IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

10.5 Quantifying the Range of Climate Change Projections

10.5.1 Sources of Uncertainty and Hierarchy of Models

Uncertainty in predictions of anthropogenic climate change arises at all stages of the modelling process described in Section 10.1. The specification of future emissions of greenhouse gases, aerosols and their precursors is uncertain (e.g., Nakićenović and Swart, 2000). It is then necessary to convert these emissions into concentrations of radiatively active species, calculate the associated forcing and predict the response of climate system variables such as surface temperature and precipitation (Figure 10.1). At each step, uncertainty in the true signal of climate change is introduced both by errors in the representation of Earth system processes in models (e.g., Palmer et al., 2005) and by internal climate variability (e.g., Selten et al., 2004). The effects of internal variability can be quantified by running models many times from different initial conditions, provided that simulated variability is consistent with observations. The effects of uncertainty in the knowledge of Earth system processes can be partially quantified by constructing ensembles of models that sample different parametrizations of these processes. However, some processes may be missing from the set of available models, and alternative parametrizations of other processes may share common systematic biases. Such limitations imply that distributions of future climate responses from ensemble simulations are themselves subject to uncertainty (Smith, 2002), and would be wider were uncertainty due to structural model errors accounted for. These distributions may be modified to reflect observational constraints expressed through metrics of the agreement between the observed historical climate and the simulations of individual ensemble members, for example through Bayesian methods (see Chapter 9 Supplementary Material, Appendix 9.B). In this case, the choice of observations and their associated errors introduce further sources of uncertainty. In addition, some sources of future radiative forcing are yet to be accounted for in the ensemble projections, including those from land use change, variations in solar and volcanic activity (Kettleborough et al., 2007), and CH4 release from permafrost or ocean hydrates (see Section 8.7).

A spectrum or hierarchy of models of varying complexity has been developed (Claussen et al., 2002; Stocker and Knutti, 2003) to assess the range of future changes consistent with the understanding of known uncertainties. Simple climate models (SCMs) typically represent the ocean-atmosphere system as a set of global or hemispheric boxes, predicting global surface temperature using an energy balance equation, a prescribed value of climate sensitivity and a basic representation of ocean heat uptake (see Section 8.8.2). Their role is to perform comprehensive analyses of the interactions between global variables, based on prior estimates of uncertainty in their controlling parameters obtained from observations, expert judgement and from tuning to complex models. By coupling SCMs to simple models of biogeochemical cycles they can be used to extrapolate the results of AOGCM simulations to a wide range of alternative forcing scenarios (e.g., Wigley and Raper, 2001; see Section 10.5.3).

Compared to SCMs, EMICs include more of the processes simulated in AOGCMs, but in a less detailed, more highly parametrized form (see Section 8.8.3), and at coarser resolution. Consequently, EMICs are not suitable for quantifying uncertainties in regional climate change or extreme events, however they can be used to investigate the large-scale effects of coupling between multiple Earth system components in large ensembles or long simulations (e.g., Forest et al., 2002; Knutti et al., 2002), which is not yet possible with AOGCMs due to their greater computational expense. Some EMICs therefore include modules such as vegetation dynamics, the terrestrial and ocean carbon cycles and atmospheric chemistry (Plattner et al., 2001; Claussen et al., 2002), filling a gap in the spectrum of models between AOGCMs and SCMs. Thorough sampling of parameter space is computationally feasible for some EMICs (e.g., Stocker and Schmittner, 1997; Forest et al., 2002; Knutti et al., 2002), as for SCMs (Wigley and Raper, 2001), and is used to obtain probabilistic projections (see Section In some EMICs, climate sensitivity is an adjustable parameter, as in SCMs. In other EMICs, climate sensitivity is dependent on multiple model parameters, as in AOGCMs. Probabilistic estimates of climate sensitivity and TCR from SCMs and EMICs are assessed in Section 9.6 and compared with estimates from AOGCMs in Box 10.2.

The high resolution and detailed parametrizations in AOGCMs enable them to simulate more comprehensively the processes giving rise to internal variability (see Section 8.4), extreme events (see Section 8.5) and climate change feedbacks, particularly at the regional scale (Boer and Yu, 2003a; Bony and Dufresne, 2005; Bony et al., 2006; Soden and Held, 2006). Given that ocean dynamics influence regional feedbacks (Boer and Yu, 2003b), quantification of regional uncertainties in time-dependent climate change requires multi-model ensemble simulations with AOGCMs containing a full, three-dimensional dynamic ocean component. However, downscaling methods (see Chapter 11) are required to obtain credible information at spatial scales near or below the AOGCM grid scale (125 to 400 km in the AR4 AOGCMs, see Table 8.1).

Box 10.2: Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity

The likely range[1] for equilibrium climate sensitivity was estimated in the TAR (Technical Summary, Section F.3; Cubasch et al., 2001) to be 1.5°C to 4.5°C. The range was the same as in an early report of the National Research Council (Charney, 1979), and the two previous IPCC assessment reports (Mitchell et al., 1990; Kattenberg et al., 1996). These estimates were expert assessments largely based on equilibrium climate sensitivities simulated by atmospheric GCMs coupled to non-dynamic slab oceans. The mean ±1 standard deviation values from these models were 3.8°C ± 0.78°C in the SAR (17 models), 3.5°C ± 0.92°C in the TAR (15 models) and in this assessment 3.26°C ± 0.69°C (18 models).

Considerable work has been done since the TAR (IPCC, 2001) to estimate climate sensitivity and to provide a better quantification of relative probabilities, including a most likely value, rather than just a subjective range of uncertainty. Since climate sensitivity of the real climate system cannot be measured directly, new methods have been used since the TAR to establish a relationship between sensitivity and some observable quantity (either directly or through a model), and to estimate a range or probability density function (PDF) of climate sensitivity consistent with observations. These methods are summarised separately in Chapters 9 and 10, and here we synthesize that information into an assessment. The information comes from two main categories: constraints from past climate change on various time scales, and the spread of results for climate sensitivity from ensembles of models.

The first category of methods (see Section 9.6) uses the historical transient evolution of surface temperature, upper air temperature, ocean temperature, estimates of the radiative forcing, satellite data, proxy data over the last millennium, or a subset thereof to calculate ranges or PDFs for sensitivity (e.g., Wigley et al., 1997b; Tol and De Vos, 1998; Andronova and Schlesinger, 2001; Forest et al., 2002; Gregory et al., 2002a; Harvey and Kaufmann, 2002; Knutti et al., 2002, 2003; Frame et al., 2005; Forest et al., 2006; Forster and Gregory, 2006; Hegerl et al., 2006). A summary of all PDFs of climate sensitivity from those methods is shown in Figure 9.20 and in Box 10.2, Figure 1a. Median values, most likely values (modes) and 5 to 95% uncertainty ranges are shown in Box 10.2, Figure 1b for each PDF. Most of the results confirm that climate sensitivity is very unlikely below 1.5°C. The upper bound is more difficult to constrain because of a nonlinear relationship between climate sensitivity and the observed transient response, and is further hampered by the limited length of the observational record and uncertainties in the observations, which are particularly large for ocean heat uptake and for the magnitude of the aerosol radiative forcing. Studies that take all the important known uncertainties in observed historical trends into account cannot rule out the possibility that the climate sensitivity exceeds 4.5°C, although such high values are consistently found to be less likely than values of around 2.0°C to 3.5°C. Observations of transient climate change provide better constraints for the TCR (see Section

Box 10.2 Figure 1

Box 10.2, Figure 1. (a) PDFs or frequency distributions constrained by the transient evolution of the atmospheric temperature, radiative forcing and ocean heat uptake, (b) as in (a) and (b) but 5 to 95% ranges, medians (circles) and maximum probabilities (triangles), (c) and (d) as in (a) but using constraints from present-day climatology, and (e) and (f) unweighted or fitted distributions from different models or from perturbing parameters in a single model. Distributions in (e) and (f) should not be strictly interpreted as PDFs. See Chapter 9 text, Figure 9.20 and Table 9.3 for details. Note that Annan et al. (2005b) only provide an upper but no lower bound. All PDFs are truncated at 10°C for consistency, some are shown for different prior distributions than in the original studies, and ranges may differ from numbers reported in individual studies.

Two recent studies use a modelled relation between climate sensitivity and tropical SSTs in the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) and proxy records of the latter to estimate ranges of climate sensitivity (Annan et al., 2005b; Schneider von Deimling et al., 2006; see Section 9.6). While both of these estimates overlap with results from the instrumental period and results from other AOGCMS, the results differ substantially due to different forcings and the different relationships between LGM SSTs and sensitivity in the models used. Therefore, LGM proxy data provide support for the range of climate sensitivity based on other lines of evidence.

Studies comparing the observed transient response of surface temperature after large volcanic eruptions with results obtained from models with different climate sensitivities (see Section. 9.6) do not provide PDFs, but find best agreement with sensitivities around 3°C, and reasonable agreement within the 1.5°C to 4.5°C range (Wigley et al., 2005). They are not able to exclude sensitivities above 4.5°C.

The second category of methods examines climate sensitivity in GCMs. Climate sensitivity is not a single tuneable parameter in these models, but depends on many processes and feedbacks. Three PDFs of climate sensitivity were obtained by comparing different variables of the simulated present-day climatology and variability against observations in a perturbed physics ensemble (Murphy et al., 2004; Piani et al., 2005; Knutti et al., 2006, Box 10.2, Figure 1c,d; see Section Equilibrium climate sensitivity is found to be most likely around 3.2°C, and very unlikely to be below about 2°C. The upper bound is sensitive to how model parameters are sampled and to the method used to compare with observations.

Box 10.2, Figure 1e,f show the frequency distributions obtained by different methods when perturbing parameters in the Hadley Centre Atmospheric Model (HadAM3) but before weighting with observations (Section10.5.4). Murphy et al. (2004; unweighted) sampled 29 parameters and assumed individual effects to combine linearly. Stainforth et al. (2005) found nonlinearities when simulating multiple combinations of a subset of key parameters. The most frequently occurring climate sensitivity values are grouped around 3°C, but this could reflect the sensitivity of the unperturbed model. Some, but not all, of the simulations by high-sensitivity models have been found to agree poorly with observations and are therefore unlikely, hence even very high values are not excluded. This inability to rule out very high values is common to many methods, since for well-understood physical reasons, the rate of change (against sensitivity) of most quantities that can be observed tends to zero as the sensitivity increases (Hansen et al., 1985; Knutti et al., 2005; Allen et al., 2006b).

There is no well-established formal way of estimating a single PDF from the individual results, taking account of the different assumptions in each study. Most studies do not account for structural uncertainty, and thus probably tend to underestimate the uncertainty. On the other hand, since several largely independent lines of evidence indicate similar most likely values and ranges, climate sensitivity values are likely to be better constrained than those found by methods based on single data sets (Annan and Hargreaves, 2006; Hegerl et al., 2006).

Box 10.2 Figure 2

Box 10.2, Figure 2. Individual cumulative distributions of climate sensitivity from the observed 20th-century warming (red), model climatology (blue) and proxy evidence (cyan), taken from Box 10.2, Figure 1a, c (except LGM studies and Forest et al. (2002), which is superseded by Forest et al. (2006)) and cumulative distributions fitted to the AOGCMs’ climate sensitivities (green) from Box 10.2, Figure 1e. Horizontal lines and arrows mark the edges of the likelihood estimates according to IPCC guidelines.

The equilibrium climate sensitivity values for the AR4 AOGCMs coupled to non-dynamic slab ocean models are given for comparison (Box 10.2, Figure 1e,f; see also Table 8.2). These estimates come from models that represent the current best efforts from the international global climate modelling community at simulating climate. A normal fit yields a 5 to 95% range of about 2.1°C to 4.4°C with a mean value of equilibrium climate sensitivity of about 3.3°C (2.2°C to 4.6°C for a lognormal distribution, median 3.2°C) (Räisänen, 2005b). A probabilistic interpretation of the results is problematic, because each model is assumed to be equally credible and the results depend upon the assumed shape of the fitted distribution. Although the AOGCMs used in IPCC reports are an ‘ensemble of opportunity’ not designed to sample modelling uncertainties systematically or randomly, the range of sensitivities covered has been rather stable over many years. This occurs in spite of substantial model developments, considerable progress in simulating many aspects of the large-scale climate, and evaluation of those models against observations. Progress has been made since the TAR in diagnosing and understanding inter-model differences in climate feedbacks and equilibrium climate sensitivity. Confidence has increased in the strength of water vapour-lapse rate feedbacks, whereas cloud feedbacks (particularly from low-level clouds) have been confirmed as the primary source of climate sensitivity differences (see Section 8.6).

Since the TAR, the levels of scientific understanding and confidence in quantitative estimates of equilibrium climate sensitivity have increased substantially. Basing our assessment on a combination of several independent lines of evidence, as summarised in Box 10.2 Figures 1 and 2, including observed climate change and the strength of known feedbacks simulated in GCMs, we conclude that the global mean equilibrium warming for doubling CO2, or ‘equilibrium climate sensitivity’, is likely to lie in the range 2°C to 4.5°C, with a most likely value of about 3°C. Equilibrium climate sensitivity is very likely larger than 1.5°C.

For fundamental physical reasons as well as data limitations, values substantially higher than 4.5°C still cannot be excluded, but agreement with observations and proxy data is generally worse for those high values than for values in the 2°C to 4.5°C range.

  1. ^  Though the TAR Technical Summary attached ‘likely’ to the 1.5°C - 4.5°C range, the word ‘likely’ was used there in a general sense rather than in a specific calibrated sense. No calibrated confidence assessment was given in either the Summary for Policymakers or in Chapter 9 of the TAR, and no probabilistic studies on climate sensitivity were cited in Chapter 9 where the range was assessed.