Reconciling the signal and noise of atmospheric warming on decadal timescales
Abstract. Interactions between externally forced and internally generated climate variations on decadal timescales is a major determinant of changing climate risk. Severe testing is applied to observed global and regional surface and satellite temperatures and modelled surface temperatures to determine whether these interactions are independent, as in the traditional signal-to-noise model, or whether they interact, resulting in step-like warming. The multistep bivariate test is used to detect step changes in temperature data. The resulting data are then subject to six tests designed to distinguish between the two statistical hypotheses, hstep and htrend. Test 1: since the mid-20th century, most observed warming has taken place in four events: in 1979/80 and 1997/98 at the global scale, 1988/89 in the Northern Hemisphere and 1968–70 in the Southern Hemisphere. Temperature is more step-like than trend-like on a regional basis. Satellite temperature is more step-like than surface temperature. Warming from internal trends is less than 40 % of the total for four of five global records tested (1880–2013/14). Test 2: correlations between step-change frequency in observations and models (1880–2005) are 0.32 (CMIP3) and 0.34 (CMIP5). For the period 1950–2005, grouping selected events (1963/64, 1968–70, 1976/77, 1979/80, 1987/88 and 1996–98), the correlation increases to 0.78. Test 3: steps and shifts (steps minus internal trends) from a 107-member climate model ensemble (2006–2095) explain total warming and equilibrium climate sensitivity better than internal trends. Test 4: in three regions tested, the change between stationary and non-stationary temperatures is step-like and attributable to external forcing. Test 5: step-like changes are also present in tide gauge observations, rainfall, ocean heat content and related variables. Test 6: across a selection of tests, a simple stepladder model better represents the internal structures of warming than a simple trend, providing strong evidence that the climate system is exhibiting complex system behaviour on decadal timescales. This model indicates that in situ warming of the atmosphere does not occur; instead, a store-and-release mechanism from the ocean to the atmosphere is proposed. It is physically plausible and theoretically sound. The presence of step-like – rather than gradual – warming is important information for characterising and managing future climate risk.