Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis

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F.6 Projections of Future Changes in Thermohaline Circulation

Most models show weakening of the Northern Hemisphere Thermohaline Circulation (THC), which contributes to a reduction of the surface warming in the northern North Atlantic. Even in models where the THC weakens, there is still a warming over Europe due to increased greenhouse gases. In experiments where the atmospheric greenhouse gas concentration is stabilised at twice its present day value, the North Atlantic THC is projected to recover from initial weakening within one to several centuries. The THC could collapse entirely in either hemisphere if the rate of change in radiative forcing is large enough and applied long enough. Models indicate that a decrease of the THC reduces its resilience to perturbations, i.e., a once reduced THC appears to be less stable and a shut-down can become more likely. However, it is too early to say with confidence whether an irreversible collapse in the THC is likely or not, or at what threshold it might occur and what the climate implications could be. None of the current projections with coupled models exhibits a complete shut-down of the THC by 2100. Although the North Atlantic THC weakens in most models, the relative roles of surface heat and fresh water fluxes vary from model to model. Wind stress changes appear to play only a minor role in the transient response.

F.7 Projections of Future Changes in Modes of Natural Variability

Many models show a mean El Niño-like response in the tropical Pacific, with the central and eastern equatorial Pacific sea surface temperatures projected to warm more than the western equatorial Pacific and with a corresponding mean eastward shift of precipitation. Although many models show an El Niño-like change of the mean state of tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures, the cause is uncertain. It has been related to changes in the cloud radiative forcing and/or evaporative damping of the east-west sea surface temperature gradient in some models. Confidence in projections of changes in future frequency, amplitude, and spatial pattern of El Niño events in the tropical Pacific is tempered by some shortcomings in how well El Niño is simulated in complex models. Current projections show little change or a small increase in amplitude for El Niño events over the next 100 years. However, even with little or no change in El Niño amplitude, global warming is likely to lead to greater extremes of drying and heavy rainfall and increase the risk of droughts and floods that occur with El Niño events in many regions. It also is likely that warming associated with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations will cause an increase of Asian summer monsoon precipitation variability. Changes in monsoon mean duration and strength depend on the details of the emission scenario. The confidence in such projections is limited by how well the climate models simulate the detailed seasonal evolution of the monsoons. There is no clear agreement on changes in frequency or structure of naturally occurring modes of variability, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, i.e., the magnitude and character of the changes vary across the models.

F.8 Projections of Future Changes in Land Ice (Glaciers, Ice Caps and Ice Sheets), Sea Ice and Snow Cover

Glaciers and ice caps will continue their widespread retreat during the 21st century and Northern Hemisphere snow cover and sea ice are projected to decrease further. Methods have been developed recently for estimating glacier melt from seasonally and geographically dependent patterns of surface air temperature change, that are obtained from AOGCM experiments. Modelling studies suggest that the evolution of glacial mass is controlled principally by temperature changes, rather than precipitation changes, on the global average.

The Antarctic ice sheet is likely to gain mass because of greater precipitation, while the Greenland ice sheet is likely to lose mass because the increase in runoff will exceed the precipitation increase. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) has attracted special attention because it contains enough ice to raise sea level by 6 m and because of suggestions that instabilities associated with its being grounded below sea level may result in rapid ice discharge when the surrounding ice shelves are weakened. However, loss of grounded ice leading to substantial sea level rise from this source is now widely agreed to be very unlikely during the 21st century, although its dynamics are still inadequately understood, especially for projections on longer time-scales.

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