IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

Glossary A-D

8.2ka event Following the last post-glacial warming, a rapid climate oscillation with a cooling lasting about 400 years occurred about 8.2 ka. This event is also referred to as the 8.2kyr event.

Abrupt climate change The nonlinearity of the climate system may lead to abrupt climate change, sometimes called rapid climate change, abrupt events or even surprises. The term abrupt often refers to time scales faster than the typical time scale of the responsible forcing. However, not all abrupt climate changes need be externally forced. Some possible abrupt events that have been proposed include a dramatic reorganisation of the thermohaline circulation, rapid deglaciation and massive melting of permafrost or increases in soil respiration leading to fast changes in the carbon cycle. Others may be truly unexpected, resulting from a strong, rapidly changing forcing of a nonlinear system.

Active layer The layer of ground that is subject to annual thawing and freezing in areas underlain by permafrost (Van Everdingen, 1998).

Adiabatic process An adiabatic process is a process in which no external heat is gained or lost by the system. The opposite is called a diabatic process.

Adjustment time See Lifetime; see also Response time.

Advection Transport of water or air along with its properties (e.g., temperature, chemical tracers) by the motion of the fluid. Regarding the general distinction between advection and convection, the former describes the predominantly horizontal, large-scale motions of the atmosphere or ocean, while convection describes the predominantly vertical, locally induced motions.

Aerosols A collection of airborne solid or liquid particles, with a typical size between 0.01 and 10 µm that reside in the atmosphere for at least several hours. Aerosols may be of either natural or anthropogenic origin. Aerosols may influence climate in several ways: directly through scattering and absorbing radiation, and indirectly by acting as cloud condensation nuclei or modifying the optical properties and lifetime of clouds (see Indirect aerosol effect).

Afforestation Planting of new forests on lands that historically have not contained forests. For a discussion of the term forest and related terms such as afforestation, reforestation and deforestation, see the IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (IPCC, 2000). See also the report on Definitions and Methodological Options to Inventory Emissions from Direct Human-induced Degradation of Forests and Devegetation of Other Vegetation Types (IPCC, 2003).

Air mass A widespread body of air, the approximately homogeneous properties of which (1) have been established while that air was situated over a particular region of the Earth’s surface, and (2) undergo specific modifications while in transit away from the source region (AMS, 2000).

Albedo The fraction of solar radiation reflected by a surface or object, often expressed as a percentage. Snow-covered surfaces have a high albedo, the surface albedo of soils ranges from high to low, and vegetation-covered surfaces and oceans have a low albedo. The Earth’s planetary albedo varies mainly through varying cloudiness, snow, ice, leaf area and land cover changes.

Albedo feedback A climate feedback involving changes in the Earth’s albedo. It usually refers to changes in the cryosphere, which has an albedo much larger (~0.8) than the average planetary albedo (~0.3). In a warming climate, it is anticipated that the cryosphere would shrink, the Earth’s overall albedo would decrease and more solar radiation would be absorbed to warm the Earth still further.

Alkalinity A measure of the capacity of a solution to neutralize acids.

Altimetry A technique for measuring the height of the sea, lake or river, land or ice surface with respect to the centre of the Earth within a defined terrestrial reference frame. More conventionally, the height is with respect to a standard reference ellipsoid approximating the Earth’s oblateness, and can be measured from space by using radar or laser with centimetric precision at present. Altimetry has the advantages of being a geocentric measurement, rather than a measurement relative to the Earth’s crust as for a tide gauge, and of affording quasi-global coverage.

Annular modes Preferred patterns of change in atmospheric circulation corresponding to changes in the zonally averaged mid-latitude westerlies. The Northern Annular Mode has a bias to the North Atlantic and has a large correlation with the North Atlantic Oscillation. The Southern Annular Mode occurs in the Southern Hemisphere. The variability of the mid-latitude westerlies has also been known as zonal flow (or wind) vacillation, and defined through a zonal index. For the corresponding circulation indices, see Box 3.4.

Anthropogenic Resulting from or produced by human beings.

Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO) A multi-decadal (65 to 75 year) fluctuation in the North Atlantic, in which sea surface temperatures showed warm phases during roughly 1860 to 1880 and 1930 to 1960 and cool phases during 1905 to 1925 and 1970 to 1990 with a range of order 0.4°C.

Atmosphere The gaseous envelope surrounding the Earth. The dry atmosphere consists almost entirely of nitrogen (78.1% volume mixing ratio) and oxygen (20.9% volume mixing ratio), together with a number of trace gases, such as argon (0.93% volume mixing ratio), helium and radiatively active greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide (0.035% volume mixing ratio) and ozone. In addition, the atmosphere contains the greenhouse gas water vapour, whose amounts are highly variable but typically around 1% volume mixing ratio. The atmosphere also contains clouds and aerosols.

Atmospheric boundary layer The atmospheric layer adjacent to the Earth’s surface that is affected by friction against that boundary surface, and possibly by transport of heat and other variables across that surface (AMS, 2000). The lowest 10 metres or so of the boundary layer, where mechanical generation of turbulence is dominant, is called the surface boundary layer or surface layer.

Atmospheric lifetime See Lifetime.

Attribution See Detection and attribution.

Autotrophic respiration Respiration by photosynthetic organisms (plants).

Bayesian method A Bayesian method is a method by which a statistical analysis of an unknown or uncertain quantity is carried out in two steps. First, a prior probability distribution is formulated on the basis of existing knowledge (either by eliciting expert opinion or by using existing data and studies). At this first stage, an element of subjectivity may influence the choice, but in many cases, the prior probability distribution is chosen as neutrally as possible, in order not to influence the final outcome of the analysis. In the second step, newly acquired data are introduced, using a theorem formulated by and named after the British mathematician Bayes (1702–1761), to update the prior distribution into a posterior distribution.

Biomass The total mass of living organisms in a given area or volume; dead plant material can be included as dead biomass.

Biome A biome is a major and distinct regional element of the biosphere, typically consisting of several ecosystems (e.g. forests, rivers, ponds, swamps within a region). Biomes are characterised by typical communities of plants and animals.

Biosphere (terrestrial and marine) The part of the Earth system comprising all ecosystems and living organisms, in the atmosphere, on land (terrestrial biosphere) or in the oceans (marine biosphere), including derived dead organic matter, such as litter, soil organic matter and oceanic detritus.

Black carbon (BC) Operationally defined aerosol species based on measurement of light absorption and chemical reactivity and/or thermal stability; consists of soot, charcoal and/or possible light-absorbing refractory organic matter (Charlson and Heintzenberg, 1995, p. 401).

Blocking anticyclone An anticyclone that remains nearly stationary for a week or more at middle to high latitudes, so that it blocks the normal eastward progression of high- and low-pressure systems.

Bowen ratio The ratio of sensible to latent heat fluxes from the Earth’s surface up into the atmosphere. Values are low (order 0.1) for wet surfaces like the ocean, and greater than 2 for deserts and drought regions.

Burden The total mass of a gaseous substance of concern in the atmosphere.

13 Stable isotope of carbon having an atomic weight of approximately 13. Measurements of the ratio of 13C/12C in carbon dioxide molecules are used to infer the importance of different carbon cycle and climate processes and the size of the terrestrial carbon reservoir.

14 Unstable isotope of carbon having an atomic weight of approximately 14, and a half-life of about 5,700 years. It is often used for dating purposes going back some 40 kyr. Its variation in time is affected by the magnetic fields of the Sun and Earth, which influence its production from cosmic rays (see Cosmogenic isotopes).

C3 plants Plants that produce a three-carbon compound during photosynthesis, including most trees and agricultural crops such as rice, wheat, soybeans, potatoes and vegetables.

C4 plants Plants that produce a four-carbon compound during photosynthesis, mainly of tropical origin, including grasses and the agriculturally important crops maize, sugar cane, millet and sorghum.

Carbonaceous aerosol Aerosol consisting predominantly of organic substances and various forms of black carbon (Charlson and Heintzenberg, 1995, p. 401).

Carbon cycle The term used to describe the flow of carbon (in various forms, e.g., as carbon dioxide) through the atmosphere, ocean, terrestrial biosphere and lithosphere.

Carbon dioxide (CO2 A naturally occurring gas, also a by-product of burning fossil fuels from fossil carbon deposits, such as oil, gas and coal, of burning biomass and of land use changes and other industrial processes. It is the principal anthropogenic greenhouse gas that affects the Earth’s radiative balance. It is the reference gas against which other greenhouse gases are measured and therefore has a Global Warming Potential of 1.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) fertilization The enhancement of the growth of plants as a result of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration. Depending on their mechanism of photosynthesis, certain types of plants are more sensitive to changes in atmospheric CO2 concentration. In particular, C3 plants generally show a larger response to CO2 than C4 plants.

CFC See Halocarbons.

Chaos A dynamical system such as the climate system, governed by nonlinear deterministic equations (see Nonlinearity), may exhibit erratic or chaotic behaviour in the sense that very small changes in the initial state of the system in time lead to large and apparently unpredictable changes in its temporal evolution. Such chaotic behaviour may limit the predictability of nonlinear dynamical systems.

Charcoal Material resulting from charring of biomass, usually retaining some of the microscopic texture typical of plant tissues; chemically it consists mainly of carbon with a disturbed graphitic structure, with lesser amounts of oxygen and hydrogen (Charlson and Heintzenberg, 1995, p. 402). See Black carbon; Soot.

Chronology Arrangement of events according to dates or times of occurrence.

Clathrate (methane) A partly frozen slushy mix of methane gas and ice, usually found in sediments.

Climate Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the average weather, or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands or millions of years. The classical period for averaging these variables is 30 years, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization. The relevant quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical description, of the climate system. In various chapters in this report different averaging periods, such as a period of 20 years, are also used.

Climate change Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings, or to persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use. Note that the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), in its Article 1, defines climate change as: ‘a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods’. The UNFCCC thus makes a distinction between climate change attributable to human activities altering the atmospheric composition, and climate variability attributable to natural causes. See also Climate variability; Detection and Attribution.

Climate change commitment Due to the thermal inertia of the ocean and slow processes in the biosphere, the cryosphere and land surfaces, the climate would continue to change even if the atmospheric composition were held fixed at today’s values. Past change in atmospheric composition leads to a committed climate change, which continues for as long as a radiative imbalance persists and until all components of the climate system have adjusted to a new state. The further change in temperature after the composition of the atmosphere is held constant is referred to as the constant composition temperature commitment or simply committed warming or warming commitment. Climate change commitment includes other future changes, for example in the hydrological cycle, in extreme weather and climate events, and in sea level change.

Climate feedback An interaction mechanism between processes in the climate system is called a climate feedback when the result of an initial process triggers changes in a second process that in turn influences the initial one. A positive feedback intensifies the original process, and a negative feedback reduces it.

Climate Feedback Parameter A way to quantify the radiative response of the climate system to a global surface temperature change induced by a radiative forcing (units: W m–2 °C–1). It varies as the inverse of the effective climate sensitivity. Formally, the Climate Feedback Parameter (Λ) is defined as: Λ = (ΔQ – ΔF) / ΔT, where Q is the global mean radiative forcing, T is the global mean air surface temperature, F is the heat flux into the ocean and Δ represents a change with respect to an unperturbed climate.

Climate model (spectrum or hierarchy) A numerical representation of the climate system based on the physical, chemical and biological properties of its components, their interactions and feedback processes, and accounting for all or some of its known properties. The climate system can be represented by models of varying complexity, that is, for any one component or combination of components a spectrum or hierarchy of models can be identified, differing in such aspects as the number of spatial dimensions, the extent to which physical, chemical or biological processes are explicitly represented, or the level at which empirical parametrizations are involved. Coupled Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs) provide a representation of the climate system that is near the most comprehensive end of the spectrum currently available. There is an evolution towards more complex models with interactive chemistry and biology (see Chapter 8). Climate models are applied as a research tool to study and simulate the climate, and for operational purposes, including monthly, seasonal and interannual climate predictions.

Climate prediction A climate prediction or climate forecast is the result of an attempt to produce an estimate of the actual evolution of the climate in the future, for example, at seasonal, interannual or long-term time scales. Since the future evolution of the climate system may be highly sensitive to initial conditions, such predictions are usually probabilistic in nature. See also Climate projection; Climate scenario; Predictability.

Climate projection A projection of the response of the climate system to emission or concentration scenarios of greenhouse gases and aerosols, or radiative forcing scenarios, often based upon simulations by climate models. Climate projections are distinguished from climate predictions in order to emphasize that climate projections depend upon the emission/concentration/radiative forcing scenario used, which are based on assumptions concerning, for example, future socioeconomic and technological developments that may or may not be realised and are therefore subject to substantial uncertainty.

Climate response

See Climate sensitivity.

Climate scenario A plausible and often simplified representation of the future climate, based on an internally consistent set of climatological relationships that has been constructed for explicit use in investigating the potential consequences of anthropogenic climate change, often serving as input to impact models. Climate projections often serve as the raw material for constructing climate scenarios, but climate scenarios usually require additional information such as about the observed current climate. A climate change scenario is the difference between a climate scenario and the current climate.

Climate sensitivity In IPCC reports, equilibrium climate sensitivity refers to the equilibrium change in the annual mean global surface temperature following a doubling of the atmospheric equivalent carbon dioxide concentration. Due to computational constraints, the equilibrium climate sensitivity in a climate model is usually estimated by running an atmospheric general circulation model coupled to a mixed-layer ocean model, because equilibrium climate sensitivity is largely determined by atmospheric processes. Efficient models can be run to equilibrium with a dynamic ocean.

The effective climate sensitivity is a related measure that circumvents the requirement of equilibrium. It is evaluated from model output for evolving non-equilibrium conditions. It is a measure of the strengths of the climate feedbacks at a particular time and may vary with forcing history and climate state. The climate sensitivity parameter (units: °C (W m–2)–1) refers to the equilibrium change in the annual mean global surface temperature following a unit change in radiative forcing.

The transient climate response is the change in the global surface temperature, averaged over a 20-year period, centred at the time of atmospheric carbon dioxide doubling, that is, at year 70 in a 1% yr–1 compound carbon dioxide increase experiment with a global coupled climate model. It is a measure of the strength and rapidity of the surface temperature response to greenhouse gas forcing.

Climate shift or climate regime shift An abrupt shift or jump in mean values signalling a change in regime. Most widely used in conjunction with the 1976/1977 climate shift that seems to correspond to a change in El Niño-Southern Oscillation behavior.

Climate system The climate system is the highly complex system consisting of five major components: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the land surface and the biosphere, and the interactions between them. The climate system evolves in time under the influence of its own internal dynamics and because of external forcings such as volcanic eruptions, solar variations and anthropogenic forcings such as the changing composition of the atmosphere and land use change.

Climate variability Climate variability refers to variations in the mean state and other statistics (such as standard deviations, the occurrence of extremes, etc.) of the climate on all spatial and temporal scales beyond that of individual weather events. Variability may be due to natural internal processes within the climate system (internal variability), or to variations in natural or anthropogenic external forcing (external variability). See also Climate change.

Cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) Airborne particles that serve as an initial site for the condensation of liquid water, which can lead to the formation of cloud droplets. See also Aerosols.

Cloud feedback A climate feedback involving changes in any of the properties of clouds as a response to other atmospheric changes. Understanding cloud feedbacks and determining their magnitude and sign require an understanding of how a change in climate may affect the spectrum of cloud types, the cloud fraction and height, and the radiative properties of clouds, and an estimate of the impact of these changes on the Earth’s radiation budget. At present, cloud feedbacks remain the largest source of uncertainty in climate sensitivity estimates. See also Cloud radiative forcing; Radiative forcing.

Cloud radiative forcing Cloud radiative forcing is the difference between the all-sky Earth’s radiation budget and the clear-sky Earth’s radiation budget (units: W m–2).

CO2-equivalent See Equivalent carbon dioxide.

Confidence The level of confidence in the correctness of a result is expressed in this report, using a standard terminology defined in Box 1.1. See also Likelihood; Uncertainty.

Convection Vertical motion driven by buoyancy forces arising from static instability, usually caused by near-surface cooling or increases in salinity in the case of the ocean and near-surface warming in the case of the atmosphere. At the location of convection, the horizontal scale is approximately the same as the vertical scale, as opposed to the large contrast between these scales in the general circulation. The net vertical mass transport is usually much smaller than the upward and downward exchange.

Cosmogenic isotopes Rare isotopes that are created when a high-energy cosmic ray interacts with the nucleus of an in situ atom. They are often used as indications of solar magnetic activity (which can shield cosmic rays) or as tracers of atmospheric transport, and are also called cosmogenic nuclides.

Cryosphere The component of the climate system consisting of all snow, ice and frozen ground (including permafrost) on and beneath the surface of the Earth and ocean. See also Glacier; Ice sheet.

Dansgaard-Oeschger events Abrupt warming events followed by gradual cooling. The abrupt warming and gradual cooling is primarily seen in Greenland ice cores and in palaeoclimate records from the nearby North Atlantic, while a more general warming followed by a gradual cooling has been observed in other areas as well, at intervals of 1.5 to 7 kyr during glacial times.

Deforestation Conversion of forest to non-forest. For a discussion of the term forest and related terms such as afforestation, reforestation, and deforestation see the IPCC Special Report on Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (IPCC, 2000). See also the report on Definitions and Methodological Options to Inventory Emissions from Direct Human-induced Degradation of Forests and Devegetation of Other Vegetation Types (IPCC, 2003).

Desertification Land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines land degradation as a reduction or loss in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas, of the biological or economic productivity and complexity of rain-fed cropland, irrigated cropland, or range, pasture, forest, and woodlands resulting from land uses or from a process or combination of processes, including processes arising from human activities and habitation patterns, such as (i) soil erosion caused by wind and/or water; (ii) deterioration of the physical, chemical and biological or economic properties of soil; and (iii) long-term loss of natural vegetation.

Detection and attribution Climate varies continually on all time scales. Detection of climate change is the process of demonstrating that climate has changed in some defined statistical sense, without providing a reason for that change. Attribution of causes of climate change is the process of establishing the most likely causes for the detected change with some defined level of confidence.

Diatoms Silt-sized algae that live in surface waters of lakes, rivers and oceans and form shells of opal. Their species distribution in ocean cores is often related to past sea surface temperatures.

Diurnal temperature range The difference between the maximum and minimum temperature during a 24-hour period.

Dobson unit (DU) A unit to measure the total amount of ozone in a vertical column above the Earth’s surface (total column ozone). The number of Dobson units is the thickness in units of 10–5 m that the ozone column would occupy if compressed into a layer of uniform density at a pressure of 1,013 hPa and a temperature of 0°C. One DU corresponds to a column of ozone containing 2.69 × 1,020 molecules per square metre. Errata A typical value for the amount of ozone in a column of the Earth’s atmosphere, although very variable, is 300 DU.

Downscaling Downscaling is a method that derives local- to regional-scale (10 to 100 km) information from larger-scale models or data analyses. Two main methods are distinguished: dynamical downscaling and empirical/statistical downscaling. The dynamical method uses the output of regional climate models, global models with variable spatial resolution or high-resolution global models. The empirical/statistical methods develop statistical relationships that link the large-scale atmospheric variables with local/regional climate variables. In all cases, the quality of the downscaled product depends on the quality of the driving model.

Drought In general terms, drought is a ‘prolonged absence or marked deficiency of precipitation’, a ‘deficiency that results in water shortage for some activity or for some group’, or a ‘period of abnormally dry weather sufficiently prolonged for the lack of precipitation to cause a serious hydrological imbalance’ (Heim, 2002). Drought has been defined in a number of ways. Agricultural drought relates to moisture deficits in the topmost 1 metre or so of soil (the root zone) that affect crops, meteorological drought is mainly a prolonged deficit of precipitation, and hydrologic drought is related to below-normal streamflow, lake and groundwater levels. A megadrought is a long-drawn out and pervasive drought, lasting much longer than normal, usually a decade or more. For further information, see Box 3.1.

Dynamical system A process or set of processes whose evolution in time is governed by a set of deterministic physical laws. The climate system is a dynamical system. See Abrupt climate change; Chaos; Nonlinearity; Predictability.