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Important paper alert

Judith Curry is discussing a new paper by Stephens et al, published in Reviews of Geophysics. As one commenter below the thread put it, his "this is an important paper" alarm was triggered, and having read it myself I agree.

Here's the abstract:

The fraction of the incoming solar energy scattered by Earth back to space is referred to as the planetary albedo. This reflected energy is a fundamental component of the Earth’s energy balance, and the processes that govern its magnitude, distribution, and variability shape Earth’s climate and climate change. We review our understanding of Earth’s albedo as it has progressed to the current time and provide a global perspective of our understanding of the processes that define it. Joint analyses of surface solar flux data that are a complicated mix of measurements and model calculations with top-of-atmosphere (TOA) flux measurements from current orbiting satellites yield a number of surprising results including (i) the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (NH, SH) reflect the same amount of sunlight within ~ 0.2Wm2. This symmetry is achieved by increased reflection from SH clouds offsetting precisely the greater reflection from the NH land masses. (ii) The albedo of Earth appears to be highly buffered on hemispheric and global scales as highlighted by both the hemispheric symmetry and a remarkably small interannual variability of reflected solar flux (~0.2% of the annual mean flux). We show how clouds provide the necessary degrees of freedom to modulate the Earth’s albedo setting the hemispheric symmetry. We also show that current climate models lack this same degree of hemispheric symmetry and regulation by clouds. The relevance of this hemispheric symmetry to the heat transport across the equator is discussed.

The idea that the albedo is buffered in some way seems important to me and it goes without saying that the inability of climate models to reproduce the buffering represents a critical failing. Changes in albedo are supposed to be an important part of the enhanced greenhouse effect that is supposed to produce rapid warming but hasn't. To some extent therefore, it may be that albedo buffering is a factor in the models' ever-increasing divergence from reality.

Pielke Sr calls the paper a landmark. I don't think he's wrong.

The full paper is available here.

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Reader Comments (37)

Our water based planet has ample thermostatic control thanks to clouds.

Mar 11, 2015 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterSchrodinger's Cat

Seems perfectly logical given what the atmosphere does to Earth's temps compared to the Moon's.

Mar 11, 2015 at 10:31 AM | Registered Commenteromnologos

There was an excellent Horizon programme last night on thr theory of gravitational waves and the big bang theory. Three things were evident. Firstly, all the contributors were established scientists. Secondly, the initial breakthrough was debunked within weeks ( though not reported by the news media,who liked the original headline) and accepted by the other group of scientist with grace since "science has no emotions" . Finally, enthusiastic proponents became doubters and academic sceptics. Perhaps, since Horizon has reverted to its grown up self, they might have a similar look at Climategate and the whole unscientific controversy regarding what is,after all merely a theory. This might save us walking to till unproductive fields in order to starve our grandchildren while praying to Gaia.

Mar 11, 2015 at 10:32 AM | Unregistered Commentertrefjon

Albedo is where its at. A deepening notch in the outgoing infrared spectrum from CO2 does not necessarily mean that the rest of the infrared spectrum must increase (i.e. temperature increase) to maintain the energy balance, if the albedo is changing such that more light is getting reflected.

I've got a vague recollection that measurements (via light reflected from Earth to Moon then back to Earth???) indicate that the Earth's albedo might be changing.

Mar 11, 2015 at 10:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterMikky

trefjon - while I agreee that this was a pretty good Horizon, the production tricks are still very annoying.

Like having a simple sentence said by about 4 of the scientists, cutting back and forth between them. And periods when nothing was said, with a nice picture of the moon or some building in MIT. Could have been a 20 minute program without losing anything, IMHO.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:00 AM | Unregistered Commentersteveta_uk

Blockquote>it may be that albedo buffering is a factor in the models' ever-increasing divergence from reality.
The killer blow would be if the models could be made to run with the corrected albedo. The results would be (cough) very interesting.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

it may be that albedo buffering is a factor in the models' ever-increasing divergence from reality.

The killer blow would be if the models could be made to run with the corrected albedo. The results would be (cough) very interesting.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:05 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

My prediction - after years of arguing that is is flawed the new line will be that this is an effect that will eventually limit, causing a tipping point.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

It certainly looks as if this might be important ... but
tonyb makes the very pertinent comment:

the trouble is that science has been so fixated on this gas in recent years that alternative drivers of the climate coach have not been fully examined with the degree of objectivity and resources that is required.
and gets an equally pertinent "correction" from Bob Ludwick:
the trouble is that politics has been so fixated on this gas in recent years that alternative drivers of the climate coach have not been fully examined with the degree of objectivity and resources that is required.
And therein lies the problem. Even if this paper does prove to be a serious nail in the coffin of the science of AGW there is every chance that the undead politics will simply trundle on regardless.
Be on the lookout for another reason why we should stop using coal, gas, oil and nuclear and rely on wind and sun. The eco-luddites will find one somehow!

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:14 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

steveta_uk /trefjohn
Agree programme had a lot of padding but was interesting none the less. It also had an interesting section where they talked about modelling galactic dust, and the models had to be wrong. Pity that Climate models are still accepted as infallible by the BBC.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

That Horizon program last night (searching for B-modes). Could have lasted less than 5 mins really.

Theory before big bang (10 to neg 37 stuff before twinkle in big bangs eye)
Loads of snow/freeze in the Antarctic set off with spendy radio telescope (motor sleds abound)
Lots of yadder on theory and hand clap at spotting a possible bunch of B-mode patterns.
Dust. Models under estimated amount of solar dust hanging about.....oh dear
Satellite evidence shows its not B-mode but dust.

Money...gone! WTF was that really about ?

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:23 AM | Unregistered CommenterEx-expat Colin

Mike Jackson's reference to the 'undead politics' is apt. The other day I suggested that the alarmists trudge on, certain, blessed, wounded.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:40 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

It is not a landmark and it may not even be significant; it is simply another candidate for being a tiny piece of the jigsaw that will one day explain the whole of climate.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:43 AM | Registered CommenterDung

I suspect the mechanisms are in the bud, and will flourish.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:47 AM | Unregistered Commenterkim

Has anyone read Willis Essenbach's SH storm hypothesis for stabilising climate over on WUWT?

I reckon the authors of this paper have.

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterMCourtney

Clouds are a natural part of the earth's thermostatic processes. Increased heating produces more evapouration, cooling the surface through latent heat requirement, and increases convection which takes the water vapour upwards where it forms clouds which reduces the incomming radiation that would heat the surface.

I am sure that it is far more complicated but that is the basics.

Mar 11, 2015 at 12:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

So Dr. Spencer's conjecture is gaining some traction.

Mar 11, 2015 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

'An important paper'...?

How very DARE they..!

Look - its CO2. The science is settled.

La-la-la I can't hear you....

Mar 11, 2015 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered Commentersherlock1

In case you missed it, here is another paper led by Stephens,

"The net energy balance is the sum of individual fluxes. The current uncertainty in this net surface energy balance is large, and amounts to approximately 17 Wm–2. This uncertainty is an order of magnitude larger than the changes to the net surface fluxes associated with increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (Fig. 2b). The uncertainty is also approximately an order of magnitude larger than the current estimates of the net surface energy imbalance of 0.6 ±0.4 Wm–2 inferred from the rise in OHC. The uncertainty in the TOA net energy fluxes, although smaller, is also much larger than the imbalance inferred from OHC."

Graeme L. Stephens et al, An update on Earth’s energy balance in light of the latest global observations. Nature Geoscience Vol. 5 October 2012


Mar 11, 2015 at 12:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterFrederick Colbourne

This is definitely an important paper. But what I consider even more important is that scientists are finally starting to nitpick on climate models, exposing one fault after another in peer reviewed papers. And no journal editors are getting fired over that. I consider it an important climate change in our climate science.

Mar 11, 2015 at 1:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterKasuha

Willis has also pointed out that the amount of solar incoming energy varies up to 22w/m2 January to July. 6 times the radiative forcing from a doubling of co2. Annual average temperature for the planet varies 1/10th that.
If the models captured this they would be useless for scaring politicians and environmentalists.

Mar 11, 2015 at 2:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Dunford

Whatever the significance of the hemispheric albedo-symmetry, I can't see many people being surprised that the models-of-everything do not reproduce this feature. They cannot model a thunderstorm yet they probably need to be able to model raindrops and lightning strikes.

Mar 11, 2015 at 2:12 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

On the Horizon programme, the issue is not the science, but the way that scientists are shown as both human beings and scientists - getting excited about a new finding, then changing their minds when the data/theory is disproved. That is the crux of the matter and the whole point of the programme. Yes, the science only tales 5 minutes, but that was not the story.

Remember, this is a TV show made to get non-scientists to stay tuned for 50 minutes. If the "filler" is what is needed to get this through the layers of producers at the BBC, so be it and we can all sit through a few lingering shots of a pretty building somewhere. But to remove the actual scientists talking about their ideas and changing their opinions would be to destroy the point of the programme.

Mar 11, 2015 at 2:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterRob

Thanks Rob, that was exactly the point I was trying to make. Added to the fact that the scientists were allowed to disagree, change their minds or stick to their guns without some idiot accusing them of denying the Holocost or endangering their grant funding. As a non astrophysicist I found the programme informative and the contrast revealing.

Mar 11, 2015 at 4:55 PM | Unregistered Commentertrefjon

There seem to be two threads here. I'll respond to the original post.

I once had a job on a Superfund site very near the coast. Every morning, I drove along a road with a marvellous view of the ocean. Up till then, I'd never been fully aware of how many different ways the sun can reflect off the water. The interaction of zenith angle, winds, and clouds produced widely varying reflectance. Add in the lesser effects of plankton, sea foam, air humidity and water temperature, and the resulting system, just one facet of global climate, can never be modeled mathematically.

Mar 11, 2015 at 6:32 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

If all climate models only ran sporadically, on renewable electricity, there might have been more incentive, to get them running with more reliable data in the first place.

Could have saved a billion or so, for everyone else too.

Mar 11, 2015 at 6:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

The CAGW protagonists heads must be spinning this week.

Not only the subject paper to but also a recent paper reported via WUWT, specifically "On the Incident Solar Radiation in CMIP5 Models" which shows errors in the assumptions of incident solar radiation as high as 30 W/m2.

Mar 11, 2015 at 8:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Singleton

Surely we should be able to think of some way that humanity has altered albedo. Agriculture? Maybe dissolved silica run off has changed phytoplankton numbers by delaying the changeover between diatoms and the calcareous sort. Maybe our huge nitrogen fixation industry has had an effect.

Here's my favourite. We've polluted the ocean surface with oil. This has reduced wave breaking which means fewer aerosols, fewer cloud condensation nuclei, fewer clouds, lower albedo. So it warms until feedback chokes off the warming.

Hmm. So, Professor Wigley, the blip was maybe caused by huge oil pollution of the oceans. But how to explain a big pollution incident around 1940 to '45? Difficult, surely there must have been something going on then. (Google 'wigley why the blip' and look at the global temp graphs around WWII.)

Look at and move to 5.50. The mottling on the surface is what I call 'sheen'. It smooths the sea, prevents wave breaking until several knots higher than normal. Fewer waves, fewer aerosols, lower albedo. In the Atlantic I have seen a sheen hundreds of miles long and across.


Mar 11, 2015 at 8:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterJulian Flood

Julian Flood, oil has leaked into the sea for millions of years. There would have been a spike in the '40s. There should have been a spike in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago, there wasn't. Oil spills that land on beaches are sprayed off, into the sea, with detergents.

What happens? The scourge of boat operators, is known as "diesel bug". A combination of micro organisms that thrive in water and oil. Google it!

It was first identified in the late 50's ? by USAF, can occur in petrol, but loves heavier Avtur, kerosene and diesel. It is cultivated and used to deal with shore based oil contamination too.

Water in fuel tanks is required for it to grow, and then it blocks fuel filters. It is 100% natural and organic.

Mar 11, 2015 at 10:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

More proof that my theories for the ice-age cycle is right particularly the part where I say that there is massive feedback possibly from cloud which stops further warming as we go into an inter-glacial.

Toward a new theory of ice-ages XIV (Putting it all together)

As can be seen by the very constant maxima of the temperature in the interglacial, if this is the effect of cloud formation it is so massive that it completely stops further increase in temperature – and with no ability for the atmosphere to hold additional water vapour, there is no additional H2O induced greenhouse warming. In addition if this “buffer” is caused by a rapid increase in cloud cover, this stops incoming radiation. Together these two feedbacks effectively prevent any further warming during interglacials.

hitting the buffers

Mar 11, 2015 at 11:51 PM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

I've long suspected that when they said "we don't understand the role of clouds in feedback", what they actually meant was "we strongly suspect they provide massive negative feedback so we really don't want to know about them".

It would be interesting to put in an FOI request asking to know how much research money went into cloud feedbacks?

Mar 12, 2015 at 12:13 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

MikeHaseler, they found a way to tax CO2, water vapour next? A tax on exhaling, rather than inhaling? Bill Clinton claimed not to have inhaled, though I am not sure that tax avoidance, was what he was practicing at the time

Mar 12, 2015 at 1:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterGolf Charlie

Golf Charlie,

Yes, I realise that oil on the surface is consumed by various processes -- when the RAF bought the Hercs they said we didn't need bacterial filters, so the Yanks provided them without -- the inevitable result, of course.. How fast does the stuff get eaten? How long does an oil sheen (and a mixed surfactant and oil sheen) last? My bet would be that no-one knows. I've flown over the Med for decades and watched it become streaked with this stuff.

So how should a real scientist react to the notion that albedo changes are responsible for global warming/cooling effect? IANAS but I'd like to look for ways that small inputs could alter albedo, natural and anthropogenic. Then I'd try to carry out the experiment – Gaia could surely spare a little space to see if we can really alter the behaviour of the ocean/atmosphere interface.

On Climate Etc I mentioned that the Gulf oil spill might be doing this. The reaction of a true scientist? She knew someone who had access to an aircraft with aerosol monitoring equipment and tried to get it to fly over the spill to see what was happening. That's the scientific approach – not speculation, look to see if a postulated effect is real. No luck, the aircraft was booked elsewhere.

Smoothed water has lower albedo. New surfactants have been resistant to biological breakdown. We pour enough light oil on the oceans to cover them several times a year if that oil were spread evenly. Enough oil flows down the rivers of Siberia to equal several Exxon Valdez spills per year...

We really are altering the surface of the oceans, but whether it matters is another question – the effect only needs to be tiny as you'll see if you google Salter's cloud ships.. Maybe we should look. Maybe we should look at other changes I mention, nitrogen, dissolved silica – they are interesting in themselves, not just to see if they are altering aerosol production and/or albedo.

I got into a discussion with rgb about smooths. There were none on the ocean where he lives he told me. So I posted him a picture of his bay with smooths all over. People don't look. One day I'd like to repeat Franklin's Clapham Common experiment on the lake at UEA.

(Oh, yes, with the fond eye of a hand-waving theory maker I see the Gulf oil spill eating the local stratocu cloud cover in the NASA images. That's a gross effect if it's really there and not just my imaginings – pity that a/c was busy.)

Mar 12, 2015 at 5:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterJulian Flood

Bishop - what is this "buffering" ?

Mar 12, 2015 at 9:35 AM | Unregistered CommenterTuppence

As I understand it, the buffer refers mostly to variability. So, if the NH albedo is dominated by land and if there is a symmetry (the SH albedo will adjust - mainly through clouds - to match that of the NH) then if variability is mostly through clouds, it's difficult for this to be very large if the SH albedo is constrained to be similar to that of the NH, which is mostly determined by the land albedo (which can't really vary particularly easily). That is - at least - how I understand the idea of "buffering".

Mar 12, 2015 at 11:59 AM | Unregistered Commenter...and Then There's Physics

Golf Charlie, What JF is doing is suggesting that during the period of World War 2 there was a fairly large increase in the amount of hydrocarbon pollution onto the world's oceans, which occurred at a rate higher than the rate of bacterial decomposition of these hydrocarbons. As you are doubtless aware, these hydrocarbons wouldn't last very long (the oil companies will certainly know how long for different oil grades, and will likely be quite close-lipped about this).

So, we ought to see a fairly constrained pollution event which is restricted to that 1940-45 period, with the pollution being destroyed fairly rapidly thereafter.

So, this ought to give a similarly constrained period of effects, which with the records from naval and aircraft weather stations ought to be quite noticeable. As the second world war dramatically increased the numbers of weather observers (though only for the period of around 1935-50), we should have a nice set of data for "just before", "during", and "just after" which can be slotted into the much sparser long term weather records.

A similarly constrained pollution event was the widespread use of steam ships in the late Victorian period, from about 1840 to the early twentieth century. Ocean-going ships of this period were coal-fired steamers, which chucked out a fair amount of soot containing carbon, iron and sulphur. This would have had an ocean-fertilising effect, aiding algal blooms and presumably sequestering a lot of carbon dioxide.

This could be used as a test case for ocean fertilisation as a means of carbon sequesteration; the experiment has already been done for us on a fairly large scale.

Mar 17, 2015 at 1:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterDr Dan H.

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