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Scientists Find "Fingerprint" of Human Activities in Recent Tropopause Height Changes

September 2, 2003

A team of scientists, including Michael Wehner of LBNL's Computational Research Division, has determined that human-induced changes in ozone and well-mixed greenhouse gases are the primary drivers of recent changes in the height of the tropopause. The team is led by Ben Santer of LLNL and their work is described in a paper entitled, "Contributions of Anthropogenic and Natural Forcing to Recent Tropopause Height Changes," which appears in the July 25, 2003 edition of Science. The team used the IBM SP supercomputer at the NERSC Center for modeling their research, which has also been reported on National Public Radio and physicsweb.org.

Earlier research has shown that increases in the height of the tropopause over the past two decades are directly linked to stratospheric ozone depletion and increased greenhouse gases. The new research uses climate model results to provide more quantitative estimates of the relative contributions of natural and human influences to overall tropopause height changes. This work indicates that 80 percent of the roughly 200 meter increase in tropopause height from 1979 to 1999 is directly linked to human activities. Smaller tropopause height increases over the first half of the 20th century were largely caused by natural variations in volcanic aerosols and solar irradiance.

The tropopause is the boundary between the lowest layer of the atmosphere — the turbulently mixed troposphere — and the more stable stratosphere. It lies roughly 10 miles above the Earth's surface at the equator and five miles above the poles. The location of the tropopause is sensitive to changes in vertical profiles of atmospheric temperature. The team's research attempts to understand how different mechanisms affect atmospheric temperatures, and hence tropopause height. It is the first study to show that a model-predicted "fingerprint" of tropopause height changes can be identified in observations.

In addition to LBNL's Wehner, the team consisted of scientists from LLNL, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the Institut für Physik der Atmosphäre in Germany, and the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

Using a computer model of the climate system, the Lab scientists and their colleagues examined changes in both man-made forcings (well-mixed greenhouse gases, tropospheric and stratospheric ozone, and the scattering effects of sulfate aerosols) and natural external forcings (solar irradiance and volcanic aerosols). Experiments were performed with a model developed jointly by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Los Alamos National Laboratory. The innovative aspect of these model runs is that climate forcings were varied both individually and in concert. This allowed the researchers to estimate the contribution of each forcing to overall changes in atmospheric temperature and tropopause height.

Completion of this very large ensemble of model runs was made possible by recent developments in high performance computing capabilities at U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation facilities, including NERSC.

The article in Science magazine can be found at http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/301/5632/479.


About NERSC and Berkeley Lab
The National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) is a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility that serves as the primary high-performance computing center for scientific research sponsored by the Office of Science. Located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the NERSC Center serves more than 7,000 scientists at national laboratories and universities researching a wide range of problems in combustion, climate modeling, fusion energy, materials science, physics, chemistry, computational biology, and other disciplines. Berkeley Lab is a DOE national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California for the U.S. DOE Office of Science. »Learn more about computing sciences at Berkeley Lab.