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Abstract

Most detection and attribution studies use climate models to determine both the expected ‘fingerprint’ of climate change and the uncertainty in the estimated magnitude of this fingerprint in observations, given the climate variability. This review discusses the role of models in detection and attribution, the associated uncertainties, and the robustness of results. Studies that use observations only make substantial assumptions to separate the components of observed changes due to radiative forcing from those due to internal climate variability. Results from observation-only studies are broadly consistent with those from fingerprint studies. Fingerprint studies evaluate the extent to which patterns of response to external forcing (fingerprints) from climate model simulations explain observed climate change in observations. Fingerprints are based on climate models of various complexities, from energy balance models to full earth system models. Statistical approaches range from simple comparisons of observations with model simulations to multi-regression methods that estimate the contribution of several forcings to observed change using a noise-reducing metric. Multi-model methods can address model uncertainties to some extent and we discuss how remaining uncertainties can be overcome. The increasing focus on detecting and attributing regional climate change and impacts presents both opportunities and challenges. Challenges arise because internal variability is larger on smaller scales, and regionally important forcings, such as from aerosols or land-use change, are often uncertain. Nevertheless, if regional climate change can be linked to external forcing, the results can be used to provide constraints on regional climate projections. WIREs Clim Change 2011 2 570–591 DOI: 10.1002/wcc.121

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