Abrupt change in climate and climate models
- 1Department of Physical Geography, Macquarie University, NSW, 2109 Australia
- 2Dynamics laboratory, Princeton, NJ, 08542, USA
Abstract. First, we review the evidence that abrupt climate changes have occurred in the past and then demonstrate that climate models have developing capacity to simulate many of these changes. In particular, the processes by which changes in the ocean circulation drive abrupt changes appear to be captured by climate models to a degree that is encouraging. The evidence that past changes in the ocean have driven abrupt change in terrestrial systems is also convincing, but these processes are only just beginning to be included in climate models. Second, we explore the likelihood that climate models can capture those abrupt changes in climate that may occur in the future due to the enhanced greenhouse effect. We note that existing evidence indicates that a major collapse of the thermohaline circulation seems unlikely in the 21st century, although very recent evidence suggests that a weakening may already be underway. We have confidence that current climate models can capture a weakening, but a collapse in the 21st century of the thermohaline circulation is not projected by climate models. Worrying evidence of instability in terrestrial carbon, from observations and modelling studies, is beginning to accumulate. Current climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the 4th Assessment Report do not include these terrestrial carbon processes. We therefore can not make statements with any confidence regarding these changes. At present, the scale of the terrestrial carbon feedback is believed to be small enough that it does not significantly affect projections of warming during the first half of the 21st century. However, the uncertainties in how biological systems will respond to warming are sufficiently large to undermine confidence in this belief and point us to areas requiring significant additional work.