Do General Circulation Models Underestimate the Natural Variability in the Arctic Climate?

D. S. Battisti, C. M. Bitz, and R. E. Moritz

1997 Journal of Climate Vol. 10, 1909-1920


We examine the natural variability of the arctic climate system simulated by two very different models: the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) global climate model, and a area-averaged model of the arctic atmosphere/sea ice/upper ocean system called the polar cap climate model: the PCCM. A 1000 yr integration of the PCCM is performed in which the model is driven by a prescribed, stochastic atmospheric energy flux convergence (D) which has spectral characteristics that are identical to the spectra of the observed D. The standard deviation of the yearly mean sea ice thickness from this model is 0.85 m; the mean sea ice thickness is 3.1m. In contrast, the standard deviation of the yearly averaged sea ice thickness in the GFDL climate model is found to be about 6% of the climatological mean thickness and only 24% of that simulated by the PCCM.

We present a series of experiments to determine the cause of these disparate results. First, after changing the treatment of sea ice and snow albedo in the (standard) PCCM model to be identical thermodynamically to that in the GFDL model, we drive the PCCM with D from the GFDL control integration and demonstrate that the PCCM model produces an arctic climate similar to that of GFDL model. We then examine integrations of the PCCM in which the different prescriptions of the sea ice treatment (GFDL vs. standard PCCM) and D (GFDL vs. observed) are permutated. Our results indicate that unarguable improvements in the treatment of sea ice in the GFDL climate model should amplify significantly the natural variability in this model. We present calculations that indicate the variability in the sea ice thickness is extremely sensitive to the spectrum of the atmospheric energy flux convergence. Specifically, the differences between the GFDL and observed D at time scales shorter than three years are shown to have a significant, deleterious impact on the sea ice variability on all time scales. A conservative best-estimate for the amplitude of the natural variability in the arctic sea ice volume is presented; this estimate is a significant fraction (about 25%) of the mean sea ice thickness.

Our results suggest that most of the global climate models that have been used to evaluate climate change may also have artificially quiescent natural variability in the Arctic, and raise concerns about the veracity of the climate change predictions for the Arctic from these models.

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