Elevation-dependent warming: observations, models, and energetic mechanisms


Observational data and numerical models suggest that, under climate change, elevated land surfaces warm faster than non-elevated ones. Proposed drivers of this “elevation-dependent warming” (EDW) include surface albedo and water vapour feedbacks, the temperature dependence of longwave emission, and aerosols. Yet the relative importance of each proposed mechanism both regionally and at large scales is unclear, highlighting an incomplete physical understanding of EDW. Here we expand on previous regional studies and use gridded observations, atmospheric reanalysis, and a range of climate model simulations to investigate EDW over the historical period across the tropics and subtropics (40° S to 40° N). Observations, reanalysis, and fully coupled models exhibit annual mean warming trends (1959–2014), binned by surface elevation, which are larger over elevated surfaces and broadly consistent across datasets. EDW varies by season, with stronger observed signals in local winter and autumn. Analysis of large ensembles of single-forcing simulations (1959–2005) suggests historical EDW is likely a forced response of the climate system rather than an artefact of internal variability and is primarily driven by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. To gain quantitative insight into the mechanisms contributing to large-scale EDW, a forcing–feedback framework based on top-of-atmosphere energy balance is applied to the fully coupled models. This framework identifies the Planck and surface albedo feedbacks as being robust drivers of EDW (i.e. enhancing warming over elevated surfaces), with energy transport by the atmospheric circulation also playing an important role. In contrast, water vapour and cloud feedbacks along with weaker radiative forcing in elevated regions oppose EDW. Implications of the results for understanding future EDW are discussed.

Weather and Climate Dynamics, 5, 763–777, https://doi.org/10.5194/wcd-5-763-2024