22-26 November 2021

Items of Interest:

Ocean in the News:

Concept of the Week: Climate Feedback Processes

Earth's climate system includes many interacting variables. Some variables are external to the Earth-atmosphere system and some are internal. External variables include solar energy output and Earth-sun geometry (i.e., the Milankovitch cycles). Internal variables include properties of the Earth's surface (e.g., albedo, moisture), the concentration of key atmospheric components (e.g., greenhouse gases, sulfurous aerosols), and cloud cover and thickness.

An important consideration in understanding how Earth's climate system responds to some perturbation is feedback. Feedback is defined as a sequence of interactions among variables in a system that determines how the system responds to some initial perturbation in one or more of the variables. Variables in Earth's climate system may interact in such a way as to either amplify (positive feedback) or lessen (negative feedback) a change in climate. An example of positive feedback is the ice-albedo effect described in Chapter 12 of the AMS Ocean Studies textbook. Less ice cover in the Arctic greatly reduces the albedo of the Arctic Ocean causing higher sea surface temperatures and accelerated melting of the multiyear pack ice.

Consider an example of negative feedback. Increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide enhances the greenhouse effect causing global warming. Global warming in turn raises sea surface temperatures and increases the rate of evaporation. A more humid atmosphere means more persistent and thicker cloud cover, but clouds have both a cooling and warming effect on the lower atmosphere. The relatively high albedo of cloud tops causes cooling whereas absorption and emission of infrared radiation by clouds causes warming by contributing to the greenhouse effect. Satellite measurements and numerical models indicate that cooling would dominate.

In general, negative feedback tends to dominate over positive feedback in Earth's climate system, limiting the magnitude of climate change. The great thermal inertia of the ocean is the principal reason for dampening the planetary temperature response.

Historical Events: