Climate Dynamics

, Volume 42, Issue 1–2, pp 69–81 | Cite as

On the persistent spread in snow-albedo feedback

  • Xin QuEmail author
  • Alex Hall


Snow-albedo feedback (SAF) is examined in 25 climate change simulations participating in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project version 5 (CMIP5). SAF behavior is compared to the feedback’s behavior in the previous (CMIP3) generation of global models. SAF strength exhibits a fivefold spread across CMIP5 models, ranging from 0.03 to 0.16 W m−2 K−1 (ensemble-mean = 0.08 W m−2 K−1). This accounts for much of the spread in 21st century warming of Northern Hemisphere land masses, and is very similar to the spread found in CMIP3 models. As with the CMIP3 models, there is a high degree of correspondence between the magnitudes of seasonal cycle and climate change versions of the feedback. Here we also show that their geographical footprint is similar. The ensemble-mean SAF strength is close to an observed estimate of the real climate’s seasonal cycle feedback strength. SAF strength is strongly correlated with the climatological surface albedo when the ground is covered by snow. The inter-model variation in this quantity is surprisingly large, ranging from 0.39 to 0.75. Models with large surface albedo when these regions are snow-covered will also have a large surface albedo contrast between snow-covered and snow-free regions, and therefore a correspondingly large SAF. Widely-varying treatments of vegetation masking of snow-covered surfaces are probably responsible for the spread in surface albedo where snow occurs, and the persistent spread in SAF in global climate models.


Snow-albedo feedback Spread Seasonal cycle 



Both authors are supported by DOE’s Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program under the project “Identifying Robust Cloud Feedbacks in Observations and Model” (contract DE-AC52-07NA27344). We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modelling, which is responsible for CMIP, and we thank the climate modeling groups (listed in Table 1 of this paper) for producing and making available their model output. For CMIP the U.S. Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support and led development of software infrastructure in partnership with the Global Organization for Earth System Science Portals. MODIS data is distributed by the Land Processes Distributed Active Archive Center, located at the US Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation and Science Center ( ERA-Interim data is downloaded from and CERES data from We thank Dr. Mark Flanner and another anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments on the original manuscript.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA

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