Articles | Volume 11, issue 6
The Cryosphere, 11, 2919–2942, 2017

Special issue: Interactions between climate change and the Cryosphere: SVALI,...

The Cryosphere, 11, 2919–2942, 2017

Research article 13 Dec 2017

Research article | 13 Dec 2017

Effects of snow grain shape on climate simulations: sensitivity tests with the Norwegian Earth System Model

Petri Räisänen1, Risto Makkonen2, Alf Kirkevåg3, and Jens B. Debernard3 Petri Räisänen et al.
  • 1Finnish Meteorological Institute, P.O. Box 503, 00101 Helsinki, Finland
  • 2Dept. of Physics, University of Helsinki, P.O. Box 64, 00014 University of Helsinki, Finland
  • 3Norwegian Meteorological Institute, P.O. Box 43, Blindern, 0313 Oslo, Norway

Abstract. Snow consists of non-spherical grains of various shapes and sizes. Still, in radiative transfer calculations, snow grains are often treated as spherical. This also applies to the computation of snow albedo in the Snow, Ice, and Aerosol Radiation (SNICAR) model and in the Los Alamos sea ice model, version 4 (CICE4), both of which are employed in the Community Earth System Model and in the Norwegian Earth System Model (NorESM). In this study, we evaluate the effect of snow grain shape on climate simulated by NorESM in a slab ocean configuration of the model. An experiment with spherical snow grains (SPH) is compared with another (NONSPH) in which the snow shortwave single-scattering properties are based on a combination of three non-spherical snow grain shapes optimized using measurements of angular scattering by blowing snow. The key difference between these treatments is that the asymmetry parameter is smaller in the non-spherical case (0.77–0.78 in the visible region) than in the spherical case ( ≈  0.89). Therefore, for the same effective snow grain size (or equivalently, the same specific projected area), the snow broadband albedo is higher when assuming non-spherical rather than spherical snow grains, typically by 0.02–0.03. Considering the spherical case as the baseline, this results in an instantaneous negative change in net shortwave radiation with a global-mean top-of-the-model value of ca. −0.22 W m−2. Although this global-mean radiative effect is rather modest, the impacts on the climate simulated by NorESM are substantial. The global annual-mean 2 m air temperature in NONSPH is 1.17 K lower than in SPH, with substantially larger differences at high latitudes. The climatic response is amplified by strong snow and sea ice feedbacks. It is further demonstrated that the effect of snow grain shape could be largely offset by adjusting the snow grain size. When assuming non-spherical snow grains with the parameterized grain size increased by ca. 70 %, the climatic differences to the SPH experiment become very small. Finally, the impact of assumed snow grain shape on the radiative effects of absorbing aerosols in snow is discussed.

Short summary
While snow grains are non-spherical, spheres are often assumed in radiation calculations. Here, we replace spherical snow grains with non-spherical snow grains in a climate model. This leads to a somewhat higher snow albedo (by 0.02–0.03), increased snow and sea ice cover, and a distinctly colder climate (by over 1 K in the global mean). It also impacts the radiative effects of aerosols in snow. Overall, this work highlights the important role of snow albedo parameterization for climate models.