Observational evidence of increasing global radiative forcing

Kramer, R., H. He, B. Soden, L. Oreopoulos, G. Myhre, P. M. Forster, and C. J. Smith (2021), Observational evidence of increasing global radiative forcing, Geophys. Res. Lett., 48, e2020GL091585, doi:10.1029/2020GL091585.

Changes in atmospheric composition, such as increasing greenhouse gases, cause an initial radiative imbalance to the climate system, quantified as the instantaneous radiative forcing. This fundamental metric has not been directly observed globally and previous estimates have come from models. In part, this is because current space-based instruments cannot distinguish the instantaneous radiative forcing from the climate’s radiative response. We apply radiative kernels to satellite observations to disentangle these components and find all-sky instantaneous radiative forcing has increased 0.53 ± 0.11 W/m2 from 2003 to 2018, accounting for positive trends in the total planetary radiative imbalance. This increase has been due to a combination of rising concentrations of well-mixed greenhouse gases and recent reductions in aerosol emissions. These results highlight distinct fingerprints of anthropogenic activity in Earth’s changing energy budget, which we find observations can detect within 4 years. Plain Language Summary Climate change is a response to energy imbalances in the climate system. For example, rising greenhouse gases directly cause an initial imbalance, the radiative forcing, in the planetary radiation budget, and surface temperatures increase in response as the climate attempts to restore balance. The radiative forcing and subsequent radiative feedbacks dictate the amount of warming. While there are well-established observational records of greenhouse gas concentrations and surface temperatures, there is not yet a global measure of the radiative forcing, in part because current satellite observations of Earth’s radiation only measure the sum total of radiation changes that occur. We use the radiative kernel technique to isolate radiative forcing from total radiative changes and find it has increased from 2003 to 2018, accounting for nearly all of the long-term growth in the total top-of-atmosphere radiation imbalance during this period. We confirm that rising greenhouse gas concentrations account for most of the increases in the radiative forcing, along with reductions in reflective aerosols. This serves as direct evidence that anthropogenic activity has affected Earth’s energy budget in the recent past.

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Modeling Analysis and Prediction Program (MAP)
Radiation Science Program (RSP)