, Volume 33, Issue 3-4, pp 779-816,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 11 May 2012

Observing and Modeling Earth’s Energy Flows

Abstract

This article reviews, from the authors’ perspective, progress in observing and modeling energy flows in Earth’s climate system. Emphasis is placed on the state of understanding of Earth’s energy flows and their susceptibility to perturbations, with particular emphasis on the roles of clouds and aerosols. More accurate measurements of the total solar irradiance and the rate of change of ocean enthalpy help constrain individual components of the energy budget at the top of the atmosphere to within ±2 W m−2. The measurements demonstrate that Earth reflects substantially less solar radiation and emits more terrestrial radiation than was believed even a decade ago. Active remote sensing is helping to constrain the surface energy budget, but new estimates of downwelling surface irradiance that benefit from such methods are proving difficult to reconcile with existing precipitation climatologies. Overall, the energy budget at the surface is much more uncertain than at the top of the atmosphere. A decade of high-precision measurements of the energy budget at the top of the atmosphere is providing new opportunities to track Earth’s energy flows on timescales ranging from days to years, and at very high spatial resolution. The measurements show that the principal limitation in the estimate of secular trends now lies in the natural variability of the Earth system itself. The forcing-feedback-response framework, which has developed to understand how changes in Earth’s energy flows affect surface temperature, is reviewed in light of recent work that shows fast responses (adjustments) of the system are central to the definition of the effective forcing that results from a change in atmospheric composition. In many cases, the adjustment, rather than the characterization of the compositional perturbation (associated, for instance, with changing greenhouse gas concentrations, or aerosol burdens), limits accurate determination of the radiative forcing. Changes in clouds contribute importantly to this adjustment and thus contribute both to uncertainty in estimates of radiative forcing and to uncertainty in the response. Models are indispensable to calculation of the adjustment of the system to a compositional change but are known to be flawed in their representation of clouds. Advances in tracking Earth’s energy flows and compositional changes on daily through decadal timescales are shown to provide both a critical and constructive framework for advancing model development and evaluation.