The influence of internal variability on Earth's energy balance framework and implications for estimating climate sensitivity Academic Article uri icon


  • Abstract. Our climate is constrained by the balance between solar energy absorbed by the Earth and terrestrial energy radiated to space. This energy balance has been widely used to infer equilibrium climate sensitivity(ECS) from observations of 20th-century warming. Such estimates yield lower values than other methods, and these have been influential in pushing down the consensus ECS range in recent assessments. Here we test the method using a 100-member ensemble of the Max Planck Institute Earth System Model (MPI-ESM1.1) simulations of the period18502005 with known forcing. We calculate ECS in each ensemble member using energy balance, yielding values ranging from 2.1to 3.9K. The spread in the ensemble is related to the central assumption in the energy budget framework: that global average surface temperature anomalies are indicative of anomalies in outgoing energy (either of terrestrial origin or reflected solar energy). We find that this assumption is not well supported over the historical temperature record in the model ensemble or more recent satellite observations. We find that framing energy balance in terms of 500hPa tropical temperature better describes the planet's energy balance.

published proceedings


altmetric score

  • 52.31

author list (cited authors)

  • Dessler, A. E., Mauritsen, T., & Stevens, B.

citation count

  • 31

complete list of authors

  • Dessler, Andrew E||Mauritsen, Thorsten||Stevens, Bjorn

publication date

  • April 2018