Emergent constraints

Different global climate models give different answers about future climate. The range of answers across the different models—what climate scientists refer to as the spread—can be very large. One approach to constraining, or narrowing the range of, answers across climate models is the use of emergent constraints.

The basic concept underlying the emergent constraint approach is that when you analyze large ensembles of global climate models, a clear relationship may emerge between a variable X in models’ simulations of the current climate and a different variable Y in models’ projections of future climate. When this relationship is identified and tested in various ways, you can then plug in actual observations of variable X to narrow the range of answers for variable Y.

The field of emergent constraints began to develop when our group pioneered the use of observations of the seasonal snowmelt cycle to constrain global climate model projections of snow albedo feedback. Since then, the list of relationships being investigated by the climate science community as potential emergent constraints has grown to more than more than 30. We remain active in identifying and vetting potential emergent constraints and applying confirmed ones to reduce uncertainty in global climate model projections.

Related Publications

Thackeray, CW, and A Hall. 2019. “An emergent constraint on future Arctic sea-ice albedo feedback.” Nature Climate Change 9: 972–978. Publisher's Version Abstract
Arctic sea ice has decreased substantially over recent decades, a trend projected to continue. Shrinking ice reduces surface albedo, leading to greater surface solar absorption, thus amplifying warming and driving further melt. This sea-ice albedo feedback (SIAF) is a key driver of Arctic climate change and an important uncertainty source in climate model projections. Using an ensemble of models, we demonstrate an emergent relationship between future SIAF and an observable version of SIAF in the current climate’s seasonal cycle. This relationship is robust in constraining SIAF over the coming decades (Pearson’s r = 0.76), and then it degrades. The degradation occurs because some models begin producing ice-free conditions, signalling a transition to a new ice regime. The relationship is strengthened when models with unrealistically thin historical ice are excluded. Because of this tight relationship, reducing model errors in the current climate’s seasonal SIAF and ice thickness can narrow SIAF spread under climate change.
Heinze, C, V Eyring, P Friedlingstein, C Jones, Y Balkanski, W Collins, T Fichefet, et al. 2019. “Climate feedbacks in the Earth system and prospects for their evaluation.” Earth System Dynamics 10: 379–452. Publisher's Version Abstract
Earth system models (ESMs) are key tools for providing climate projections under different scenarios of human-induced forcing. ESMs include a large number of additional processes and feedbacks such as biogeochemical cycles that traditional physical climate models do not consider. Yet, some processes such as cloud dynamics and ecosystem functional response still have fairly high uncertainties. In this article, we present an overview of climate feedbacks for Earth system components currently included in state-of-the-art ESMs and discuss the challenges to evaluate and quantify them. Uncertainties in feedback quantification arise from the interdependencies of biogeochemical matter fluxes and physical properties, the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of processes, and the lack of long-term continuous observational data to constrain them. We present an outlook for promising approaches that can help to quantify and to constrain the large number of feedbacks in ESMs in the future. The target group for this article includes generalists with a background in natural sciences and an interest in climate change as well as experts working in interdisciplinary climate research (researchers, lecturers, and students). This study updates and significantly expands upon the last comprehensive overview of climate feedbacks in ESMs, which was produced 15 years ago (NRC, 2003).
Flato, G, J Marotzke, B Abiodun, P Braconnot, SC Chou, W Collins, P Cox, et al. 2013. “Evaluation of climate models.” Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press. Publisher's Version Abstract
Climate models have continued to be developed and improved since the AR4, and many models have been extended into Earth System models by including the representation of biogeochemical cycles important to climate change. These models allow for policy-relevant calculations such as the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions compatible with a specified climate stabilization target. In addition, the range of climate variables and processes that have been evaluated has greatly expanded, and differences between models and observations are increasingly quantified using ‘performance metrics’. In this chapter, model evaluation covers simulation of the mean climate, of historical climate change, of variability on multiple time scales and of regional modes of variability. This evaluation is based on recent internationally coordinated model experiments, including simulations of historic and paleo climate, specialized experiments designed to provide insight into key climate processes and feedbacks and regional climate downscaling. Figure 9.44 provides an overview of model capabilities as assessed in this chapter, including improvements, or lack thereof, relative to models assessed in the AR4. The chapter concludes with an assessment of recent work connecting model performance to the detection and attribution of climate change as well as to future projections.
Differences in simulations of climate feedbacks are sources of significant divergence in climate models' temperature response to anthropogenic forcing. Snow albedo feedback is particularly critical for climate change prediction in heavily‐populated northern hemisphere land masses. Here we show its strength in current models exhibits a factor‐of‐three spread. These large intermodel variations in feedback strength in climate change are nearly perfectly correlated with comparably large intermodel variations in feedback strength in the context of the seasonal cycle. Moreover, the feedback strength in the real seasonal cycle can be measured and compared to simulated values. These mostly fall outside the range of the observed estimate, suggesting many models have an unrealistic snow albedo feedback in the seasonal cycle context. Because of the tight correlation between simulated feedback strength in the seasonal cycle and climate change, eliminating the model errors in the seasonal cycle will lead directly to a reduction in the spread of feedback strength in climate change. Though this comparison to observations may put the models in an unduly harsh light because of uncertainties in the observed estimate that are difficult to quantify, our results map out a clear strategy for targeted observation of the seasonal cycle to reduce divergence in simulations of climate sensitivity.
Fernandes, R, H Zhao, X Wang, J Key, X Qu, and A Hall. 2009. “Controls on northern hemisphere snow albedo feedback quantified using satelllite Earth observations.” Geophysical Research Letters 36: L21702. Publisher's Version Abstract
Observation based estimates of controls on snow albedo feedback (SAF) are needed to constrain the snow and albedo parameterizations in general circulation model (GCM) projections of air temperature over the Northern Hemisphere (NH) landmass. The total April‐May NH SAF, corresponding to the sum of the effect of temperature on surface albedo over snow covered surfaces (‘metamorphism’) and over surfaces transitioning from snow covered to snow free conditions (‘snow cover’), is derived with daily NH snow cover and surface albedo products using Advanced Very High Resolution Radiometer Polar Pathfinder satellite data and surface air temperature from ERA40 reanalysis data between 1982–1999. Without using snow cover information, the estimated total SAF, for land surfaces north of 30°N, of −0.93 ± 0.06%K−1 was not significantly different (95% confidence) from estimates based on International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project surface albedo data. The SAF, constrained to only snow covered areas, grew to −1.06 ± 0.08%K−1 with similar magnitudes for the ‘snow cover’ and ‘metamorphosis’ components. The SAF pattern was significantly correlated with the ‘snow cover’ component pattern over both North America and Eurasia but only over Eurasia for the ‘metamorphosis’ component. However, in contrast to GCM model based diagnoses of SAF, the control on the ‘snow cover’ component related to the albedo contrast of snow covered and snow free surfaces was not strongly correlated to the total SAF.
DeAngelis, AM, X Qu, MD Zelinka, and A Hall. 2015. “An observational radiative constraint on hydrologic cycle intensification.” Nature 528: 249–253. Publisher's Version Abstract
Intensification of the hydrologic cycle is a key dimension of climate change, with substantial impacts on human and natural systems1,2. A basic measure of hydrologic cycle intensification is the increase in global-mean precipitation per unit surface warming, which varies by a factor of three in current-generation climate models (about 1–3 per cent per kelvin)3,4,5. Part of the uncertainty may originate from atmosphere–radiation interactions. As the climate warms, increases in shortwave absorption from atmospheric moistening will suppress the precipitation increase. This occurs through a reduction of the latent heating increase required to maintain a balanced atmospheric energy budget6,7. Using an ensemble of climate models, here we show that such models tend to underestimate the sensitivity of solar absorption to variations in atmospheric water vapour, leading to an underestimation in the shortwave absorption increase and an overestimation in the precipitation increase. This sensitivity also varies considerably among models due to differences in radiative transfer parameterizations, explaining a substantial portion of model spread in the precipitation response. Consequently, attaining accurate shortwave absorption responses through improvements to the radiative transfer schemes could reduce the spread in the predicted global precipitation increase per degree warming for the end of the twenty-first century by about 35 per cent, and reduce the estimated ensemble-mean increase in this quantity by almost 40 per cent.
Klein, SA, and A Hall. 2015. “Emergent constraints for cloud feedbacks.” Current Climate Change Reports 1 (4): 276–287. Publisher's Version Abstract
Emergent constraints are physically explainable empirical relationships between characteristics of the current climate and long-term climate prediction that emerge in collections of climate model simulations. With the prospect of constraining long-term climate prediction, scientists have recently uncovered several emergent constraints related to long-term cloud feedbacks. We review these proposed emergent constraints, many of which involve the behavior of low-level clouds, and discuss criteria to assess their credibility. With further research, some of the cases we review may eventually become confirmed emergent constraints, provided they are accompanied by credible physical explanations. Because confirmed emergent constraints identify a source of model error that projects onto climate predictions, they deserve extra attention from those developing climate models and climate observations. While a systematic bias cannot be ruled out, it is noteworthy that the promising emergent constraints suggest larger cloud feedback and hence climate sensitivity.
Qu, X, A Hall, AM DeAngelis, MD Zelinka, SA Klein, H Su, B Tian, and C Zhai. 2018. “On the emergent constraints of climate sensitivity.” Journal of Climate 31 (2): 863–875. Publisher's Version Abstract
Differences among climate models in equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS; the equilibrium surface temperature response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2) remain a significant barrier to the accurate assessment of societally important impacts of climate change. Relationships between ECS and observable metrics of the current climate in model ensembles, so-called emergent constraints, have been used to constrain ECS. Here a statistical method (including a backward selection process) is employed to achieve a better statistical understanding of the connections between four recently proposed emergent constraint metrics and individual feedbacks influencing ECS. The relationship between each metric and ECS is largely attributable to a statistical connection with shortwave low cloud feedback, the leading cause of intermodel ECS spread. This result bolsters confidence in some of the metrics, which had assumed such a connection in the first place. Additional analysis is conducted with a few thousand artificial metrics that are randomly generated but are well correlated with ECS. The relationships between the contrived metrics and ECS can also be linked statistically to shortwave cloud feedback. Thus, any proposed or forthcoming ECS constraint based on the current generation of climate models should be viewed as a potential constraint on shortwave cloud feedback, and physical links with that feedback should be investigated to verify that the constraint is real. In addition, any proposed ECS constraint should not be taken at face value since other factors influencing ECS besides shortwave cloud feedback could be systematically biased in the models.
Thackeray, CW, AM DeAngelis, A Hall, DL Swain, and X Qu. 2018. “On the connection between global hydrologic sensitivity and regional wet extremes.” Geophysical Research Letters 45 (20): 11,343–11,351. Publisher's Version Abstract
A highly uncertain aspect of anthropogenic climate change is the rate at which the global hydrologic cycle intensifies. The future change in global‐mean precipitation per degree warming, or hydrologic sensitivity, exhibits a threefold spread (1–3%/K) in current global climate models. In this study, we find that the intermodel spread in this value is associated with a significant portion of variability in future projections of extreme precipitation in the tropics, extending also into subtropical atmospheric river corridors. Additionally, there is a very tight intermodel relationship between changes in extreme and nonextreme precipitation, whereby models compensate for increasing extreme precipitation events by decreasing weak‐moderate events. Another factor linked to changes in precipitation extremes is model resolution, with higher resolution models showing a larger increase in heavy extremes. These results highlight ways various aspects of hydrologic cycle intensification are linked in models and shed new light on the task of constraining precipitation extremes.
Bowman, KW, N Cressie, X Qu, and A Hall. 2018. “A hierarchical statistical framework for emergent constraints: application to snow‐albedo feedback.” Geophysical Research Letters 45 (23): 13,050–13,059. Publisher's Version Abstract
Emergent constraints use relationships between future and current climate states to constrain projections of climate response. Here we introduce a statistical, hierarchical emergent constraint (HEC) framework in order to link future and current climates with observations. Under Gaussian assumptions, the mean and variance of the future state are shown analytically to be a function of the signal‐to‐noise ratio between current climate uncertainty and observation error and the correlation between future and current climate states. We apply the HEC to the climate change, snow‐albedo feedback, which is related to the seasonal cycle in the Northern Hemisphere. We obtain a snow‐albedo feedback prediction interval of (−1.25,−0.58)%/K. The critical dependence on signal‐to‐noise ratio and correlation shows that neglecting these terms can lead to bias and underestimated uncertainty in constrained projections. The flexibility of using HEC under general assumptions throughout the Earth system is discussed.
Hall, A, P Cox, C Huntingford, and SA Klein. 2019. “Progressing emergent constraints on future climate change.” Nature Climate Change 9: 269–278. Publisher's Version Abstract
In recent years, an evaluation technique for Earth System Models (ESMs) has arisen—emergent constraints (ECs)—which rely on strong statistical relationships between aspects of current climate and future change across an ESM ensemble. Combining the EC relationship with observations could reduce uncertainty surrounding future change. Here, we articulate a framework to assess ECs, and provide indicators whereby a proposed EC may move from a strong statistical relationship to confirmation. The primary indicators are verified mechanisms and out-of-sample testing. Confirmed ECs have the potential to improve ESMs by focusing attention on the variables most relevant to climate projections. Looking forward, there may be undiscovered ECs for extremes and teleconnections, and ECs may help identify climate system tipping points.