Current Climate Change

Global Warming and Rising CO2

Global average surface temperatures have increased markedly over the last century (Figure 1). Humans have been measuring temperature directly since the mid- 1800's; these measurements show that temperature increased by 1.33°F (0.74°C ) between 1906 and 2005, and that the rate of warming is increasing (IPCC 2007a Ch.3). The decade from January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade during this time period (NASA 2011). Although 1.33°F may not seem like a large temperature change, on a global scale this has huge implications for many of the earth's processes that affect ecosystems and humans. To put the number in perspective, many scientists think that temperature increases in excess of 3.6°F (2.0°C) relative to 1980-1999 will result in 'dangerous' climate change; others say that even lesser increases would be enough to create outcomes dangerous to human civilization (Anderson & Bows, 2011).

Global Temperature Anomalies

Figure 1 - Global temperature trend from 1880 to present, compared to a base period of 1951-
1980. Global temperatures continue to rise, with the decade from 2000 to 2009 as the warmest on
record. Source: NASA/Earth Observatory/Robert Simmon

Excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are a measureable and significant contributor to global warming, and their concentrations have steadily increased over the past century (IPCC 2007). Carbon dioxide (CO2) , the most important greenhouse gas in terms of climate change, has been measured directly since 1958. Additionally, atmospheric levels of CO2 can be reconstructed for hundreds of thousands of years into the past using methods such as analyzing air bubbles trapped in ice. CO2 concentration in late 2011 was at 391 parts per million, a level that is higher than at any point during the past 800,000 years (Global Carbon Project 2011; Figure 2). Growth rates of atmospheric CO2 are still high, with 2010 experiencing one of the largest annual growth rates of the past decade (Global Carbon Project 2011).

Trends in Atmospheric CO<sub />2 and Global Surface Temperature

Figure 2 - Human society is entering uncharted territory as atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases
continue to rise. Today's carbon dioxide levels are substantially higher than anything that has occurred for more than 800,000 years (last 400,000 years pictured here). Source: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

Climate Change

For an animated look at how CO2 concentrations have changed over the last 800,000 years, see this video created by the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory

Rising global temperatures are causing the Earth's climate patterns to change. Climate can be defined as the "average weather," or the average long-term (multi-decadal) meteorological conditions and patterns for a given area. Changes in climate that are occurring as the planet warms include seasonal and regional changes in temperature and precipitation, (USGCRP 2009, IPCC 2007a Ch.3), and increasing extreme weather events (IPCC 2011). As an example, precipitation from 1900 to 2005 increased significantly in some areas (eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia), and declined in other regions during the same time period (the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia - IPCC 2007a Ch.3).

In conjunction with climate change, during the 20th century there has been a nearly worldwide reduction in glacial mass and extent, a decrease in snow cover in many Northern Hemisphere regions, a decrease in Arctic sea ice thickness and extent, a decrease in the length of river and lake ice seasons, permafrost warming (IPCC 2007a Ch.4), warmer ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels (IPCC 2007a Ch.5), among other observed changes (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3 - Observed changes in temperature, sea level, and Northern Hemisphere
snow cover for March-April. All differences are relative to averages for the period 1961-1990. The shaded areas represent the possible range. Source: IPCC 2007b

For up-to-date information on temperature, carbon dioxide, and other indicators of a warming planet, see the NASA Global Climate Change - Key Indicators page

Need more information?

See the following primers and resources for more introductory information on climate change.

Climate Change Resource Center:
FAQs

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:
Facts and Figures
FAQs
Climate Change 101 Series

United States Global Change Research Program:
Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

The US EPA
Climate Change Science Facts

NASA Earth Observatory
Global Warming - (navigate in right hand menu).
World of Change: Global Temperatures

 

References

Anderson A.; Bows, A. 2011. Beyond 'dangerous' climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 20-44.

Bond, G.; Kromer, B.; Beer, J.; Muscheler, R.; Evans, M.; Showers, W.; Hoffmann, S.; Lotti-Bond, R.; Hajdas, I.; Bonani, G. 2001. Persistent solar influence on North Atlantic climate during the Holocene. Science. 294: 2130-2136.

Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC). 2011. Recent Greenhouse Gas Concentrations. (Accessed 12-8-2011)

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2E). 2012. Long Term Trends in Carbon Dioxide and Surface Temperature. (Accessed 1-9-2012).

Deser, C.; Alexander, M.A.; Xie, S.P.; Phillips, A.S. 2010. Sea Surface Temperature Variability: Patterns and Mechanisms. Annual Review of Marine Science. 2: 115-143.

Global Carbon Project. 2011. Carbon budget and trends 2010. (Accessed 12-8-2011)

Hansen, J.E. 2003. Can we defuse the global warming time bomb? (Accessed 12-8-2011)

Held, I.M.; Soden, B.J. 2000. Water vapor feedback and global warming. Annual Review of Energy and the Environment. 25:441-475.

Huber, M.; Knutti, R. 2011. Anthropogenic and natural warming inferred from changes in Earth's energy balance. Nature Geoscience. Advance Online Publication.

Lean, J. 2010. Cycles and trends in solar irradiance and climate. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 1: 111-122.

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). 2007. Overview of the ENSO System. (Accessed 12-8-2011)

The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI). 2008. Global Effects of ENSO. (Accessed 12-8-2011). Formerly available at: http://iri.columbia.edu/climate/ENSO/globalimpact/temp_precip/index.html

Mann, M.E.; Zhang, Z.; Rutherford, S.; Bradley, R.S.; Hughes, M.K.; Shindell, D.; Ammann, C.; Faluvegi, G.; Ni, F. 2009. Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly. Science. 27 (326): 1256-1260.

NASA - Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 2011. NASA Research Finds 2010 Tied for Warmest Year on Record. Research News.

IPCC, 2000: IPCC Special Report: Emissions Scenarios. Nakicenovic, N.; Swart, R. (Eds.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 570 pp.

IPCC, 2007a: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S.; Qin, D.; Manning, M.; Chen, Z.; Marquis, M.; Averyt, K.B.; Tignor, M.; Miller, H.L. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

IPCC, 2007b: Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K.; Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 104 pp.

IPCC, 2011: Summary for Policymakers. In: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation [Field, C. B.; Barros, V.; Stocker, T.F.; Qin, D.; Dokken, D.; Ebi, K.L.; Mastrandrea, M. D.; Mach, K. J.; Plattner, G.K.; Allen, S.; Tignor, M.; Midgley, P. M. (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA.

Ramanathan, V.; Feng, Y. 2009. Air pollution, greenhouse gases and climate change: Global and regional perspectives. Atmospheric Environment. 43: 37-50.

Tyndal J. 1861. On the absorption and radiation of heat by gases and vapours, and on the physical connexion of radiation, absorption, and conduction. Philosophical Magazine. 22:169-94, 273-85

United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). 2009. Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. Karl, T.R.; Melillo, J.M.; Peterson, T.C. (eds). Cambridge University Press.

Wanner, H.; Beer, J.; Butikofer, J.; Crowley, T.J.; Cubasch, U.; Fluckiger, J.; Goosse, H.; Grosjean, M.; Joos, F.; Kaplan, J.O.; Kuttel,M.; Muller, S.A.; Prentice, C.; Solomina, O.; Stocker, T.F.; Tarasov, P.; Wagner,M.; Widmann, M. 2008. Mid- to Late Holocene climate change: an overview. Quaternary Science Reviews. 27: 1791-1828.

Wolff, E.W. 2011. Greenhouse gases in the Earth system: a palaeoclimate perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 369: 2133-2147.

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