WG I The Scientific Basis - Technical Summary

Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis

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D.2 The Coupled Systems As noted in Section D.1, many feedbacks operate within the individual components of the climate system (atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surface). However, many important processes and feedbacks occur through the coupling of the climate system components. Their representation is important to the prediction of large-scale responses.

Modes of natural variability

There is an increasing realisation that natural circulation patterns, such as ENSO and NAO, play a fundamental role in global climate and its interannual and longer-term variability. The strongest natural fluctuation of climate on interannual time-scales is the ENSO phenomenon (see Box 4). It is an inherently coupled atmosphere-ocean mode with its core activity in the tropical Pacific, but with important regional climate impacts throughout the world. Global climate models are only now beginning to exhibit variability in the tropical Pacific that resembles ENSO, mainly through increased meridional resolution at the equator. Patterns of sea surface temperature and atmospheric circulation similar to those occurring during ENSO on interannual time-scales also occur on decadal and longer time-scales.

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) is the dominant pattern of northern wintertime atmospheric circulation variability and is increasingly being simulated realistically. The NAO is closely related to the Arctic Oscillation (AO), which has an additional annular component around the Arctic. There is strong evidence that the NAO arises mainly from internal atmospheric processes involving the entire troposphere-stratosphere system. Fluctuations in Atlantic Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) are related to the strength of the NAO, and a modest two-way interaction between the NAO and the Atlantic Ocean, leading to decadal variability, is emerging as important in projecting climate change.

Climate change may manifest itself both as shifting means, as well as changing preference of specific climate regimes, as evidenced by the observed trend toward positive values for the last 30 years in the NAO index and the climate "shift" in the tropical Pacific about 1976. While coupled models simulate features of observed natural climate variability, such as the NAO and ENSO, which suggests that many of the relevant processes are included in the models, further progress is needed to depict these natural modes accurately. Moreover, because ENSO and NAO are key determinants of regional climate change and can possibly result in abrupt and counter intuitive changes, there has been an increase in uncertainty in those aspects of climate change that critically depend on regional changes.

The thermohaline circulation (THC)

The thermohaline circulation (THC) is responsible for the major part of the meridional heat transport in the Atlantic Ocean. The THC is a global-scale overturning in the ocean driven by density differences arising from temperature and salinity effects. In the Atlantic, heat is transported by warm surface waters flowing northward and cold saline waters from the North Atlantic returning at depth. Reorganisations in the Atlantic THC can be triggered by perturbations in the surface buoyancy, which is influenced by precipitation, evaporation, continental runoff, sea-ice formation, and the exchange of heat, processes that could all change with consequences for regional and global climate. Interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean are also likely to be of considerable importance on decadal and longer time-scales, where the THC is involved. The interplay between the large-scale atmospheric forcing, with warming and evaporation in low latitudes and cooling and increased precipitation at high latitudes, forms the basis of a potential instability of the present Atlantic THC. ENSO may also influence the Atlantic THC by altering the fresh water balance of the tropical Atlantic, therefore providing a coupling between low and high latitudes. Uncertainties in the representation of small-scale flows over sills and through narrow straits and of ocean convection limit the ability of models to simulate situations involving substantial changes in the THC. The less saline North Pacific means that a deep THC does not occur in the Pacific.

Non-linear events and rapid climate change

The possibility for rapid and irreversible changes in the climate system exists, but there is a large degree of uncertainty about the mechanisms involved and hence also about the likelihood or time-scales of such transitions. The climate system involves many processes and feedbacks that interact in complex non-linear ways. This interaction can give rise to thresholds in the climate system that can be crossed if the system is perturbed sufficiently. There is evidence from polar ice cores suggesting that atmospheric regimes can change within a few years and that large-scale hemispheric changes can evolve as fast as a few decades. For example, the possibility of a threshold for a rapid transition of the Atlantic THC to a collapsed state has been demonstrated with a hierarchy of models. It is not yet clear what this threshold is and how likely it is that human activity would lead it to being exceeded (see Section F.6). Atmospheric circulation can be characterised by different preferred patterns; e.g., arising from ENSO and the NAO/AO, and changes in their phase can occur rapidly. Basic theory and models suggest that climate change may be first expressed in changes in the frequency of occurrence of these patterns. Changes in vegetation, through either direct anthropogenic deforestation or those caused by global warming, could occur rapidly and could induce further climate change. It is supposed that the rapid creation of the Sahara about 5,500 years ago represents an example of such a non-linear change in land cover.

D.3 Regionalisation Techniques Regional climate information was only addressed to a limited degree in the SAR. Techniques used to enhance regional detail have been substantially improved since the SAR and have become more widely applied. They fall into three categories: high and variable resolution AOGCMs; regional (or nested limited area) climate models (RCMs); and empirical/statistical and statistical/dynamical methods. The techniques exhibit different strengths and weaknesses and their use at the continental scale strongly depends on the needs of specific applications.

Coarse resolution AOGCMs simulate atmospheric general circulation features well in general. At the regional scale, the models display area-average biases that are highly variable from region to region and among models, with sub-continental area averaged seasonal temperature biases typically ±4ºC and precipitation biases between -40 and +80%. These represent an important improvement compared to AOGCMs evaluated in the SAR.

The development of high resolution/variable resolution Atmospheric General Circulation Models (AGCMs) since the SAR generally shows that the dynamics and large-scale flow in the models improves as resolution increases. In some cases, however, systematic errors are worsened compared to coarser resolution models, although only very few results have been documented.

High resolution RCMs have matured considerably since the SAR. Regional models consistently improve the spatial detail of simulated climate compared to AGCMs. RCMs driven by observed boundary conditions evidence area-averaged temperature biases (regional scales of 105 to 106 km2) generally below 2ºC, while precipitation biases are below 50%. Regionalisation work indicates at finer scales that the changes can be substantially different in magnitude or sign from the large area-average results. A relatively large spread exists among models, although attribution of the cause of these differences is unclear.

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