Aquaplanets, climate sensitivity, and low clouds

Brian Medeiros, Bjorn Stevens, Isaac M. Held, Ming Zhao, David L. Williamson, Jerry G. Olson, Christopher S. Bretherton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

142 Scopus citations


Cloud effects have repeatedly been pointed out as the leading source of uncertainty in projections of future climate, yet clouds remain poorly understood and simulated in climate models. Aquaplanets provide a simplified framework for comparing and understanding cloud effects, and how they are partitioned as a function of regime, in large-scale models. This work uses two climate models to demonstrate that aquaplanets can successfully predict a climate model's sensitivity to an idealized climate change. For both models, aquaplanet climate sensitivity is similar to that of the realistic configuration. Tropical low clouds appear to play a leading role in determining the sensitivity. Regions of large-scale subsidence, which cover much of the tropics, are most directly responsible for the differences between the models. Although cloud effects and climate sensitivity are similar for aquaplanets and realistic configurations, the aquaplanets lack persistent stratocumulus in the tropical atmosphere. This, and an additional analysis of the cloud response in the realistically configured simulations, suggests the representation of shallow (trade wind) cumulus convection, which is ubiquitous in the tropics, is largely responsible for differences in the simulated climate sensitivity of these two models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4974-4991
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 1 2008
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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