Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis

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Anthropogenic aerosols are short-lived and mostly produce negative radiative forcing.

  • The major sources of anthropogenic aerosols are fossil fuel and biomass burning. These sources are also linked to degradation of air quality and acid deposition.
  • Since the SAR, significant progress has been achieved in better characterising the direct radiative roles of different types of aerosols. Direct radiative forcing is estimated to be -0.4 Wm-2 for sulphate, -0.2 Wm-2 for biomass burning aerosols, -0.1 Wm-2 for fossil fuel organic carbon and +0.2 Wm-2 for fossil fuel black carbon aerosols. There is much less confidence in the ability to quantify the total aerosol direct effect, and its evolution over time, than that for the gases listed above. Aerosols also vary considerably by region and respond quickly to changes in emissions.
  • In addition to their direct radiative forcing, aerosols have an indirect radiative forcing through their effects on clouds. There is now more evidence for this indirect effect, which is negative, although of very uncertain magnitude.

Natural factors have made small contributions to radiative forcing over the past century.

  • The radiative forcing due to changes in solar irradiance for the period since 1750 is estimated to be about +0.3 Wm-2, most of which occurred during the first half of the 20th century. Since the late 1970s, satellite instruments have observed small oscillations due to the 11-year solar cycle. Mechanisms for the amplification of solar effects on climate have been proposed, but currently lack a rigorous theoretical or observational basis.
  • Stratospheric aerosols from explosive volcanic eruptions lead to negative forcing, which lasts a few years. Several major eruptions occurred in the periods 1880 to 1920 and 1960 to 1991.
  • The combined change in radiative forcing of the two major natural factors (solar variation and volcanic aerosols) is estimated to be negative for the past two, and possibly the past four, decades.

Confidence in the ability of models to project future climate has increased.

Figure 4: Simulating the Earth's temperature variations, and comparing the results to measured changes, can provide insight into the underlying causes of the major changes.

A climate model can be used to simulate the temperature changes that occur both from natural and anthropogenic causes. The simulations represented by the band in (a) were done with only natural forcings: solar variation and volcanic activity. Those encompassed by the band in (b) were done with anthropogenic forcings: greenhouse gases and an estimate of sulphate aerosols, and those encompassed by the band in (c) were done with both natural and anthropogenic forcings included. From (b), it can be seen that inclusion of anthropogenic forcings provides a plausible explanation for a substantial part of the observed temperature changes over the past century, but the best match with observations is obtained in (c) when both natural and anthropogenic factors are included. These results show that the forcings included are sufficient to explain the observed changes, but do not exclude the possibility that other forcings may also have contributed. The bands of model results presented here are for four runs from the same model. Similar results to those in (b) are obtained with other models with anthropogenic forcing. [Based upon Chapter 12, Figure 12.7]
Complex physically-based climate models are required to provide detailed estimates of feedbacks and of regional features. Such models cannot yet simulate all aspects of climate (e.g., they still cannot account fully for the observed trend in the surface-troposphere temperature difference since 1979) and there are particular uncertainties associated with clouds and their interaction with radiation and aerosols. Nevertheless, confidence in the ability of these models to provide useful projections of future climate has improved due to their demonstrated performance on a range of space and time-scales.
  • Understanding of climate processes and their incorporation in climate models have improved, including water vapour, sea-ice dynamics, and ocean heat transport.
  • Some recent models produce satisfactory simulations of current climate without the need for non-physical adjustments of heat and water fluxes at the ocean-atmosphere interface used in earlier models.
  • Simulations that include estimates of natural and anthropogenic forcing reproduce the observed large-scale changes in surface temperature over the 20th century (Figure 4). However, contributions from some additional processes and forcings may not have been included in the models. Nevertheless, the large-scale consistency between models and observations can be used to provide an independent check on projected warming rates over the next few decades under a given emissions scenario.
  • Some aspects of model simulations of ENSO, monsoons and the North Atlantic Oscillation, as well as selected periods of past climate, have improved.

There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.

The SAR concluded: "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate". That report also noted that the anthropogenic signal was still emerging from the background of natural climate variability. Since the SAR, progress has been made in reducing uncertainty, particularly with respect to distinguishing and quantifying the magnitude of responses to different external influences. Although many of the sources of uncertainty identified in the SAR still remain to some degree, new evidence and improved understanding support an updated conclusion.
  • There is a longer and more closely scrutinised temperature record and new model estimates of variability. The warming over the past 100 years is very unlikely7 to be due to internal variability alone, as estimated by current models. Reconstructions of climate data for the past 1,000 years ( Figure 1b) also indicate that this warming was unusual and is unlikely7 to be entirely natural in origin.
  • There are new estimates of the climate response to natural and anthropogenic forcing, and new detection techniques have been applied. Detection and attribution studies consistently find evidence for an anthropogenic signal in the climate record of the last 35 to 50 years.
  • Simulations of the response to natural forcings alone (i.e., the response to variability in solar irradiance and volcanic eruptions) do not explain the warming in the second half of the 20th century (see for example Figure 4a). However, they indicate that natural forcings may have contributed to the observed warming in the first half of the 20th century.
  • The warming over the last 50 years due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases can be identified despite uncertainties in forcing due to anthropogenic sulphate aerosol and natural factors (volcanoes and solar irradiance). The anthropogenic sulphate aerosol forcing, while uncertain, is negative over this period and therefore cannot explain the warming. Changes in natural forcing during most of this period are also estimated to be negative and are unlikely7 to explain the warming.
  • Detection and attribution studies comparing model simulated changes with the observed record can now take into account uncertainty in the magnitude of modelled response to external forcing, in particular that due to uncertainty in climate sensitivity.
  • Most of these studies find that, over the last 50 years, the estimated rate and magnitude of warming due to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases alone are comparable with, or larger than, the observed warming. Furthermore, most model estimates that take into account both greenhouse gases and sulphate aerosols are consistent with observations over this period.
  • The best agreement between model simulations and observations over the last 140 years has been found when all the above anthropogenic and natural forcing factors are combined, as shown in Figure 4c). These results show that the forcings included are sufficient to explain the observed changes, but do not exclude the possibility that other forcings may also have contributed.

In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely7 to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.

Furthermore, it is very likely7 that the 20th century warming has contributed significantly to the observed sea level rise, through thermal expansion of sea water and widespread loss of land ice. Within present uncertainties, observations and models are both consistent with a lack of significant acceleration of sea level rise during the 20th century.

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