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New Results on the Thermodynamic Properties of the Climate System

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Lucarini, V., Fraedrich, K., & Ragone, F. (2011). New Results on the Thermodynamic Properties of the Climate System. JOURNAL OF THE ATMOSPHERIC SCIENCES, 68(10), 2438-2458. doi:10.1175/2011JAS3713.1.

In this paper the authors exploit two equivalent formulations of the average rate of material entropy production in the climate system to propose an approximate splitting between contributions due to vertical and eminently horizontal processes. This approach is based only on 2 D radiative fields at the surface and at the top of atmosphere. Using 2D fields at the top of atmosphere alone, lower bounds to the rate of material entropy production and to the intensity of the Lorenz energy cycle are derived. By introducing a measure of the efficiency of the planetary system with respect to horizontal thermodynamic processes, it is possible to gain insight into a previous intuition on the possibility of defining a baroclinic heat engine extracting work from the meridional heat flux. The approximate formula of the material entropy production is verified and used for studying the global thermodynamic properties of climate models (CMs) included in the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI)/phase 3 of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP3) dataset in preindustrial climate conditions. It is found that about 90% of the material entropy production is due to vertical processes such as convection, whereas the large-scale meridional heat transport contributes to only about 10% of the total. This suggests that the traditional two-box models used for providing a minimal representation of entropy production in planetary systems are not appropriate, whereas a basic but conceptually correct description can be framed in terms of a four-box model. The total material entropy production is typically 55 mW m(-2) K(-1), with discrepancies on the order of 5%, and CMs' baroclinic efficiencies are clustered around 0.055. The lower bounds on the intensity of the Lorenz energy cycle featured by CMs are found to be around 1.0-1.5 W m(-2), which implies that the derived inequality is rather stringent. When looking at the variability and covariability of the considered thermodynamic quantities, the agreement among CMs is worse, suggesting that the description of feedbacks is more uncertain. The contributions to material entropy production from vertical and horizontal processes are positively correlated, so that no compensation mechanism seems in place. Quite consistently among CMs, the variability of the efficiency of the system is a better proxy for variability of the entropy production due to horizontal processes than that of the large-scale heat flux. The possibility of providing constraints on the 3D dynamics of the fluid envelope based only on 2D observations of radiative fluxes seems promising for the observational study of planets and for testing numerical models.