Stratospheric water vapor: an important climate feedback

  • Antara BanerjeeEmail author
  • Gabriel Chiodo
  • Michael Previdi
  • Michael Ponater
  • Andrew J. Conley
  • Lorenzo M. Polvani


The role of stratospheric water vapor (SWV) changes, in response to increasing \(\hbox {CO}_2\), as a feedback component of quantitative significance for climate sensitivity has remained controversial. Here, we calculate the SWV climate feedback under abrupt \(\hbox {CO}_2\) quadrupling in the CMIP5 ensemble of models. All models robustly show a moistening of the stratosphere, causing a global mean net stratosphere adjusted radiative perturbation of \(0.89\pm 0.27\,\hbox {Wm}^{-2}\) at the reference tropopause. The stratospheric temperature adjustment is a crucial component of this radiative perturbation. The associated climate feedback is \(0.17\pm 0.05\,\hbox {Wm}^{-2}\,\hbox{K}^{-1}\), with a considerable inter-model range of 0.12–0.28 \(\hbox {Wm}^{-2}\,\hbox {K}^{-1}\). Taking into account the rise in tropopause height under \(4\times \hbox {CO}_2\) slightly reduces the feedback to \(0.15\pm 0.04\,\hbox {Wm}^{-2}\,\hbox {K}^{-1}\), with a range of 0.10–\(0.26\,\hbox {Wm}^{-2} \,\hbox {K}^{-1}\). The SWV radiative perturbation peaks in the midlatitudes and not the tropics: this is due primarily to increases in SWV in the extratropical lowermost stratosphere, which cause the majority (over three quarters) of the global mean feedback. Based on these results, we suggest an increased focus on understanding drivers of water vapor trends in the extratropical lowermost stratosphere. We conclude that the SWV feedback is important, being on the same order of magnitude as the global mean surface albedo and cloud feedbacks in the multi-model mean.


Stratospheric water vapor Climate feedback Climate change Partial radiative perturbation Radiative kernel CMIP5 models 



This work was funded, in part, by grants from the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to Columbia University. The authors would like to thank Andrew Dessler, Yi Huang and an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on this work. We would like to acknowledge high-performance computing support from Yellowstone (ark:/85065/d7wd3xhc) provided by NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. 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 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.

Supplementary material

382_2019_4721_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (60 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 59 KB)


  1. Andrews T, Gregory JM, Webb MJ, Taylor KE (2012) Forcing, feedbacks and climate sensitivity in CMIP5 coupled atmosphere-ocean climate models. Geophys Res Lett 39(9):L09712CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Block K, Mauritsen T (2013) Forcing and feedback in the MPI-ESM-LR coupled model under abruptly quadrupled \({\rm CO}_2\). J Adv Model Earth Syst 5(4):676–691CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bony S, Colman R, Kattsov VM, Allan RP, Bretherton CS, Dufresne JL, Hall A, Hallegatte S, Holland MM, Ingram W et al (2006) How well do we understand and evaluate climate change feedback processes? J Clim 19(15):3445–3482CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Chung ES, Soden BJ (2015) An assessment of direct radiative forcing, radiative adjustments, and radiative feedbacks in coupled ocean-atmosphere models. J Clim 28(10):4152–4170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Colman R (2015) Climate radiative feedbacks and adjustments at the Earth’s surface. J Geophys Res Atmos 120(8):3173–3182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Colman R, McAvaney B (1997) A study of general circulation model climate feedbacks determined from perturbed sea surface temperature experiments. J Geophys Res Atmos 102(D16):19,383–19,402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Colman R, McAvaney B (2011) On tropospheric adjustment to forcing and climate feedbacks. Clim Dyn 36(9–10):1649CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Conley A, Lamarque JF, Vitt F, Collins W, Kiehl J (2013) PORT, a CESM tool for the diagnosis of radiative forcing. Geosci Model Dev 6(2):469–476CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Dessler A, Schoeberl M, Wang T, Davis S, Rosenlof K (2013) Stratospheric water vapor feedback. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 110(45):18,087–18,091CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dessler A, Schoeberl M, Wang T, Davis S, Rosenlof K, Vernier JP (2014) Variations of stratospheric water vapor over the past three decades. J Geophys Res Atmos 119(22):12–588CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dessler A, Ye H, Wang T, Schoeberl M, Oman L, Douglass A, Butler A, Rosenlof K, Davis S, Portmann R (2016) Transport of ice into the stratosphere and the humidification of the stratosphere over the 21st century. Geophys Res Lett 43(5):2323–2329CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dethof A, O’Neill A, Slingo J, Berrisford P (2000) Quantification of isentropic water-vapour transport into the lower stratosphere. Q J R Meteorol Soc 126(566):1771–1788CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dietmüller S, Ponater M, Sausen R (2014) Interactive ozone induces a negative feedback in \({\rm CO}_2\)-driven climate change simulations. J Geophys Res Atmos 119(4):1796–1805CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fels S, Mahlman J, Schwarzkopf M, Sinclair R (1980) Stratospheric sensitivity to perturbations in ozone and carbon dioxide: radiative and dynamical response. J Atmos Sci 37(10):2265–2297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Flato G, Marotzke J, Abiodun B, Braconnot P, Chou SC, Collins W, Cox P, Driouech F, Emori S, Eyring V et al (2013) Evaluation of climate models. In: Stocker T, Qin D, Plattner GK, Tignor M, Allen S, Boschung J, Nauels A, Xia Y, Bex V, Midgley P (eds) Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  16. Forster PMdF, Shine KP (1997) Radiative forcing and temperature trends from stratospheric ozone changes. J Geophys Res Atmos 102(D9):10,841–10,855CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Forster PMdF, Shine K (2002) Assessing the climate impact of trends in stratospheric water vapor. Geophys Res Lett 29(6):10–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Forster PMF, Freckleton RS, Shine KP (1997) On aspects of the concept of radiative forcing. Clim Dyn 13(7):547–560. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fueglistaler S, Haynes P (2005) Control of interannual and longer-term variability of stratospheric water vapor. J Geophys Res Atmos 110(D24):D24108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gettelman A, Birner T, Eyring V, Akiyoshi H, Bekki S, Brühl C, Dameris M, Kinnison D, Lefèvre F, Lott F et al (2009) The tropical tropopause layer 1960–2100. Atmos Chem Phys 9(5):1621–1637CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gettelman A, Hegglin MI, Son SW, Kim J, Fujiwara M, Birner T, Kremser S, Rex M, Añel J, Akiyoshi H et al (2010) Multimodel assessment of the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere: tropics and global trends. J Geophys Res Atmos 115(D3):D00M08Google Scholar
  22. Gilford DM, Solomon S, Portmann RW (2016) Radiative impacts of the 2011 abrupt drops in water vapor and ozone in the tropical tropopause layer. J Clim 29(2):595–612CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gordon HB, Rotstayn LD, McGregor JL, Dix MR, Kowalczyk EA, O’Farrell SP, Waterman LJ, Hirst AC, Wilson SG, Collier MA, Watterson IG, Elliott TI (2002) The CSIRO Mk3 climate system model. Technical Paper 60, CSIRO Atmospheric Research.
  24. Gregory J, Ingram W, Palmer M, Jones G, Stott P, Thorpe R, Lowe J, Johns T, Williams K (2004) A new method for diagnosing radiative forcing and climate sensitivity. Geophys Res Lett 31(3):L03205CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hardiman SC, Boutle IA, Bushell AC, Butchart N, Cullen MJ, Field PR, Furtado K, Manners JC, Milton SF, Morcrette C et al (2015) Processes controlling tropical tropopause temperature and stratospheric water vapor in climate models. J Clim 28(16):6516–6535CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hegglin M, Plummer D, Shepherd T, Scinocca J, Anderson J, Froidevaux L, Funke B, Hurst D, Rozanov A, Urban J et al (2014) Vertical structure of stratospheric water vapour trends derived from merged satellite data. Nat Geosci 7(10):768CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Holton JR, Gettelman A (2001) Horizontal transport and the dehydration of the stratosphere. Geophys Res Lett 28(14):2799–2802CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Huang Y (2013) On the longwave climate feedbacks. J Clim 26(19):7603–7610. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Huang Y, Zhang M, Xia Y, Hu Y, Son SW (2016) Is there a stratospheric radiative feedback in global warming simulations? Clim Dyn 46(1–2):177–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kim J, Grise KM, Son SW (2013) Thermal characteristics of the cold-point tropopause region in CMIP5 models. J Geophys Res Atmos 118(16):8827–8841CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Klocke D, Quaas J, Stevens B (2013) Assessment of different metrics for physical climate feedbacks. Clim Dyn 41(5–6):1173–1185CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Liu R, Su H, Liou KN, Jiang JH, Gu Y, Liu SC, Shiu CJ (2018) An assessment of tropospheric water vapor feedback using radiative kernels. J Geophys Res Atmos 123(3):1499–1509Google Scholar
  33. Marsh DR, Lamarque JF, Conley AJ, Polvani LM (2016) Stratospheric ozone chemistry feedbacks are not critical for the determination of climate sensitivity in CESM1 (WACCM). Geophys Res Lett 43(8):3928–3934CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Maycock A, Shine K (2012) Stratospheric water vapor and climate: Sensitivity to the representation in radiation codes. J Geophys Res Atmos 117(D13):D13102CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Maycock AC, Shine KP, Joshi MM (2011) The temperature response to stratospheric water vapour changes. Q J R Meteorol Soc 137(657):1070–1082CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Meraner K, Mauritsen T, Voigt A (2013) Robust increase in equilibrium climate sensitivity under global warming. Geophys Res Lett 40(22):5944–5948CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Nowack PJ, Abraham NL, Maycock AC, Braesicke P, Gregory JM, Joshi MM, Osprey A, Pyle JA (2015) A large ozone-circulation feedback and its implications for global warming assessments. Nat Clim Change 5(1):41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Oman L, Waugh DW, Pawson S, Stolarski RS, Nielsen JE (2008) Understanding the changes of stratospheric water vapor in coupled chemistry–climate model simulations. J Atmos Sci 65(10):3278–3291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pan LL, Hintsa EJ, Stone EM, Weinstock EM, Randel WJ (2000) The seasonal cycle of water vapor and saturation vapor mixing ratio in the extratropical lowermost stratosphere. J Geophys Res Atmos 105(D21):26,519–26,530CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Previdi M (2010) Radiative feedbacks on global precipitation. Environ Res Lett 5(2):025211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Previdi M, Liepert BG (2012) The vertical distribution of climate forcings and feedbacks from the surface to top of atmosphere. Clim Dyn 39(3–4):941–951CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Ramanathan V, Dickinson RE (1979) The role of stratospheric ozone in the zonal and seasonal radiative energy balance of the earth-troposphere system. J Atmos Sci 36(6):1084–1104.<1084:TROSOI>2.0.CO;2
  43. Rieger VS, Dietmüller S, Ponater M (2017) Can feedback analysis be used to uncover the physical origin of climate sensitivity and efficacy differences? Clim Dyn 49(7–8):2831–2844CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Sanderson BM, Shell KM, Ingram W (2010) Climate feedbacks determined using radiative kernels in a multi-thousand member ensemble of AOGCMs. Clim Dyn 35(7–8):1219–1236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Shell KM, Kiehl JT, Shields CA (2008) Using the radiative kernel technique to calculate climate feedbacks in NCAR’s community atmospheric model. J Clim 21(10):2269–2282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Smalley KM, Dessler AE, Bekki S, Deushi M, Marchand M, Morgenstern O, Plummer DA, Shibata K, Yamashita Y, Zeng G (2017) Contribution of different processes to changes in tropical lower-stratospheric water vapor in chemistry–climate models. Atmos Chem Phys 17(13):8031–8044CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Soden BJ, Held IM (2006) An assessment of climate feedbacks in coupled ocean–atmosphere models. J Clim 19(14):3354–3360CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Soden BJ, Held IM, Colman R, Shell KM, Kiehl JT, Shields CA (2008) Quantifying climate feedbacks using radiative kernels. J Clim 21(14):3504–3520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Solomon S, Rosenlof KH, Portmann RW, Daniel JS, Davis SM, Sanford TJ, Plattner GK (2010) Contributions of stratospheric water vapor to decadal changes in the rate of global warming. Science 327(5970):1219–1223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Stenke A, Grewe V, Ponater M (2008) Lagrangian transport of water vapor and cloud water in the ECHAM4 GCM and its impact on the cold bias. Clim Dyn 31(5):491–506CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Stuber N, Ponater M, Sausen R (2001a) Is the climate sensitivity to ozone perturbations enhanced by stratospheric water vapor feedback? Geophys Res Lett 28(15):2887–2890CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Stuber N, Sausen R, Ponater M (2001b) Stratosphere adjusted radiative forcing calculationsin a comprehensive climate model. Theor Appl Climatol 68(3):125–135. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Sun Y, Huang Y (2015) An examination of convective moistening of the lower stratosphere using satellite data. Earth Space Sci 2(7):320–330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tandon NF, Polvani LM, Davis SM (2011) The response of the tropospheric circulation to water vapor-like forcings in the stratosphere. J Clim 24(21):5713–5720CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Vial J, Dufresne JL, Bony S (2013) On the interpretation of inter-model spread in CMIP5 climate sensitivity estimates. Clim Dyn 41(11–12):3339–3362CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wetherald R, Manabe S (1988) Cloud feedback processes in a general circulation model. J Atmos Sci 45(8):1397–1416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. WMO (1957) Meteorology—a three-dimensional science: Second session of the commission for aerology. WMO Bull 4(4):134–138Google Scholar
  58. Zhang M, Huang Y (2014) Radiative forcing of quadrupling co2. J Clim 27(7):2496–2508. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Applied Physics and Applied MathematicsColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental SciencesUniversity of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA
  3. 3.National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Earth System Research Laboratory/Chemical Sciences DivisionBoulderUSA
  4. 4.Department of Earth and Environmental SciencesLamont Doherty Earth ObservatoryNew YorkUSA
  5. 5.Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (DLR)Institut für Physik der AtmosphäreWeßlingGermany
  6. 6.National Center for Atmospheric ResearchBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations