Heat capacity, time constant, and sensitivity of Earth's climate system



[1] The equilibrium sensitivity of Earth's climate is determined as the quotient of the relaxation time constant of the system and the pertinent global heat capacity. The heat capacity of the global ocean, obtained from regression of ocean heat content versus global mean surface temperature, GMST, is 14 ± 6 W a m−2 K−1, equivalent to 110 m of ocean water; other sinks raise the effective planetary heat capacity to 17 ± 7 W a m−2 K−1 (all uncertainties are 1-sigma estimates). The time constant pertinent to changes in GMST is determined from autocorrelation of that quantity over 1880–2004 to be 5 ± 1 a. The resultant equilibrium climate sensitivity, 0.30 ± 0.14 K/(W m−2), corresponds to an equilibrium temperature increase for doubled CO2 of 1.1 ± 0.5 K. The short time constant implies that GMST is in near equilibrium with applied forcings and hence that net climate forcing over the twentieth century can be obtained from the observed temperature increase over this period, 0.57 ± 0.08 K, as 1.9 ± 0.9 W m−2. For this forcing considered the sum of radiative forcing by incremental greenhouse gases, 2.2 ± 0.3 W m−2, and other forcings, other forcing agents, mainly incremental tropospheric aerosols, are inferred to have exerted only a slight forcing over the twentieth century of −0.3 ± 1.0 W m−2.