Uncertainty in model climate sensitivity traced to representations of cumulus precipitation microphysics

Ming Zhao, J. C. Golaz, I. M. Held, V. Ramaswamy, S. J. Lin, Y. Ming, P. Ginoux, B. Wyman, L. J. Donner, D. Paynter, H. Guo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

112 Scopus citations


Uncertainty in equilibrium climate sensitivity impedes accurate climate projections. While the intermodel spread is known to arise primarily from differences in cloud feedback, the exact processes responsible for the spread remain unclear. To help identify some key sources of uncertainty, the authors use a developmental version of the next-generation Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory global climate model (GCM) to construct a tightly controlled set of GCMs where only the formulation of convective precipitation is changed. The different models provide simulation of present-day climatology of comparable quality compared to the model ensemble from phase 5 of CMIP (CMIP5). The authors demonstrate that model estimates of climate sensitivity can be strongly affected by the manner through which cumulus cloud condensate is converted into precipitation in a model's convection parameterization, processes that are only crudely accounted for in GCMs. In particular, two commonly used methods for converting cumulus condensate into precipitation can lead to drastically different climate sensitivity, as estimated here with an atmosphere-land model by increasing sea surface temperatures uniformly and examining the response in the top-of-atmosphere energy balance. The effect can be quantified through a bulk convective detrainment efficiency, whichmeasures the ability of cumulus convection to generate condensate per unit precipitation. The model differences, dominated by shortwave feedbacks, come from broad regimes ranging from large-scale ascent to subsidence regions. Given current uncertainties in representing convective precipitation microphysics and the current inability to find a clear observational constraint that favors one version of the authors'model over the others, the implications of this ability to engineer climate sensitivity need to be considered when estimating the uncertainty in climate projections.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)543-560
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


  • Climate change
  • Climate models
  • Climate sensitivity
  • Cloud microphysics
  • Cloud parameterizations
  • Convective parameterization
  • Models and modeling
  • Physical meteorology and climatology


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