Transient climate sensitivity depends on base climate ocean circulation

Jie He, Michael Winton, Gabriel Vecchi, Liwei Jia, Maria Rugenstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


There is large uncertainty in the simulation of transient climate sensitivity. This study aims to understand how such uncertainty is related to the simulation of the base climate by comparing two simulations with the same model but in which CO2 is increased from either a preindustrial (1860) or a present-day (1990) control simulation. This allows different base climate ocean circulations that are representative of those in current climate models to be imposed upon a single model. As a result, the model projects different transient climate sensitivities that are comparable to the multimodel spread. The greater warming in the 1990-start run occurs primarily at high latitudes and particularly over regions of oceanic convection. In the 1990-start run, ocean overturning circulations are initially weaker and weaken less from CO2 forcing. As a consequence, there are smaller reductions in the poleward ocean heat transport, leading to less tropical ocean heat storage and less moderated high-latitude surface warming. This process is evident in both hemispheres, with changes in the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation and the Antarctic Bottom Water formation dominating the warming differences in each hemisphere. The high-latitude warming in the 1990-start run is enhanced through albedo and cloud feedbacks, resulting in a smaller ocean heat uptake efficacy. The results highlight the importance of improving the base climate ocean circulation in order to provide a reasonable starting point for assessments of past climate change and the projection of future climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1493-1504
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • Climate models
  • Ocean circulation
  • Ocean models
  • Thermocline circulation


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