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Springtime warming and reduced snow cover from carbonaceous particles

by M. G. Flanner, C. S. Zender, P. G. Hess, N. M. Mahowald, T. H. Painter, V. Ramanathan, P. J. Rasch
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions ()

Abstract

Boreal spring climate is uniquely susceptible to solar warming mechanisms because it has expansive snow cover and receives relatively strong insolation. Carbonaceous particles can influence snow coverage by warming the atmosphere, reducing surface-incident solar energy (dimming), and reducing snow reflectance after deposition (darkening). We apply a range of models and observations to explore impacts of these processes on springtime climate, drawing several conclusions: 1) Nearly all atmospheric particles (those with visible-band single-scatter albedo less than 0.999), including all mixtures of black carbon (BC) and organic matter (OM), increase net solar heating of the atmosphere-snow column. 2) Darkening caused by small concentrations of particles within snow exceeds the loss of absorbed energy from concurrent dimming, thus increasing solar heating of snowpack as well (positive net surface forcing). Over global snow, we estimate 6-fold greater surface forcing from darkening than dimming, caused by BC+OM. 3) Equilibrium climate experiments suggest that fossil fuel and biofuel emissions of BC+OM induce 95% as much springtime snow cover loss over Eurasia as anthropogenic carbon dioxide, a consequence of strong snow-albedo feedback and large BC+OM emissions from Asia. 4) Of 22 climate models contributing to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, 21 underpredict the rapid warming (0.64°C decade−1) observed over springtime Eurasia since 1979. Darkening from natural and anthropogenic sources of BC and mineral dust exerts 3-fold greater forcing on springtime snow over Eurasia (3.9 W m−2) than North America (1.2 W m−2). Inclusion of this forcing significantly improves simulated continental warming trends, but does not reconcile the low bias in rate of Eurasian spring snow cover decline exhibited by all models, likely because BC deposition trends are negative or near-neutral over much of Eurasia. Improved Eurasian warming may therefore relate more to darkening-induced reduction in mean snow cover.

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