|Working Group I: The Scientific Basis|
|Other reports in this collection|
1.3 Human-induced Climate Variations
1.3.1 Human Influence on the Climate System
Human beings, like other living organisms, have always influenced their environment. It is only since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mid-18th century, that the impact of human activities has begun to extend to a much larger scale, continental or even global. Human activities, in particular those involving the combustion of fossil fuels for industrial or domestic usage, and biomass burning, produce greenhouse gases and aerosols which affect the composition of the atmosphere. The emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other chlorine and bromine compounds has not only an impact on the radiative forcing, but has also led to the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer. Land-use change, due to urbanisation and human forestry and agricultural practices, affect the physical and biological properties of the Earth’s surface. Such effects change the radiative forcing and have a potential impact on regional and global climate.
Anthropogenic perturbation of the atmospheric composition
Chlorofluorocarbons and some other halogen compounds do not occur naturally in the atmosphere but have been introduced by human activities. Beside their depleting effect on the stratospheric ozone layer, they are strong greenhouse gases. Their greenhouse effect is only partly compensated for by the depletion of the ozone layer which causes a negative forcing of the surface-troposphere system. All these gases, except tropospheric ozone and its precursors, have long to very long atmospheric lifetimes and therefore become well-mixed throughout the atmosphere.
Human industrial, energy related, and land-use activities also increase the amount of aerosol in the atmosphere, in the form of mineral dust, sulphates and nitrates and soot. Their atmospheric lifetime is short because they are removed by rain. As a result their concentrations are highest near their sources and vary substantially regionally, with global consequences. The increases in greenhouse gas concentrations and aerosol content in the atmosphere result in a change in the radiative forcing to which the climate system must act to restore the radiative balance.
The enhanced greenhouse effect
If the amount of carbon dioxide were doubled instantaneously, with everything else remaining the same, the outgoing infrared radiation would be reduced by about 4 Wm-2. In other words, the radiative forcing corresponding to a doubling of the CO2 concentration would be 4 Wm-2. To counteract this imbalance, the temperature of the surface-troposphere system would have to increase by 1.2°C (with an accuracy of ±10%), in the absence of other changes. In reality, due to feedbacks, the response of the climate system is much more complex. It is believed that the overall effect of the feedbacks amplifies the temperature increase to 1.5 to 4.5°C. A significant part of this uncertainty range arises from our limited knowledge of clouds and their interactions with radiation. To appreciate the magnitude of this temperature increase, it should be compared with the global mean temperature difference of perhaps 5 or 6°C from the middle of the last Ice Age to the present interglacial.
The so-called water vapour feedback, caused by an increase in atmospheric water vapour due to a temperature increase, is the most important feedback responsible for the amplification of the temperature increase. Concern has been expressed about the strength of this feedback, in particular in relation to the role of upper tropospheric humidity. Since the SAR, thinking about this feedback has become increasingly sophisticated thanks both to modelling and to observational studies. Feedbacks are discussed and assessed in Chapter 7. In particular, the present state of knowledge of the water vapour feedback is examined in Section 7.2.1.
It has been suggested that the absorption by CO2 is already saturated so that an increase would have no effect. This, however, is not the case. Carbon dioxide absorbs infrared radiation in the middle of its 15 mm band to the extent that radiation in the middle of this band cannot escape unimpeded: this absorption is saturated. This, however, is not the case for the band’s wings. It is because of these effects of partial saturation that the radiative forcing is not proportional to the increase in the carbon dioxide concentration but shows a logarithmic dependence. Every further doubling adds an additional 4 Wm-2 to the radiative forcing.
The other human-made greenhouse gases add to the effect of increased carbon dioxide. Their total effect at the surface is often expressed in terms of the effect of an equivalent increase in carbon dioxide.
The effect of aerosols
Aerosols may also affect the number, density and size of cloud droplets. This may change the amount and optical properties of clouds, and hence their reflection and absorption. It may also have an impact on the formation of precipitation. As discussed in Chapter 5, these are potentially important indirect effects of aerosols, resulting probably in a negative radiative forcing of as yet very uncertain magnitude.
It is now recognized that land-use change on the present scale may contribute significantly to changing the local, regional or even global climate and moreover has an important impact on the carbon cycle. Physical processes and feedbacks caused by land-use change, that may have an impact on the climate, include changes in albedo and surface roughness, and the exchange between land and atmosphere of water vapour and greenhouse gases. These climatic consequences of land-use change are discussed and evaluated in Section 4 of Chapter 7. Land-use change may also affect the climate system through biological processes and feedbacks involving the terrestrial vegetation, which may lead to changes in the sources and sinks of carbon in its various forms. Chapter 3 reviews the consequences for the carbon cycle. Obviously the combined effect of these physical and biogeochemical processes and feedbacks is complex, but new data sets and models start to shed light on this.
Urbanisation is another kind of land-use change. This may affect the local wind climate through its influence on the surface roughness. It may also create a local climate substantially warmer than the surrounding countryside by the heat released by densely populated human settlements, by changes in evaporation characteristics and by modifying the outgoing long-wave radiation through interception by tall buildings etc. This is known as an “urban heat island”. The influence on the regional climate may be noticeable but small. It may however have a significant influence on long instrumental temperature records from stations affected by expanding urbanisation. The consequences of this urbanisation effect for the global surface temperature record has been the subject of debate. It is discussed in Section 2.2.2 of Chapter 2.
The only means available to quantify the non-linear climate response is by using numerical models of the climate system based on well-established physical, chemical and biological principles, possibly combined with empirical and statistical methods.
Other reports in this collection