Biological and Environmental Research - Earth and Environmental System Sciences
Earth and Environmental System Modeling
02 June 2020

The Sweet Spot for Cooling the Earth’s Climate

A new study provides insights on the location of forcing that yields the optimal cooling effect.

Antarctic ice near Argentina

While there has been a lot of effort dedicated to understanding global climate sensitivity—how much the mean surface temperature warms in response to a doubling of the concentration of carbon dioxide—regionality and nonlinearity are much less understood.  As no one lives in the average climate, what really matters to societies and ecosystems is regional climate change, which can vary significantly in different geographical areas. Climate change response is not uniform, even if the forcing (what is causing the change) is uniform.  In a study led by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers constructed the linear response function (LRF), which encompasses the multivariate relationship between climate forcing in the form of heat flux from the ocean and surface temperature. Analysis of the LRF revealed the neutral modes (the patterns that are most excitable by forcing) of the climate system and their corresponding optimal forcing.


This work advances a new understanding of the coupled climate system from the perspective of a dynamical system and its neutral modes. Neutral modes can serve as a metric for fingerprinting the climate change response. The methodology developed and demonstrated in this study represents an important step towards a framework for understanding and mapping the spatial relationship between forcing and response. Future work building on the methodology could provide valuable insights on where negative forcing may be applied to cool the climate, with implications for geoengineering research.


Inquiry into the climate response to forcing perturbations has long been the central interest of climate research. But the understanding of two important aspects of climate change response—nonlinearity and regionality—is still lacking. Researchers developed a Green’s function approach to estimate the LRFs for both the linear and quadratic nonlinear response to ocean thermal forcing in a climate model, whereby the most excitable temperature modes i.e., the neutral modes) can be identified for the climate system resembling the present-day climate. The resultant leading mode of the nonlinear response is characterized by a polar amplified global cooling pattern, unveiling an intrinsic inclination of the modern climate towards cooling. Moreover, optimal forcing patterns are identified as the ones that will most efficiently excite the corresponding neutral mode patterns. The forcing-response framework developed in this study can be utilized to determine the optimal forcing patterns to inform research on solar geoengineering and to interpret regional climate response and feedback in general.

Jian Lu
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)
Lu, J, F Liu, L Leung, and H Lei.  2020.  "Neutral modes of surface temperature and the optimal ocean thermal forcing for global cooling."  npj Climate and Atmospheric Science 3(1).