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

9.4.5 Summary

Since the TAR, the evidence has strengthened that human influence has increased global temperatures near the surface of the Earth. Every year since the publication of the TAR has been in the top ten warmest years in the instrumental global record of near-surface temperatures. Many climate models are now available which simulate global mean temperature changes that are consistent with those observed over the last century when they include the most important forcings of the climate system. The fact that no coupled model simulation so far has reproduced global temperature changes over the 20th century without anthropogenic forcing is strong evidence for the influence of humans on global climate. This conclusion is robust to variations in model formulation and uncertainties in forcings as far as they have been explored in the large multi-model ensemble now available (Figure 9.5).

Many studies have detected a human influence on near-surface temperature changes, applying a variety of statistical techniques and using many different climate simulations. Comparison with observations shows that the models used in these studies appear to have an adequate representation of internal variability on the decadal to inter-decadal time scales important for detection (Figure 9.7). When evaluated in a Bayesian framework, very strong evidence is found for a human influence on global temperature change regardless of the choice of prior distribution.

Since the TAR, there has been an increased emphasis on partitioning the observed warming into contributions from greenhouse gas increases and other anthropogenic and natural factors. These studies lead to the conclusion that greenhouse gas forcing has very likely been the dominant cause of the observed global warming over the last 50 years, and account for the possibility that the agreement between simulated and observed temperature changes could be reproduced by different combinations of external forcing. This is because, in addition to detecting the presence of model-simulated spatio-temporal response patterns in observations, such analyses also require consistency between the model-simulated and observational amplitudes of these patterns.

Detection and attribution analyses indicate that over the past century there has likely been a cooling influence from aerosols and natural forcings counteracting some of the warming influence of the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (Figure 9.9). Spatial information is required in addition to temporal information to reliably detect the influence of aerosols and distinguish them from the influence of increased greenhouse gases. In particular, aerosols are expected to cause differential warming and cooling rates between the NH and SH that change with time depending on the evolution of the aerosol forcing, and this spatio-temporal fingerprint can help to constrain the possible range of cooling from aerosols over the century. Despite continuing uncertainties in aerosol forcing and the climate response, it is likely that greenhouse gases alone would have caused more warming than observed during the last 50 years, with some warming offset by cooling from aerosols and other natural and anthropogenic factors. The overall evidence from studies using instrumental surface temperature and free atmospheric temperature data, along with evidence from analysis of temperature over the last few hundred years (Section, indicates that it is very unlikely that the contribution from solar forcing to the warming of the last 50 years was larger than that from greenhouse gas forcing.

An important development since the TAR has been the detection of an anthropogenic signal in surface temperature changes since 1950 over continental and sub-continental scale land areas. The ability of models to simulate many aspects of the temperature evolution at these scales (Figure 9.12) and the detection of significant anthropogenic effects on each of six continents provides stronger evidence of human influence on the global climate than was available to the TAR. Difficulties remain in attributing temperature changes at smaller than continental scales and over time scales of less than 50 years. Attribution at these scales has, with limited exceptions, not yet been established. Temperature changes associated with some modes of variability, which could be wholly or partly naturally caused, are poorly simulated by models in some regions and seasons and could be confounded with the expected temperature response to external forcings. Averaging over smaller regions reduces the natural variability less than averaging over large regions, making it more difficult to distinguish changes expected from external forcing. In addition, the small-scale details of external forcing and the response simulated by models are less credible than large-scale features. Overall, uncertainties in observed and model-simulated climate variability and change at smaller spatial scales make it difficult at present to estimate the contribution of anthropogenic forcing to temperature changes at scales smaller than continental and on time scales shorter than 50 years.

There is now some evidence that anthropogenic forcing has affected extreme temperatures. There has been a significant decrease in the frequency of frost days and an increase in the incidence of warm nights. A detection and attribution analysis has shown a significant human influence on patterns of changes in extremely warm nights and evidence for a human-induced warming of the coldest nights and days of the year. Many important impacts of climate change are likely to manifest themselves through an increase in the frequency of heat waves in some regions and a decrease in the frequency of extremely cold events in others. Based on a single study, and assuming a model-based estimate of temperature variability, past human influence may have more than doubled the risk of European mean summer temperatures as high as those recorded in 2003 (Figure 9.13).

Since the TAR, further evidence has accumulated that there has been a significant anthropogenic influence on free atmosphere temperature since widespread measurements became available from radiosondes in the late 1950s. The influence of greenhouse gases on tropospheric temperatures has been detected, as has the influence of stratospheric ozone depletion on stratospheric temperatures. The combination of a warming troposphere and a cooling stratosphere has likely led to an increase in the height of the tropopause and model-data comparisons show that greenhouse gases and stratospheric ozone changes are likely largely responsible (Figure 9.14).

Whereas, on monthly and annual time scales, variations of temperature in the tropics at the surface are amplified aloft in both the MMD simulations and observations by consistent amounts, on longer time scales, simulations of differential tropical warming rates between the surface and the free atmosphere are inconsistent with some observational records. One possible explanation for the discrepancies on multi-annual but not shorter time scales is that amplification effects are controlled by different physical mechanisms, but a more probable explanation is that some observational records are contaminated by errors that affect their long-term trends.