Climate & Radiation Branch Seminar Series: Eric Wilcox

The Himalaya Mountains reside within a hot spot for atmospheric brown clouds owing to the widespread emissions of dust, soot, and organic carbon aerosols in South and East Asia. As much as one-half of the regional climate warming over South Asia in the later 20th and early 21st centuries has been attributed to the direct radiative heating of the troposphere by aerosol solar absorption. The other half is attributed to the global greenhouse gas forcing. While the increase in temperature and infrared back radiation attributable to greenhouse gas warming is expected to accelerate melting of Himalayan glaciers, aerosol radiative forcing, and the climate response to it, contribute a host of additional impacts on mountain glaciers, many of which exacerbate the melting. These impacts include atmospheric warming, increased infrared back radiation, reduced surface insolation, surface albedo modification by soot deposition, and reductions in monsoon precipitation. The contributions of each of these effects upon melting of Himalayan mountain glaciers is explored in a glacier mass model based on energy balance calculations. The surface energy balance from the base to the top of several glaciers is calculated based on remote sensing and in-situ time series of radiative fluxes and precipitation. The model is calibrated against recent in-situ measurements of glacier mass balance and equilibrium altitude where available. Perturbations to the radiative fluxes and precipitation are then imposed on the mass balance calculations based on published estimates of the aerosol radiative forcing magnitudes and observed changes in regional temperature and precipitation over the modern era. In light of the substantial uncertainty surrounding regional forcing values and mountain glacier characteristics, the study emphasizes sensitivity studies comparing the relative responses of glaciers to the components of aerosol and greenhouse gas forcing mentioned above. Of particular interest are: (a) the balance between aerosol radiative warming of the atmosphere and aerosol radiative cooling of the surface; (b) estimates of the magnitude of soot deposition required to cause melting rates comparable to those caused by regional warming; and (c) the relative contributions of aerosol warming of the atmosphere and the associated decrease in monsoon precipitation to total glacier mass change. The modeling framework presented here is offered as a means of providing additional quantitative constraints on recent speculation about the role of black carbon aerosols and the fate of the Himalayan glaciers.


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