Frequently Asked Question 1.1
What Factors Determine Earth’s Climate?
The climate system is a complex, interactive system consisting of the atmosphere, land surface, snow and ice, oceans and other bodies of water, and living things. The atmospheric component of the climate system most obviously characterises climate; climate is often defined as ‘average weather’. Climate is usually described in terms of the mean and variability of temperature, precipitation and wind over a period of time, ranging from months to millions of years (the classical period is 30 years). The climate system evolves in time under the influence of its own internal dynamics and due to changes in external factors that affect climate (called ‘forcings’). External forcings include natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations, as well as human-induced changes in atmospheric composition. Solar radiation powers the climate system. There are three fundamental ways to change the radiation balance of the Earth: 1) by changing the incoming solar radiation (e.g., by changes in Earth’s orbit or in the Sun itself); 2) by changing the fraction of solar radiation that is reflected (called ‘albedo’; e.g., by changes in cloud cover, atmospheric particles or vegetation); and 3) by altering the longwave radiation from Earth back towards space (e.g., by changing greenhouse gas concentrations). Climate, in turn, responds directly to such changes, as well as indirectly, through a variety of feedback mechanisms.
The amount of energy reaching the top of Earth’s atmosphere each second on a surface area of one square metre facing the Sun during daytime is about 1,370 Watts, and the amount of energy per square metre per second averaged over the entire planet is one-quarter of this (see Figure 1). About 30% of the sunlight that reaches the top of the atmosphere is reflected back to space. Roughly two-thirds of this reflectivity is due to clouds and small particles in the atmosphere known as ‘aerosols’. Light-coloured areas of Earth’s surface – mainly snow, ice and deserts – reflect the remaining one-third of the sunlight. The most dramatic change in aerosol-produced reflectivity comes when major volcanic eruptions eject material very high into the atmosphere. Rain typically clears aerosols out of the atmosphere in a week or two, but when material from a violent volcanic eruption is projected far above the highest cloud, these aerosols typically influence the climate for about a year or two before falling into the troposphere and being carried to the surface by precipitation. Major volcanic eruptions can thus cause a drop in mean global surface temperature of about half a degree celsius that can last for months or even years. Some man-made aerosols also significantly reflect sunlight.
FAQ 1.1, Figure 1. Estimate of the Earth’s annual and global mean energy balance. Over the long term, the amount of incoming solar radiation absorbed by the Earth and atmosphere is balanced by the Earth and atmosphere releasing the same amount of outgoing longwave radiation. About half of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed by the Earth’s surface. This energy is transferred to the atmosphere by warming the air in contact with the surface (thermals), by evapotranspiration and by longwave radiation that is absorbed by clouds and greenhouse gases. The atmosphere in turn radiates longwave energy back to Earth as well as out to space. Source: Kiehl and Trenberth (1997).
The energy that is not reflected back to space is absorbed by the Earth’s surface and atmosphere. This amount is approximately 240 Watts per square metre (W m–2). To balance the incoming energy, the Earth itself must radiate, on average, the same amount of energy back to space. The Earth does this by emitting outgoing longwave radiation. Everything on Earth emits longwave radiation continuously. That is the heat energy one feels radiating out from a fire; the warmer an object, the more heat energy it radiates. To emit 240 W m–2, a surface would have to have a temperature of around –19°C. This is much colder than the conditions that actually exist at the Earth’s surface (the global mean surface temperature is about 14°C). Instead, the necessary –19°C is found at an altitude about 5 km above the surface.
The reason the Earth’s surface is this warm is the presence of greenhouse gases, which act as a partial blanket for the longwave radiation coming from the surface. This blanketing is known as the natural greenhouse effect. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapour and carbon dioxide. The two most abundant constituents of the atmosphere – nitrogen and oxygen – have no such effect. Clouds, on the other hand, do exert a blanketing effect similar to that of the greenhouse gases; however, this effect is offset by their reflectivity, such that on average, clouds tend to have a cooling effect on climate (although locally one can feel the warming effect: cloudy nights tend to remain warmer than clear nights because the clouds radiate longwave energy back down to the surface). Human activities intensify the blanketing effect through the release of greenhouse gases. For instance, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by about 35% in the industrial era, and this increase is known to be due to human activities, primarily the combustion of fossil fuels and removal of forests. Thus, humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere with substantial implications for climate.
Because the Earth is a sphere, more solar energy arrives for a given surface area in the tropics than at higher latitudes, where sunlight strikes the atmosphere at a lower angle. Energy is transported from the equatorial areas to higher latitudes via atmospheric and oceanic circulations, including storm systems. Energy is also required to evaporate water from the sea or land surface, and this energy, called latent heat, is released when water vapour condenses in clouds (see Figure 1). Atmospheric circulation is primarily driven by the release of this latent heat. Atmospheric circulation in turn drives much of the ocean circulation through the action of winds on the surface waters of the ocean, and through changes in the ocean’s surface temperature and salinity through precipitation and evaporation.
Due to the rotation of the Earth, the atmospheric circulation patterns tend to be more east-west than north-south. Embedded in the mid-latitude westerly winds are large-scale weather systems that act to transport heat toward the poles. These weather systems are the familiar migrating low- and high-pressure systems and their associated cold and warm fronts. Because of land-ocean temperature contrasts and obstacles such as mountain ranges and ice sheets, the circulation system’s planetary-scale atmospheric waves tend to be geographically anchored by continents and mountains although their amplitude can change with time. Because of the wave patterns, a particularly cold winter over North America may be associated with a particularly warm winter elsewhere in the hemisphere. Changes in various aspects of the climate system, such as the size of ice sheets, the type and distribution of vegetation or the temperature of the atmosphere or ocean will influence the large-scale circulation features of the atmosphere and oceans.
There are many feedback mechanisms in the climate system that can either amplify (‘positive feedback’) or diminish (‘negative feedback’) the effects of a change in climate forcing. For example, as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases warm Earth’s climate, snow and ice begin to melt. This melting reveals darker land and water surfaces that were beneath the snow and ice, and these darker surfaces absorb more of the Sun’s heat, causing more warming, which causes more melting, and so on, in a self-reinforcing cycle. This feedback loop, known as the ‘ice-albedo feedback’, amplifies the initial warming caused by rising levels of greenhouse gases. Detecting, understanding and accurately quantifying climate feedbacks have been the focus of a great deal of research by scientists unravelling the complexities of Earth’s climate.