Over the coming decades it is expected that the spatial pattern of anthropogenic aerosol will change dramatically and that the global composition of aerosols will become relatively more absorbing. However, despite this the climatic impact of the evolving spatial pattern of absorbing aerosol has received relatively little attention, in particular the impact of this pattern on global-mean effective radiative forcing. Here we use novel climate model experiments to show that the effective radiative forcing from absorbing aerosol varies strongly depending on their location, driven by rapid adjustments of clouds and circulation. Our experiments generate positive effective radiative forcing in response to aerosol absorption throughout the midlatitudes and most of the tropical regions and a strong ‘hot spot’ of negative effective radiative forcing in response to aerosol absorption over the Western tropical Pacific. We show that these diverse responses can be robustly attributed to changes in atmospheric dynamics and highlight the importance of this previously unknown ‘aerosol pattern effect’ for transient forcing from regional biomass-burning aerosol.