Articles | Volume 13, issue 21
Research article
07 Nov 2013
Research article |  | 07 Nov 2013

Projected effects of declining aerosols in RCP4.5: unmasking global warming?

L. D. Rotstayn, M. A. Collier, A. Chrastansky, S. J. Jeffrey, and J.-J. Luo

Abstract. All the representative concentration pathways (RCPs) include declining aerosol emissions during the 21st century, but the effects of these declines on climate projections have had little attention. Here we assess the global and hemispheric-scale effects of declining anthropogenic aerosols in RCP4.5 in CSIRO-Mk3.6, a model from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5). Results from this model are then compared with those from other CMIP5 models.

We calculate the aerosol effective radiative forcing (ERF, including indirect effects) in CSIRO-Mk3.6 relative to 1850, using a series of atmospheric simulations with prescribed sea-surface temperatures (SST). Global-mean aerosol ERF at the top of the atmosphere is most negative in 2005 (−1.47 W m−2). Between 2005 and 2100 it increases by 1.46 W m−2, i.e., it approximately returns to 1850 levels. Although increasing greenhouse gases (GHGs) and declining aerosols both exert a positive ERF at the top of the atmosphere during the 21st century, they have opposing effects on radiative heating of the atmosphere: increasing GHGs warm the atmosphere, whereas declining aerosols cool the atmosphere due to reduced absorption of shortwave radiation by black carbon (BC).

We then compare two projections for 2006–2100, using the coupled atmosphere-ocean version of the model. One (RCP45) follows the usual RCP4.5; the other (RCP45A2005) has identical forcing, except that emissions of anthropogenic aerosols and precursors are fixed at 2005 levels. The global-mean surface warming in RCP45 is 2.3 °C per 95 yr, of which almost half (1.1 °C) is caused by declining aerosols. The warming due to declining aerosols is almost twice as strong in the Northern Hemisphere as in the Southern Hemisphere, whereas that due to increasing GHGs is similar in the two hemispheres.

For precipitation changes, the effects of declining aerosols are larger than those of increasing GHGs due to decreasing atmospheric absorption by black carbon: 63% of the projected global-mean precipitation increase of 0.16 mm per day is caused by declining aerosols. In the Northern Hemisphere, precipitation increases by 0.29 mm per day, of which 72% is caused by declining aerosols.

Comparing 13 CMIP5 models, we find a correlation of –0.54 (significant at 5%) between aerosol ERF in the present climate and projected global-mean surface warming in RCP4.5; thus, models that have more negative aerosol ERF in the present climate tend to project stronger warming during 2006–2100. A similar correlation (–0.56) is found between aerosol ERF and projected changes in global-mean precipitation.

These results suggest that aerosol forcing substantially modulates projected climate response in RCP4.5. In some respects, the effects of declining aerosols are quite distinct from those of increasing GHGs. Systematic efforts are needed to better quantify the role of declining aerosols in climate projections.

Final-revised paper