An underestimated negative cloud feedback from cloud lifetime changes


As the atmosphere warms, part of the cloud population shifts from ice and mixed-phase (‘cold’) to liquid (‘warm’) clouds. Because warm clouds are more reflective and longer-lived, this phase change reduces the solar flux absorbed by the Earth and constitutes a negative radiative feedback. This cooling feedback is weaker in the sixth phase of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP6) than in the fifth phase (CMIP5), contributing to greater greenhouse warming. Although this change is often attributed to improvements in the simulated cloud phase, another model bias persists: warm clouds precipitate too readily, potentially leading to underestimated negative lifetime feedbacks. In this study we modified a climate model to better simulate warm-rain probability and found that it exhibits a cloud lifetime feedback nearly three times larger than the default model. This suggests that model errors in cloud-precipitation processes may bias cloud feedbacks by as much as the CMIP5-to-CMIP6 climate sensitivity difference. Reliable climate model projections therefore require improved cloud process realism guided by process-oriented observations and observational constraints.
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