Low-frequency variability and trends in temperature from 1979 to 2012 are examined. Observational improvements are noted and near-surface behaviour of the ECMWF ERA-Interim reanalysis is reviewed. Attention is then focussed on how closely ERA-Interim fits the upper-air data it assimilates, the bias adjustments it infers for satellite data, and its agreement with the ERA-40, MERRA and JRA-55 reanalyses and with model simulations.
Global-mean fits to independently homogenised radiosonde temperatures and variationally adjusted satellite brightness temperatures are mainly within 0.1 K in the troposphere, with some degradation over time from assimilating varying amounts of aircraft and rain-affected microwave-radiance data, and from a change in source of sea-surface-temperature analysis. Lower-tropospheric warming appears to be somewhat underestimated. Temperature variations in the tropical upper troposphere correlate well with those at the surface, but amplitude is more than doubled, in agreement with modelling. Specific humidity varies in concert; relative humidity is largely uniform, but dips during El Niño events.
Agreement with the other reanalyses is particularly close in the lower stratosphere, where radiance data and the background model constrain cooling to be slightly slower than in the homogenised radiosonde data. Perturbations to global-mean temperatures from underestimating warming following the El Chichón and Pinatubo volcanic eruptions and from assimilating recent GPSRO data are at most 0.2 K, less than 20% of the net change since 1979 at 50 hPa. Middle-stratospheric variations are more uncertain. Recent cooling appears to be underestimated by assimilating increasing amounts of unadjusted radiosonde data, but results do not support a recent reprocessing of earlier sounding data that suggests stronger middle-stratospheric cooling than previously indicated. Strong analysed upper-stratospheric cooling agrees quite well with model simulations if occasional jumps due to unadjusted bias changes in high-sounding satellite data are discounted.
Producing ERA-Interim in two separate streams caused only minor discontinuities where streams join at the start of 1989.