Temperature and precipitation variance in CMIP5 simulations and paleoclimate records of the last millennium

Luke A. Parsons, Garrison R. Loope, Jonathan T. Overpeck, Toby R. Ault, Ronald Stouffer, Julia E. Cole

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Accurate assessments of future climate impacts require realistic simulation of interannual-century-scale temperature and precipitation variability. Here, well-constrained paleoclimate data and the latest generation of Earth system model data are used to evaluate the magnitude and spatial consistency of climate variance distributions across interannual to centennial frequencies. It is found that temperature variance generally increases with time scale in patterns that are spatially consistent among models, especially over the mid- and high-latitude oceans. However, precipitation is similar to white noise across much of the globe. When Earth system model variance is compared to variance generated by simple autocorrelation, it is found that tropical temperature variability in Earth system models is difficult to distinguish from variability generated by simple autocorrelation. By contrast, both forced and unforced Earth system models produce variability distinct from a simple autoregressive process over most high-latitude oceans. This new analysis of tropical paleoclimate records suggests that low-frequency variance dominates the temperature spectrum across the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans, but in many Earth system models, interannual variance dominates the simulated central and eastern tropical Pacific temperature spectrum, regardless of forcing. Tropical Pacific model spectra are compared to spectra from the instrumental record, but the short instrumental record likely cannot provide accurate multidecadal-centennial-scale variance estimates. In the coming decades, both forced and natural patterns of decade-century-scale variability will determine climate-related risks. Underestimating low-frequency temperature and precipitation variability may significantly alter our understanding of the projections of these climate impacts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8885-8912
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 1 2017


  • Climate variability
  • Decadal variability
  • Interannual variability
  • Multidecadal variability
  • Spectral analysis/models/distribution
  • Tropical variability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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