IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

1.5.2 Model Clouds and Climate Sensitivity

The modelling of cloud processes and feedbacks provides a striking example of the irregular pace of progress in climate science. Representation of clouds may constitute the area in which atmospheric models have been modified most continuously to take into account increasingly complex physical processes. At the time of the TAR clouds remained a major source of uncertainty in the simulation of climate changes (as they still are at present: e.g., Sections 2.4, 2.6, 3.4.3, 7.5, 8.2, 8.4.11,,,,,,,,,

In the early 1980s, most models were still using prescribed cloud amounts, as functions of location and altitude, and prescribed cloud radiative properties, to compute atmospheric radiation. The cloud amounts were very often derived from the zonally averaged climatology of London (1957). Succeeding generations of models have used relative humidity or other simple predictors to diagnose cloudiness (Slingo, 1987), thus providing a foundation of increased realism for the models, but at the same time possibly causing inconsistencies in the representation of the multiple roles of clouds as bodies interacting with radiation, generating precipitation and influencing small-scale convective or turbulent circulations. Following the pioneering studies of Sundqvist (1978), an explicit representation of clouds was progressively introduced into climate models, beginning in the late 1980s. Models first used simplified representations of cloud microphysics, following, for example, Kessler (1969), but more recent generations of models generally incorporate a much more comprehensive and detailed representation of clouds, based on consistent physical principles. Comparisons of model results with observational data presented in the TAR have shown that, based on zonal averages, the representation of clouds in most climate models was also more realistic in 2000 than had been the case only a few years before.

In spite of this undeniable progress, the amplitude and even the sign of cloud feedbacks was noted in the TAR as highly uncertain, and this uncertainty was cited as one of the key factors explaining the spread in model simulations of future climate for a given emission scenario. This cannot be regarded as a surprise: that the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to changing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations must depend strongly on cloud feedbacks can be illustrated on the simplest theoretical grounds, using data that have been available for a long time. Satellite measurements have indeed provided meaningful estimates of Earth’s radiation budget since the early 1970s (Vonder Haar and Suomi, 1971). Clouds, which cover about 60% of the Earth’s surface, are responsible for up to two-thirds of the planetary albedo, which is about 30%. An albedo decrease of only 1%, bringing the Earth’s albedo from 30% to 29%, would cause an increase in the black-body radiative equilibrium temperature of about 1°C, a highly significant value, roughly equivalent to the direct radiative effect of a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration. Simultaneously, clouds make an important contribution to the planetary greenhouse effect. In addition, changes in cloud cover constitute only one of the many parameters that affect cloud radiative interactions: cloud optical thickness, cloud height and cloud microphysical properties can also be modified by atmospheric temperature changes, which adds to the complexity of feedbacks, as evidenced, for example, through satellite observations analysed by Tselioudis and Rossow (1994).

The importance of simulated cloud feedbacks was revealed by the analysis of model results (Manabe and Wetherald, 1975; Hansen et al, 1984), and the first extensive model intercomparisons (Cess et al., 1989) also showed a substantial model dependency. The strong effect of cloud processes on climate model sensitivities to greenhouse gases was emphasized further through a now-classic set of General Circulation Model (GCM) experiments, carried out by Senior and Mitchell (1993). They produced global average surface temperature changes (due to doubled atmospheric CO2 concentration) ranging from 1.9°C to 5.4°C, simply by altering the way that cloud radiative properties were treated in the model. It is somewhat unsettling that the results of a complex climate model can be so drastically altered by substituting one reasonable cloud parametrization for another, thereby approximately replicating the overall inter-model range of sensitivities. Other GCM groups have also consistently obtained widely varying results by trying other techniques of incorporating cloud microphysical processes and their radiative interactions (e.g., Roeckner et al., 1987; Le Treut and Li, 1991), which differed from the approach of Senior and Mitchell (1993) through the treatment of partial cloudiness or mixed-phase properties. The model intercomparisons presented in the TAR showed no clear resolution of this unsatisfactory situation.

The scientific community realised long ago that using adequate data to constrain models was the only way to solve this problem. Using climate changes in the distant past to constrain the amplitude of cloud feedback has definite limitations (Ramstein et al., 1998). The study of cloud changes at decadal, interannual or seasonal time scales therefore remains a necessary path to constrain models. A long history of cloud observations now runs parallel to that of model development. Operational ground-based measurements, carried out for the purpose of weather prediction, constitute a valuable source of information that has been gathered and analysed by Warren et al. (1986, 1988). The International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP; Rossow and Schiffer, 1991) has developed an analysis of cloud cover and cloud properties using the measurements of operational meteorological satellites over a period of more than two decades. These data have been complemented by other satellite remote sensing data sets, such as those associated with the Nimbus-7 Temperature Humidity Infrared Radiometer (THIR) instrument (Stowe et al., 1988), with high-resolution spectrometers such as the High Resolution Infrared Radiation Sounder (HIRS) (Susskind et al., 1987), and with microwave absorption, as used by the Special Sensor Microwave/Imager (SSM/I). Chapter 8 provides an update of this ongoing observational effort.

A parallel effort has been carried out to develop a wider range of ground-based measurements, not only to provide an adequate reference for satellite observations, but also to make possible a detailed and empirically based analysis of the entire range of space and time scales involved in cloud processes. The longest-lasting and most comprehensive effort has been the Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program in the USA, which has established elaborately instrumented observational sites to monitor the full complexity of cloud systems on a long-term basis (Ackerman and Stokes, 2003). Shorter field campaigns dedicated to the observation of specific phenomena have also been established, such as the TOGA Coupled Ocean-Atmosphere Response Experiment (COARE) for convective systems (Webster and Lukas, 1992), or the Atlantic Stratocumulus Transition Experiment (ASTEX) for stratocumulus (Albrecht et al., 1995).

Observational data have clearly helped the development of models. The ISCCP data have greatly aided the development of cloud representations in climate models since the mid-1980s (e.g., Le Treut and Li, 1988; Del Genio et al., 1996). However, existing data have not yet brought about any reduction in the existing range of simulated cloud feedbacks. More recently, new theoretical tools have been developed to aid in validating parametrizations in a mode that emphasizes the role of cloud processes participating in climatic feedbacks. One such approach has been to focus on comprehensively observed episodes of cloudiness for which the large-scale forcing is observationally known, using single-column models (Randall et al., 1996; Somerville, 2000) and higher-resolution cloud-resolving models to evaluate GCM parametrizations. Another approach is to make use of the more global and continuous satellite data, on a statistical basis, through an investigation of the correlation between climate forcing and cloud parameters (Bony et al., 1997), in such a way as to provide a test of feedbacks between different climate variables. Chapter 8 assesses recent progress in this area.