Climate Dynamics

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 423-434

First online:

Fast versus slow response in climate change: implications for the global hydrological cycle

  • Govindasamy BalaAffiliated withDivecha Center for Climate Change & Center for Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Email author 
  • , K. CaldeiraAffiliated withDepartment of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution
  • , R. NemaniAffiliated withNASA Ames Research Center

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Recent studies have shown that changes in global mean precipitation are larger for solar forcing than for CO2 forcing of similar magnitude. In this paper, we use an atmospheric general circulation model to show that the differences originate from differing fast responses of the climate system. We estimate the adjusted radiative forcing and fast response using Hansen’s “fixed-SST forcing” method. Total climate system response is calculated using mixed layer simulations using the same model. Our analysis shows that the fast response is almost 40% of the total response for few key variables like precipitation and evaporation. We further demonstrate that the hydrologic sensitivity, defined as the change in global mean precipitation per unit warming, is the same for the two forcings when the fast responses are excluded from the definition of hydrologic sensitivity, suggesting that the slow response (feedback) of the hydrological cycle is independent of the forcing mechanism. Based on our results, we recommend that the fast and slow response be compared separately in multi-model intercomparisons to discover and understand robust responses in hydrologic cycle. The significance of this study to geoengineering is discussed.