Climate Dynamics Group
at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Climate sensitivity is sensitive to changes in ocean heat transport

research paper
  • Hansi Singh
  • Nicole Feldl
  • Jennifer E. Kay
  • Ariel L. Morrison
updates ↓

04/06/22 Singh, H., N. Feldl, J. E. Kay, and A. L. Morrison (2022), Journal of Climate, 35(9), 2653–2674, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-21-0674.1.

Do changes in ocean heat transport (OHT) that occur with CO2 forcing, impact climate sensitivity in Earth system models? Changes in OHT with warming are ubiquitous in model experiments: when forced with CO2, such models exhibit declining poleward OHT in both hemispheres at most latitudes, which can persist over multicentennial time scales. To understand how changes in OHT may impact how the climate system responds to CO2 forcing, particularly climate sensitivity, we perform a series of Earth system model experiments in which we systematically perturb OHT (in a slab ocean, relative to its preindustrial control climatology) while simultaneously doubling atmospheric CO2. We find that equilibrium climate sensitivity varies substantially with OHT. Specifically, there is a 0.6 K decrease in global mean surface warming for every 10% decline in poleward OHT. Radiative feedbacks from CO2 doubling, and the warming attributable to each of them, generally become more positive (or less negative) when poleward OHT increases. Water vapor feedback differences account for approximately half the spread in climate sensitivity between experiments, while differences in the lapse rate and surface albedo feedbacks account for the rest. Prescribed changes in OHT instigate opposing changes in atmospheric energy transport and the general circulation, which explain differences in atmospheric water vapor and lapse rate between experiments. Our results show that changes in OHT modify atmospheric radiative feedbacks at all latitudes, thereby driving changes in equilibrium climate sensitivity. More broadly, they demonstrate that radiative feedbacks are not independent of the coupled (atmosphere and ocean) dynamic responses that accompany greenhouse gas forcing.