Global warming

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Annual average global warming by the year 2060 simulated and plotted using EdGCM

Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of the Earth's near-surface air and oceans in recent decades and its projected continuation.

Global average air temperature near the Earth's surface rose 0.74 ± 0.18 °C (1.33 ± 0.32 °F) from 1906 to 2005. The prevailing scientific view, as represented by the science academies of the major industrialized nations[1] and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),[2] is that most of the temperature increase since the mid-20th century has been very likely caused by increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations produced by human activity.

Climate models project that avarage global surface temperatures are likely to increase by 1.1 to 6.4 °C (2.0 to 11.5 °F) by the end of the century, relative to 1980–1999.[2] The range of values reflects the use of differing assumptions of future greenhouse gas emissions and results of models that differ in their sensitivity to increases in greenhouse gases.[2]

An increase in global temperatures will in turn cause sea level rise, glacier retreat, melting of sea ice, and changes in the amount and pattern of precipitation. There may also be changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, though it is difficult to connect specific events to global warming. These changes to the climate will produce a range of practical effects, such as changes in agricultural yields and impacts on human health.

Remaining scientific uncertainties include the exact degree of climate change expected in the future, and how changes will vary from region to region around the globe. There is ongoing political and public debate regarding what, if any, action should be taken to reduce future warming or to adapt to its consequences. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, was adopted by 169 nations. Template:TOC-right


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) uses the term "climate change" for human-caused change, and "climate variability" for other changes.[3] The terms "anthropogenic global warming" and "anthropogenic climate change" are sometimes used when focusing on human-induced changes.


The climate system varies both through internal processes and in response to external forcing. External forcing includes solar activity, volcanic emissions, variations in Earth's orbit , and atmospheric composition. The scientific consensus[4] is that most of the warming observed since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activity. Some other hypotheses have been offered to explain most of the observed increase in global temperatures but these are not broadly supported in the scientific community. Among these are that the warming is caused by natural fluctuations in the climate, that warming is mainly a result of variations in solar radiation,[5] or that warming is caused by changes in cloud cover due to variations in galactic cosmic rays.[6]

The effects of forcing are not instantaneous. Due to the thermal inertia of the oceans and the slow responses of some feedback processes, Earth's climate is never in perfect equilibrium with the imposed forcing. Climate commitment studies indicate that even if greenhouse gases were stabilized at present day levels there would be a further warming of about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) as the climate continued to adjust toward equilibrium.[7]

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere

Existence of the greenhouse effect itself is not disputed. It is the process by which emission of infrared radiation by atmospheric gases warms a planet's atmosphere and surface. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases warm the Earth by about 33 °C (59 °F). Without this natural greenhouse effect, the average temperature of Earth would be about -18 °C (0 °F) making the planet uninhabitable.[8] The major natural greenhouse gases are water vapor, which causes about 36–70% of the greenhouse effect (not including clouds); carbon dioxide (CO2), which causes 9–26%; methane (CH4), which causes 4–9%; and ozone, which causes 3–7%.[9]

The present atmospheric concentration of CO2 is about 383 parts per million (ppm) by volume.[10] From geological evidence it is believed that CO2 values this high were last attained 20 million years ago.[11] About three-fourths of man-made CO2 emissions over the past 20 years have come from the burning of fossil fuels. Most of the rest is due to land-use change, mainly deforestation.[12] Measured trends in atmospheric composition and isotope ratios (namely the simultaneous depletion of 13C, 14C, and O2) confirm that the increased atmospheric CO2 mainly comes from fossil fuels and not from other sources such as volcanoes or the oceans.[13]

Future CO2 concentrations will depend on uncertain economic, sociological, technological, and natural developments. The IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios gives a wide range of future CO2 scenarios, ranging from 541 to 970 ppm by the year 2100.[14] Fossil fuel reserves are sufficient to reach these levels and continue emissions past 2100, if coal, tar sands, or methane clathrates are extensively used.[15] Positive feedback effects such as the release of methane from the melting of permafrost peat bogs in Siberia (possibly up to 70,000 million tonnes) may lead to significant additional sources of greenhouse gas emissions[16] not included in climate models cited by the IPCC.[2]


The effects of forcing agents on the climate are modified by feedback processes. One of the most important feedbacks is caused by the evaporation of water. Increased greenhouse gases from human activity cause a warming of the Earth's atmosphere and surface. The increased warmth in turn increases the evaporation of water into the atmosphere. Since water vapor itself is a greenhouse gas, this causes still more warming; the warming causes more water vapor to be evaporated, and so on. Eventually a new dynamic equilibrium concentration of water vapor is reached at a slight increase in humidity and with a much larger greenhouse effect than that due to CO2 alone.[17]

The radiative effects of clouds are a major source of uncertainty in climate projections. Seen from below, clouds emit infrared radiation to the surface, and so have a warming effect. Seen from above, clouds reflect sunlight and emit infrared radiation to space, and so have a cooling effect. The cloud feedback effect is influenced not only by the amount of clouds but also by their distribution; for example, high clouds are at colder temperatures than low clouds, and thus radiate less energy to space. Increased global water vapor content may or may not cause an increase in global or regional cloud cover, since cloud cover is affected by relative humidity rather than the absolute concentration of water vapor. Cloud feedback is second only to water vapor feedback and has been found to have a net warming effect in all the models that contributed to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.[17]

Another important process is ice-albedo feedback.[18] Warming of the Earth's surface leads to melting of ice near the poles. As the ice melts, land or open water takes its place. Both land and open water are on average less reflective than ice, and thus absorb more solar radiation. This causes more warming, which in turn causes more melting, and the cycle continues.

The ocean's ability to sequester carbon is expected to decline as it warms, because the resulting low nutrient levels of the mesopelagic zone limits the growth of diatoms in favor of smaller phytoplankton that are poorer biological pumps of carbon.[19]

Solar variation

It has been hypothesized that variations in solar output, possibly amplified by cloud feedbacks, may have been a secondary contributor to recent warming.[20] Natural phenomena, such as solar variation and volcanoes, probably had a net warming effect from pre-industrial times to 1950 and a small cooling effect since 1950.[21] Some research indicate that the Sun's contribution may have been underestimated. These results suggest that the Sun may have contributed about 40–50% of the global surface warming between 1900 and 2000 and about 25–35% of the warming between 1980 and 2000.[22] Stott and coauthors suggest that climate models overestimate the relative effect of greenhouse gases compared to solar forcing; they also suggest that the cooling effects of volcanic dust and sulfate aerosols have been underestimated.[23] Nevertheless, they conclude that even with an enhanced climate sensitivity to solar forcing, most of the warming during the latest decades is attributable to the increases in greenhouse gases.

Climate change since the Industrial Revolution

According to the instrumental temperature record, mean global temperatures (both land and sea) have increased by 0.75 °C (1.35 °F) relative to the period 1860–1900. This measured temperature increase is not significantly affected by the urban heat island effect.[24][25][26] Since 1979, land temperatures have increased about twice as fast as ocean temperatures (0.25 °C per decade against 0.13 °C per decade).[27] Temperatures in the lower troposphere have increased between 0.12 and 0.22 °C (0.22 and 0.4 °F) per decade since 1979, according to satellite temperature measurements. Temperature is believed to have been relatively stable over the one or two thousand years before 1850, with possibly regional fluctuations such as the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age.

Based on estimates by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, 2005 was the warmest year since reliable, widespread instrumental measurements became available in the late 1800s, exceeding the previous record set in 1998 by a few hundredths of a degree.[28] Estimates prepared by the World Meteorological Organization and the Climatic Research Unit concluded that 2005 was the second warmest year, behind 1998.[29][30] Global temperatures in 1998 were exceptionally warm because the strongest El Niño in the instrumental record occurred in that year.[31]

Anthropogenic emissions of other pollutants—notably sulfate aerosols—can exert a cooling effect by increasing the reflection of incoming sunlight. This partially accounts for the cooling seen in the temperature record in the middle of the twentieth century,[32] though the cooling may also be due in part to natural variability.

Climate models

Scientists have studied global warming with computer models of the climate. These models are based on physical principles of fluid dynamics, radiative transfer, and other processes, with some simplifications being necessary because of limitations in computer power. These models predict that the net effect of adding greenhouse gases is to produce a warmer climate. However, even when the same assumptions of fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emission are used, the amount of projected warming varies between models and there is a considerable range of climate sensitivity. Including uncertainties in future greenhouse gas concentrations and climate modeling, the IPCC report projects global surface temperatures averaged over 2090-2099 are likely to be 1.1 to 6.4 °C (2.0 to 11.5 °F) hotter than the average temperatures from 1980-1999.[2]

Models have also been used to help investigate the causes of recent climate change by comparing the observed changes to those that the models project from various natural and human derived causes. Climate models can produce a good match to observations of global temperature changes over the last century, but cannot yet simulate all aspects of climate.[33] These models do not unambiguously attribute the warming that occurred from approximately 1910 to 1945 to either natural variation or human effects; however, they suggest that the warming since 1975 is dominated by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.

Global climate model projections of future climate are forced by imposed greenhouse gas scenarios, generally one from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES). Less commonly, models may also include a simulation of the carbon cycle; this generally shows a positive feedback, though this response is uncertain (under the A2 SRES scenario, responses vary between an extra 20 and 200 ppm of CO2). Some observational studies also show a positive feedback.[34][35][36]

The representation of clouds is one of the main sources of uncertainty in present-generation models, though progress is being made on this problem.[37] There is also an ongoing discussion as to whether climate models are neglecting important indirect and feedback effects of solar variability.

Attributed and expected effects

Some effects on both the natural environment and human life are, at least in part, already being attributed to global warming. A 2001 report by the IPCC suggests that glacier retreat, ice shelf disruption such as the Larsen Ice Shelf, sea level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, and increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, are being attributed in part to global warming.[38] While changes are expected for overall patterns, intensity, and frequencies, it is difficult to attribute specific events to global warming. Other expected effects as a result of warmer temperatures include water scarcity in some regions and increased precipitation in others, changes in mountain snowpack, and adverse health effects.

Increasing deaths, displacements, and economic losses projected due to extreme weather attributed to global warming may be exacerbated by growing population densities in affected areas, although temperate regions are projected to experience some minor benefits, such as fewer deaths due to cold exposure.[39] A summary of probable effects and recent understanding can be found in the report made for the IPCC Third Assessment Report by Working Group II.[38] The newer IPCC Fourth Assessment Report summary reports that there is observational evidence for an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic Ocean since about 1970, in correlation with the increase in sea surface temperature, but that the detection of long-term trends is complicated by the quality of records prior to routine satellite observations. The summary also states that there is no clear trend in the annual worldwide number of tropical cyclones.[2]

Additional anticipated effects include sea level rise of 110 to 770 millimeters (0.36 to 2.5 ft) between 1990 and 2100,[40] repercussions to agriculture, possible slowing of the thermohaline circulation, reductions in the ozone layer, increased intensity and frequency of hurricanes and extreme weather events, lowering of ocean pH, and the spread of diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. One study predicts 18% to 35% of a sample of 1,103 animal and plant species would be extinct by 2050, based on future climate projections.[41] McLaughlin et al. have documented two populations of Bay checkerspot butterfly being threatened by precipitation change, though they state few mechanistic studies have documented extinctions due to recent climate change.[42]

Mitigation and adaptation

The broad agreement among climate scientists that global temperatures will continue to increase has led nations, states, corporations, and individuals to implement actions to try to curtail global warming or adjust to it. Many environmental groups encourage action against global warming, often by the consumer, but also by community and regional organizations. There has been business action on climate change, including efforts at increased energy efficiency and (still limited) moves to alternative fuels. One innovation has been the development of greenhouse gas emissions trading through which companies, in conjunction with government, agree to cap their emissions or to purchase credits from those below their allowances.

The world's primary international agreement on combating global warming is the Kyoto Protocol, an amendment to the UNFCCC, negotiated in 1997. The Protocol now covers more than 160 countries globally and over 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions.[43] The United States and Kazakhstan have not ratified the treaty. China and India, two other large emitters, have ratified the treaty but, as developing countries, are exempt from its provisions. This treaty expires in 2012, and international talks began in May 2007 on a future treaty to succeed the current one.[44]

The world's primary body for crafting a response is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-sponsored activity which holds periodic meetings between national delegations on the problems of global warming, and issues working papers and assessments on the current status of the science of climate change, impacts, and mitigation. It convenes four different working groups examining various specific issues.

Related climatic issues

A variety of issues are often raised in relation to global warming. One is ocean acidification. Increased atmospheric CO2 increases the amount of CO2 dissolved in the oceans.[45] CO2 dissolved in the ocean reacts with water to form carbonic acid resulting in acidification. Ocean surface pH is estimated to have decreased from approximately 8.25 to 8.14 since the beginning of the industrial era,[46] and it is estimated that it will drop by a further 0.14 to 0.5 units by 2100 as the ocean absorbs more CO2.[2][47] Since organisms and ecosystems are adapted to a narrow range of pH, this raises extinction concerns, directly driven by increased atmospheric CO2, that could disrupt food webs and impact human societies that depend on marine ecosystem services.[48]

Another related issue that may have partially mitigated global warming in the late twentieth century is global dimming, the gradual reduction in the amount of global direct irradiance at the Earth's surface. From 1960 to 1990, human-caused aerosols likely precipitated this effect. Scientists have stated with 66–90% confidence that the effects of human-caused aerosols, along with volcanic activity, have offset some of global warming, and that greenhouse gases would have resulted in more warming than observed if not for these dimming agents.[2]


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