Natural variability contributes to model–satellite differences in tropical tropospheric warming

Stephen Po-Chedley, Benjamin D. Santer, Stephan Fueglistaler, Mark D. Zelinka, Philip J. Cameron-Smith, Jeffrey F. Painter, Qiang Fu

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28 Scopus citations


A long-standing discrepancy exists between general circulation models (GCMs) and satellite observations: The multimodel mean temperature of the midtroposphere (TMT) in the tropics warms at approximately twice the rate of observations. Using a large ensemble of simulations from a single climate model, we find that tropical TMT trends (1979–2018) vary widely and that a subset of realizations are within the range of satellite observations. Realizations with relatively small tropical TMT trends are accompanied by subdued sea-surface warming in the tropical central and eastern Pacific. Observed changes in sea-surface temperature have a similar pattern, implying that the observed tropical TMT trend has been reduced by multidecadal variability. We also assess the latest generation of GCMs from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6). CMIP6 simulations with muted warming over the central and eastern Pacific also show reduced tropical tropospheric warming. We find that 13% of the model realizations have tropical TMT trends within the observed trend range. These simulations are from models with both small and large climate sensitivity values, illustrating that the magnitude of tropical tropospheric warming is not solely a function of climate sensitivity. For global averages, one-quarter of model simulations exhibit TMT trends in accord with observations. Our results indicate that even on 40-y timescales, natural climate variability is important to consider when comparing observed and simulated tropospheric warming and is sufficiently large to explain TMT trend differences between models and satellite data.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020962118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number13
StatePublished - Mar 30 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Climate change
  • General circulation models
  • Natural climate variability
  • Satellite data


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