Climate Dynamics

, Volume 35, Issue 5, pp 875-886

First online:

Response to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in relation to climate sensitivity in the CMIP3 models

  • Frida A.-M. BenderAffiliated withDepartment of Meteorology, Stockholm University Email author 
  • , Annica M. L. EkmanAffiliated withDepartment of Meteorology, Stockholm University
  • , Henning RodheAffiliated withDepartment of Meteorology, Stockholm University

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The radiative flux perturbations and subsequent temperature responses in relation to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 are studied in the ten general circulation models incorporated in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, phase 3 (CMIP3), that include a parameterization of volcanic aerosol. Models and observations show decreases in global mean temperature of up to 0.5 K, in response to radiative perturbations of up to 10 W m−2, averaged over the tropics. The time scale representing the delay between radiative perturbation and temperature response is determined by the slow ocean response, and is estimated to be centered around 4 months in the models. Although the magniude of the temperature response to a volcanic eruption has previously been used as an indicator of equilibrium climate sensitivity in models, we find these two quantities to be only weakly correlated. This may partly be due to the fact that the size of the volcano-induced radiative perturbation varies among the models. It is found that the magnitude of the modelled radiative perturbation increases with decreasing climate sensitivity, with the exception of one outlying model. Therefore, we scale the temperature perturbation by the radiative perturbation in each model, and use the ratio between the integrated temperature perturbation and the integrated radiative perturbation as a measure of sensitivity to volcanic forcing. This ratio is found to be well correlated with the model climate sensitivity, more sensitive models having a larger ratio. Further, if this correspondence between “volcanic sensitivity” and sensitivity to CO2 forcing is a feature not only among the models, but also of the real climate system, the alleged linear relation can be used to estimate the real climate sensitivity. The observational value of the ratio signifying volcanic sensitivity is hereby estimated to correspond to an equilibrium climate sensitivity, i.e. equilibrium temperature increase due to a doubling of the CO2 concentration, between 1.7 and 4.1 K. Several sources of uncertainty reside in the method applied, and it is pointed out that additional model output, related to ocean heat storage and radiative forcing, could refine the analysis, as could reduced uncertainty in the observational record, of temperature as well as forcing.


Volcanic eruption GCM Climate sensitivity