Climate Dynamics

, Volume 40, Issue 9, pp 2415-2431

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Interpretation of the positive low-cloud feedback predicted by a climate model under global warming

  • Florent BrientAffiliated withLaboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique (LMD/IPSL), Université Pierre et Marie Curie, CNRS Email author 
  • , Sandrine BonyAffiliated withLaboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique (LMD/IPSL), Université Pierre et Marie Curie, CNRS


The response of low-level clouds to climate change has been identified as a major contributor to the uncertainty in climate sensitivity estimates among climate models. By analyzing the behaviour of low-level clouds in a hierarchy of models (coupled ocean-atmosphere model, atmospheric general circulation model, aqua-planet model, single-column model) using the same physical parameterizations, this study proposes an interpretation of the strong positive low-cloud feedback predicted by the IPSL-CM5A climate model under climate change. In a warmer climate, the model predicts an enhanced clear-sky radiative cooling, stronger surface turbulent fluxes, a deepening and a drying of the planetary boundary layer, and a decrease of tropical low-clouds in regimes of weak subsidence. We show that the decrease of low-level clouds critically depends on the change in the vertical advection of moist static energy from the free troposphere to the boundary-layer. This change is dominated by variations in the vertical gradient of moist static energy between the surface and the free troposphere just above the boundary-layer. In a warmer climate, the thermodynamical relationship of Clausius-Clapeyron increases this vertical gradient, and then the import by large-scale subsidence of low moist static energy and dry air into the boundary layer. This results in a decrease of the low-level cloudiness and in a weakening of the radiative cooling of the boundary layer by low-level clouds. The energetic framework proposed in this study might help to interpret inter-model differences in low-cloud feedbacks under climate change.


Low-level cloud feedbacks Climate change Hierarchy of models Moist static energy budget