Observations of Local Positive Low Cloud Feedback Patterns and Their Role in Internal Variability and Climate Sensitivity

Tianle Yuan, Lazaros Oreopoulos, Steven E Platnick, Kerry Meyer
Geophysical Research Letters 2018 May 16, 45 (9): 4438-4445
Modeling studies have shown that cloud feedbacks are sensitive to the spatial pattern of sea surface temperature (SST) anomalies, while cloud feedbacks themselves strongly influence the magnitude of SST anomalies. Observational counterparts to such patterned interactions are still needed. Here we show that distinct large-scale patterns of SST and low-cloud cover (LCC) emerge naturally from objective analyses of observations and demonstrate their close coupling in a positive local SST-LCC feedback loop that may be important for both internal variability and climate change. The two patterns that explain the maximum amount of covariance between SST and LCC correspond to the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, leading modes of multidecadal internal variability. Spatial patterns and time series of SST and LCC anomalies associated with both modes point to a strong positive local SST-LCC feedback. In many current climate models, our analyses suggest that SST-LCC feedback strength is too weak compared to observations. Modeled local SST-LCC feedback strength affects simulated internal variability so that stronger feedback produces more intense and more realistic patterns of internal variability. To the extent that the physics of the local positive SST-LCC feedback inferred from observed climate variability applies to future greenhouse warming, we anticipate significant amount of delayed warming because of SST-LCC feedback when anthropogenic SST warming eventually overwhelm the effects of internal variability that may mute anthropogenic warming over parts of the ocean. We postulate that many climate models may be underestimating both future warming and the magnitude of modeled internal variability because of their weak SST-LCC feedback.

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