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Alpine Climate Change Derived From Instrumental Measurements  

Yuri Brugnara

The European Alps have experienced remarkable climate changes since the beginning of the Industrial Age. In particular, mean air temperature in the region increased at a greater rate than global temperature, leading to the loss of nearly half of the glaciated area and to important changes in the ecosystems. Spanning 1,200 km in length, with peaks reaching over 4,000 meters above sea level (m asl), the Alps have a critical influence over the weather in most of Europe and separate the colder oceanic/continental climate in the north from the milder Mediterranean climate in the south. The climatic differences between the main slopes are reflected into different climate changes—whereas the northern slope got wetter, the southern slope got drier. The consequences of these climate changes are not confined to the Alpine region. Being located in the center of Europe, the Alps provide water and electricity for over 100 million people. Alpine run-off is a major contributor to the total discharge of several major European rivers such as the Rhine, the Rhône, the Po, and the Danube. Therefore, climate change in the Alps can have significant economic impacts on a continental scale. Their convenient geographical position allowed scientists to study the Alpine climate since the very beginning of the instrumental era. The first instrumental meteorological observations in an Alpine valley were taken as early as the mid-17th century, soon followed by measurements at higher elevations. Continuous records are available since the late 18th century, providing invaluable information on climate variability to modern-day researchers. Although there is overwhelming evidence of a dominant anthropogenic influence on the observed temperature increase, the causes of the changes that affected other variables have, in many cases, not been sufficiently investigated by the scientific community.


Sun-Climate Connections  

Judith L. Lean

Emergent in recent decades are robust specifications and understanding of connections between the Sun’s changing radiative energy and Earth’s changing climate and atmosphere. This follows more than a century of contentious debate about the reality of such connections, fueled by ambiguous observations, dubious correlations, and lack of plausible mechanisms. It derives from a new generation of observations of the Sun and the Earth made from space, and a new generation of physical climate models that integrate the Earth’s surface and ocean with the extended overlying atmosphere. Space-based observations now cover more than three decades and enable statistical attribution of climate change related to the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle on global scales, simultaneously with other natural and anthropogenic influences. Physical models that fully resolve the stratosphere and its embedded ozone layer better replicate the complex and subtle processes that couple the Sun and Earth. An increase of ~0.1% in the Sun’s total irradiance, as observed near peak activity during recent 11-year solar cycles, is associated with an increase of ~0.1oC in Earth’s global surface temperature, with additional complex, time-dependent regional responses. The overlying atmosphere warms more, by 0.3oC near 20 km. Because solar radiation impinges primarily at low latitudes, the increased radiant energy alters equator-to-pole thermal gradients, initiating dynamical responses that produce regions of both warming and cooling at mid to high latitudes. Because solar energy deposition depends on altitude as a result of height-dependent atmospheric absorption, changing solar radiation establishes vertical thermal gradients that further alter dynamical motions within the Earth system. It remains uncertain whether there are long-term changes in solar irradiance on multidecadal time scales other than due to the varying amplitude of the 11-year cycle. If so the magnitude of the additional change is expected to be comparable to that observed during the solar activity cycle. Were the Sun’s activity to become anomalously low, declining during the next century to levels of the Maunder Minimum (from 1645 to 1715), the expected global surface temperature cooling is less than a few tenths oC. In contrast, a scenario of moderate greenhouse gas increase with climate forcing of 2.6 W m−2 over the next century is expected to warm the globe 1.5 to 1.9oC, an order of magnitude more than the hypothesized solar-induced cooling over the same period. Future challenges include the following: securing sufficiently robust observations of the Sun and Earth to elucidate changes on climatological time scales; advancing physical climate models to simulate realistic responses to changing solar radiation on decadal time scales, synergistically at the Earth’s surface and in the ocean and atmosphere; disentangling the Sun’s influence from that of other natural and anthropogenic influences as the climate and atmosphere evolve; projecting past and future changes in the Sun and Earth’s climate and atmosphere; and communicating new understanding across scientific disciplines, and to political and societal stakeholders.


Modeling of Regional Climate over the Tibetan Plateau  

Yanhong Gao and Deliang Chen

The modeling of climate over the Tibetan Plateau (TP) started with the introduction of Global Climate Models (GCMs) in the 1950s. Since then, GCMs have been developed to simulate atmospheric dynamics and eventually the climate system. As the highest and widest international plateau, the strong orographic forcing caused by the TP and its impact on general circulation rather than regional climate was initially the focus. Later, with growing awareness of the incapability of GCMs to depict regional or local-scale atmospheric processes over the heterogeneous ground, coupled with the importance of this information for local decision-making, regional climate models (RCMs) were established in the 1970s. Dynamic and thermodynamic influences of the TP on the East and South Asia summer monsoon have since been widely investigated by model. Besides the heterogeneity in topography, impacts of land cover heterogeneity and change on regional climate were widely modeled through sensitivity experiments. In recent decades, the TP has experienced a greater warming than the global average and those for similar latitudes. GCMs project a global pattern where the wet gets wetter and the dry gets drier. The climate regime over the TP covers the extreme arid regions from the northwest to the semi-humid region in the southeast. The increased warming over the TP compared to the global average raises a number of questions. What are the regional dryness/wetness changes over the TP? What is the mechanism of the responses of regional changes to global warming? To answer these questions, several dynamical downscaling models (DDMs) using RCMs focusing on the TP have recently been conducted and high-resolution data sets generated. All DDM studies demonstrated that this process-based approach, despite its limitations, can improve understandings of the processes that lead to precipitation on the TP. Observation and global land data assimilation systems both present more wetting in the northwestern arid/semi-arid regions than the southeastern humid/semi-humid regions. The DDM was found to better capture the observed elevation dependent warming over the TP. In addition, the long-term high-resolution climate simulation was found to better capture the spatial pattern of precipitation and P-E (precipitation minus evapotranspiration) changes than the best available global reanalysis. This facilitates new and substantial findings regarding the role of dynamical, thermodynamics, and transient eddies in P-E changes reflected in observed changes in major river basins fed by runoff from the TP. The DDM was found to add value regarding snowfall retrieval, precipitation frequency, and orographic precipitation. Although these advantages in the DDM over the TP are evidenced, there are unavoidable facts to be aware of. Firstly, there are still many discrepancies that exist in the up-to-date models. Any uncertainty in the model’s physics or in the land information from remote sensing and the forcing could result in uncertainties in simulation results. Secondly, the question remains of what is the appropriate resolution for resolving the TP’s heterogeneity. Thirdly, it is a challenge to include human activities in the climate models, although this is deemed necessary for future earth science. All-embracing further efforts are expected to improve regional climate models over the TP.