IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Top-of-Atmosphere Radiation

One important development since the TAR is the apparent unexpectedly large changes in tropical mean radiation flux reported by ERBS (Wielicki et al., 2002a,b). It appears to be related in part to changes in the nature of tropical clouds (Wielicki et al., 2002a), based on the smaller changes in the clear-sky component of the radiative fluxes (Wong et al., 2000; Allan and Slingo, 2002), and appears to be statistically distinct from the spatial signals associated with ENSO (Allan and Slingo, 2002; Chen et al., 2002). A recent reanalysis of the ERBS active-cavity broadband data corrects for a 20 km change in satellite altitude between 1985 and 1999 and changes in the SW filter dome (Wong et al., 2006). Based upon the revised (Edition 3_Rev1) ERBS record (Figure 3.23), outgoing LW radiation over the tropics appears to have increased by about 0.7 W m–2 while the reflected SW radiation decreased by roughly 2.1 W m–2 from the 1980s to 1990s (Table 3.5).


Figure 3.23. Tropical mean (20°S to 20°N) TOA flux anomalies from 1985 to 1999 (W m–2) for LW, SW, and NET radiative fluxes [NET = −(LW + SW)]. Coloured lines are observations from ERBS Edition 3_Rev1 data from Wong et al. (2006) updated from Wielicki et al. (2002a), including spacecraft altitude and SW dome transmission corrections.

These conclusions depend upon the calibration stability of the ERBS non-scanner record, which is affected by diurnal sampling issues, satellite altitude drifts and changes in calibration following a three-month period when the sensor was powered off (Trenberth, 2002). Moreover, rather than a trend, the reflected SW radiation change may stem mainly from a jump in late 1992 in the ERBS record that is also observed in the ISCCP (version FD) record (Zhang et al., 2004c) but not in the AVHRR Pathfinder record (Jacobowitz et al., 2003). However, careful inspection of the sensor calibration revealed no known issues that can explain the decadal shift in the fluxes despite corrections to the ERBS time series relating to diurnal aliasing and satellite altitude changes (Wielicki et al., 2002b; Wong et al., 2006).

As noted in Section 3.4.3, the low-latitude changes in the radiation budget appear consistent with reduced cloud fraction from ISCCP. Detailed radiative transfer computations, using ISCCP cloud products along with additional global data sets, show broad agreement with the ERBS record of tropical radiative fluxes (Hatzianastassiou et al., 2004; Zhang et al., 2004c; Wong et al., 2006). However, the decrease in reflected SW radiation from the 1980s to the 1990s may be inconsistent with the increase in total and low cloud cover over oceans reported by surface observations (Norris, 2005a), which show increased low cloud occurrence. The degree of inconsistency, however, is difficult to ascertain without information on possible changes in low-level cloud albedo.

While the ERBS satellite provides the only continuous long-term top-of-atmosphere (TOA) flux record from broadband active-cavity instruments, narrow spectral band radiometers have made estimates of both reflected SW and outgoing LW radiation trends using regressions to broadband data, or using radiative transfer theory to estimate unmeasured portions of the spectrum of radiation. Table 3.5 shows the 1980s to 1990s TOA tropical mean flux changes for the ERBS Edition 3 data (Wong et al., 2006), the HIRS Pathfinder data (Mehta and Susskind, 1999), the AVHRR Pathfinder data (Jacobowitz et al., 2003) and the ISCCP FD data (Zhang et al., 2004c).

The most accurate of the data sets in Table 3.5 is believed to be the ERBS Edition 3 Rev 1 active-cavity wide field of view data (Wielicki et al., 2005). The ERBS stability is estimated as better than 0.5 W m–2 over the 1985 to 1999 period and the spatial and temporal sampling noise is less than 0.5 W m–2 on annual time scales (Wong et al., 2006). The outgoing LW radiation changes from ERBS are similar to the decadal changes in the HIRS Pathfinder and ISCCP FD records, but disagree with the AVHRR Pathfinder data (Wong et al., 2006). The AVHRR Pathfinder data also do not support the TOA SW radiation trends. However, calibration issues, conversion from narrow to broadband, and satellite orbit changes are thought to render the AVHRR record less reliable for decadal changes compared to ERBS (Wong et al., 2006). Estimates of the stability of the ISCCP time series for long-term TOA flux records are 3 to 5 W m–2 for SW radiative flux and 1 to 2 W m–2 for LW radiative flux (Brest et al., 1997), although the time series agreement of the ISCCP and ERBS records are much closer than these estimated calibration drift uncertainties (Zhang et al., 2004c).

Table 3.5. Top-of-atmosphere (TOA) radiative flux changes from the 1980s to 1990s (W m–2). Values are given as tropical means (20°S to 20°N) for the 1994 to 1997 period minus the 1985 to 1989 period. Dashes are shown where no data are available. From Wong et al. (2006).

 Radiative Flux Change (W m–2
Data Source  TOA LW  TOA SW  TOA Net 
ERBS Edition 3 Rev 1  0.7  –2.1  1.4 
HIRS Pathfinder  0.2  –  – 
AVHRR Pathfinder  –1.4  0.7  0.7 
ISCCP FD  0.5  –2.4  1.8 

The changes in SW radiation measured by ERBS Edition 3 Rev 1 are larger than the clear-sky flux changes due to humidity variations (Wong et al., 2000) or anthropogenic radiative forcing (see Chapter 2). If correct, the large decrease in reflected SW radiation with little change in outgoing LW radiation implies a reduction in tropical low cloud cover over this period. However, specific information on cloud radiative forcing is not available from ERBS after 1989 and, as noted in Section 3.4.3, surface data sets suggest an increase in low cloud cover over this period.

Since most of the net tropical heating of 1.4 W m–2 is a decrease in reflected SW radiative flux, the change implies a similar increase in solar insolation at the surface that, if unbalanced by other changes in surface fluxes, would increase the amount of ocean heat storage. Wong et al. (2006) showed that the changes in global net radiation are consistent with a new ocean heat-storage data set from Willis et al. (2004; see Chapter 5 and Figure 5.1). Differences between the two data sets are roughly 0.4 W m–2, in agreement with the estimated annual sampling noise in the ocean heat-storage data.

Using astronomical observations of visible wavelength solar photons reflected from parts of the Earth to the moon and then back to the Earth at a surface-based observatory, Pallé et al. (2004) estimated a dramatic increase of Earth-reflected SW radiative flux of 5.5 W m–2 over three years. This is unlikely to be real, as over the same time period (2000–2003), the Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) broadband data indicate a decrease in SW radiative flux of almost 1 W m–2, which is much smaller and the opposite sign (Wielicki et al., 2005). In addition, changes in ocean heat storage are more consistent with the CERES data than with the Earthshine indirect observation.

The only long-term time series (1979–2001) of energy divergence in the atmosphere (Trenberth and Stepaniak, 2003b) are based on NRA, which, although not reliable for depicting trends, are reliable on interannual times scales for which they show substantial variability associated with ENSO. Analyses by Trenberth and Stepaniak (2003b) reveal more divergence of energy out of the deep tropics in the 1990s compared with the 1980s due to differences in ENSO, which may account for at least some of the changes discussed above.

In summary, although there is independent evidence for decadal changes in TOA radiative fluxes over the last two decades, the evidence is equivocal. Changes in the planetary and tropical TOA radiative fluxes are consistent with independent global ocean heat-storage data, and are expected to be dominated by changes in cloud radiative forcing. To the extent that they are real, they may simply reflect natural low-frequency variability of the climate system.