Articles | Volume 12, issue 4
Research article
17 Feb 2012
Research article |  | 17 Feb 2012

Evaluation of cloud fraction and its radiative effect simulated by IPCC AR4 global models against ARM surface observations

Y. Qian, C. N. Long, H. Wang, J. M. Comstock, S. A. McFarlane, and S. Xie

Abstract. Cloud Fraction (CF) is the dominant modulator of radiative fluxes. In this study, we evaluate CF simulated in the IPCC AR4 GCMs against ARM long-term ground-based measurements, with a focus on the vertical structure, total amount of cloud and its effect on cloud shortwave transmissivity. Comparisons are performed for three climate regimes as represented by the Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) sites: Southern Great Plains (SGP), Manus, Papua New Guinea and North Slope of Alaska (NSA). Our intercomparisons of three independent measurements of CF or sky-cover reveal that the relative differences are usually less than 10% (5%) for multi-year monthly (annual) mean values, while daily differences are quite significant. The total sky imager (TSI) produces smaller total cloud fraction (TCF) compared to a radar/lidar dataset for highly cloudy days (CF > 0.8), but produces a larger TCF value than the radar/lidar for less cloudy conditions (CF < 0.3). The compensating errors in lower and higher CF days result in small biases of TCF between the vertically pointing radar/lidar dataset and the hemispheric TSI measurements as multi-year data is averaged. The unique radar/lidar CF measurements enable us to evaluate seasonal variation of cloud vertical structures in the GCMs.

Both inter-model deviation and model bias against observation are investigated in this study. Another unique aspect of this study is that we use simultaneous measurements of CF and surface radiative fluxes to diagnose potential discrepancies among the GCMs in representing other cloud optical properties than TCF. The results show that the model-observation and inter-model deviations have similar magnitudes for the TCF and the normalized cloud effect, and these deviations are larger than those in surface downward solar radiation and cloud transmissivity. This implies that other dimensions of cloud in addition to cloud amount, such as cloud optical thickness and/or cloud height, have a similar magnitude of disparity as TCF within the GCMs, and suggests that the better agreement among GCMs in solar radiative fluxes could be a result of compensating effects from errors in cloud vertical structure, overlap assumption, cloud optical depth and/or cloud fraction. The internal variability of CF simulated in ensemble runs with the same model is minimal. Similar deviation patterns between inter-model and model-measurement comparisons suggest that the climate models tend to generate larger biases against observations for those variables with larger inter-model deviation.

The GCM performance in simulating the probability distribution, transmissivity and vertical profiles of cloud are comprehensively evaluated over the three ARM sites. The GCMs perform better at SGP than at the other two sites in simulating the seasonal variation and probability distribution of TCF. However, the models remarkably underpredict the TCF at SGP and cloud transmissivity is less susceptible to the change of TCF than observed. In the tropics, most of the GCMs tend to underpredict CF and fail to capture the seasonal variation of CF at middle and low levels. The high-level CF is much larger in the GCMs than the observations and the inter-model variability of CF also reaches a maximum at high levels in the tropics, indicating discrepancies in the representation of ice cloud associated with convection in the models. While the GCMs generally capture the maximum CF in the boundary layer and vertical variability, the inter-model deviation is largest near the surface over the Arctic.

Final-revised paper