Articles | Volume 17, issue 2
17 Mar 2010
 | 17 Mar 2010

Another look at climate sensitivity

I. Zaliapin and M. Ghil

Abstract. We revisit a recent claim that the Earth's climate system is characterized by sensitive dependence to parameters; in particular, that the system exhibits an asymmetric, large-amplitude response to normally distributed feedback forcing. Such a response would imply irreducible uncertainty in climate change predictions and thus have notable implications for climate science and climate-related policy making. We show that equilibrium climate sensitivity in all generality does not support such an intrinsic indeterminacy; the latter appears only in essentially linear systems. The main flaw in the analysis that led to this claim is inappropriate linearization of an intrinsically nonlinear model; there is no room for physical interpretations or policy conclusions based on this mathematical error. Sensitive dependence nonetheless does exist in the climate system, as well as in climate models – albeit in a very different sense from the one claimed in the linear work under scrutiny – and we illustrate it using a classical energy balance model (EBM) with nonlinear feedbacks. EBMs exhibit two saddle-node bifurcations, more recently called "tipping points," which give rise to three distinct steady-state climates, two of which are stable. Such bistable behavior is, furthermore, supported by results from more realistic, nonequilibrium climate models. In a truly nonlinear setting, indeterminacy in the size of the response is observed only in the vicinity of tipping points. We show, in fact, that small disturbances cannot result in a large-amplitude response, unless the system is at or near such a point. We discuss briefly how the distance to the bifurcation may be related to the strength of Earth's ice-albedo feedback.