestrial carbon stocks can increase. Anthropogenic CO2 is taken up by the ocean because of its high solubility (caused by the nature of carbonate chemistry), but the rate of uptake is limited by the finite speed of vertical mixing. Anthropogenic CO2 is taken up by terrestrial ecosystems through several possible mechanisms, for example, land management, CO2 fertilisation (the enhancement of plant growth as a result of increased atmospheric CO2 concentration) and increasing anthropogenic inputs of nitrogen. This uptake is limited by the relatively small fraction of plant carbon that can enter long-term storage (wood and humus). The fraction of emitted CO2 that can be taken up by the oceans and land is expected to decline with increasing CO2 concentrations. Process-based models of the ocean and land carbon cycles (including representations of physical, chemical and biological processes) have been developed and evaluated against measurements pertinent to the natural carbon cycle. Such models have also been set up to mimic the human perturbation of the carbon cycle and have been able to generate time-series of ocean and land carbon uptake that are broadly consistent with observed global trends. There are still substantial differences among models, especially in how they treat the physical ocean circulation and in regional responses of terrestrial ecosystem processes to climate. Nevertheless, current models consistently indicate that when the effects of climate change are considered, CO2 uptake by oceans and land becomes smaller.

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