Articles | Volume 15, issue 7
Research article
15 Apr 2015
Research article |  | 15 Apr 2015

Radiative forcing and climate metrics for ozone precursor emissions: the impact of multi-model averaging

C. R. MacIntosh, K. P. Shine, and W. J. Collins

Abstract. Multi-model ensembles are frequently used to assess understanding of the response of ozone and methane lifetime to changes in emissions of ozone precursors such as NOx, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and CO. When these ozone changes are used to calculate radiative forcing (RF) (and climate metrics such as the global warming potential (GWP) and global temperature-change potential (GTP)) there is a methodological choice, determined partly by the available computing resources, as to whether the mean ozone (and methane) concentration changes are input to the radiation code, or whether each model's ozone and methane changes are used as input, with the average RF computed from the individual model RFs. We use data from the Task Force on Hemispheric Transport of Air Pollution source–receptor global chemical transport model ensemble to assess the impact of this choice for emission changes in four regions (East Asia, Europe, North America and South Asia).

We conclude that using the multi-model mean ozone and methane responses is accurate for calculating the mean RF, with differences up to 0.6% for CO, 0.7% for VOCs and 2% for NOx. Differences of up to 60% for NOx 7% for VOCs and 3% for CO are introduced into the 20 year GWP. The differences for the 20 year GTP are smaller than for the GWP for NOx, and similar for the other species.

However, estimates of the standard deviation calculated from the ensemble-mean input fields (where the standard deviation at each point on the model grid is added to or subtracted from the mean field) are almost always substantially larger in RF, GWP and GTP metrics than the true standard deviation, and can be larger than the model range for short-lived ozone RF, and for the 20 and 100 year GWP and 100 year GTP. The order of averaging has most impact on the metrics for NOx, as the net values for these quantities is the residual of the sum of terms of opposing signs. For example, the standard deviation for the 20 year GWP is 2–3 times larger using the ensemble-mean fields than using the individual models to calculate the RF. The source of this effect is largely due to the construction of the input ozone fields, which overestimate the true ensemble spread.

Hence, while the average of multi-model fields are normally appropriate for calculating mean RF, GWP and GTP, they are not a reliable method for calculating the uncertainty in these fields, and in general overestimate the uncertainty.

Short summary
This study examines quantitatively the impact of methodological choices, in particular of averaging of multi-model ensembles, on climate metrics for ozone precursors. Estimates of the standard deviation of radiative forcing (RF), global warming and temperature potential (GWP, GTP) from ensemble-mean input fields generally overestimate the true value. The multi-model average fields are appropriate for calculating mean metrics, but are not a reliable method for calculating the uncertainty.
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