In this post, I’ll revisit the simple two-layer column model described in the last post. This time we’ll use the model as a way to start thinking about the way we define “climate feedback.”

The top-of-the-atmosphere energy budget has been the vehicle we’ve employed in order to explore how planets come into equilibrium with radiation from their stellar host, and here we wish to further investigate how that equilibrium is obtained. It follows that we ought to be interested in how the outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) varies with surface temperature. By now, you are hopefully familiar with the fact that increasing emissivity (i.e., the greenhouse effect) in the atmospheric column will reduce OLR by shifting the mean emission height to higher, colder levels (keeping temperatures held fixed). We call this radiative forcing, or the instantaneous effect of the increase in column absorption on emission to space. Furthermore, we also know that the temperatures must then increase in order for the OLR to return to its original value. We’ll assume that shortwave absorption by the planet is unchanged, so the OLR (at equilibrium) in the “perturbed emissivity” climate is exactly identical to the value in the unperturbed climate. That zero anomaly in OLR can thus be decomposed into two parts- the radiative forcing that decreased OLR, and an equal but opposite flux that arises from all changes that occurred in the column to get back to equilibrium. It is the latter we’d like to further diagnose, and hopefully make contact with how scientists actually use models operationally in order to quantify feedbacks.