Similarities in the Spatial Pattern of the Surface Flux Response to Present-Day Greenhouse Gases and Aerosols
Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 4:48 PM
Recent studies suggest that present-day greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols can produce remarkably similar patterns of climate response in fully coupled general circulation model (GCM) simulations, despite having significantly different spatial patterns of top-of-atmosphere (TOA) forcing. However, there is little understanding of the mechanisms of ocean-atmosphere interaction that could lead to the response pattern formation. Surface flux perturbations are a crucial pathway by which TOA forcing is communicated to the ocean, and may be a vital link in explaining the spatial similarities in the fully coupled responses to disparate TOA forcing patterns—a phenomenon with implications for detection and attribution, as well as the climate sensitivity to different forcers. We analyze the surface energy budget response to present-day aerosols versus GHGs in single forcing, fixed SST, atmospheric GCM experiments to identify mechanisms for response pattern formation via surface flux perturbations. We find that, although the TOA forcing spatial patterns of GHGs and aerosols are largely uncorrelated, their surface radiative and heat flux patterns are significantly anti-correlated. Furthermore, this anti-correlation is largely explained by similar (but sign-reversed) spatial patterns of surface latent and sensible heat flux response to the two forcers, particularly over the winter-hemisphere extratropical oceans. These are, in turn, driven by spatially similar perturbations in surface winds from changes in mean tropical and midlatitude circulation. These results suggest that the mean atmospheric circulation, which has many anti-symmetric responses to GHG and aerosol forcings, is an efficient homogenizer of spatial patterns in the surface heat flux response to heterogeneous TOA forcings, creating an atmosphere-only pathway for similarities in the fully coupled response.