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Climate records show a warming trend…
Estimating global average surface air temperature increase requires careful analysis of millions of measurements from around the world, including from land stations, ships, and satellites. Despite the many complications of synthesising such data, multiple independent teams have concluded separately and unanimously that global average surface air temperature has risen by about 1 °C (1.8 °F) since 1900 [Figure B4]. Although the record shows several pauses and accelerations in the increasing trend, each of the last four decades has been warmer than any other decade in the instrumental record since 1850.
Going further back in time before accurate thermometers were widely available, temperatures can be reconstructed using climate-sensitive indicators “proxies” in materials such as tree rings, ice cores, and marine sediments. Comparisons of the thermometer record with these proxy measurements suggest that the time since the early 1980s has been the warmest 40-year period in at least eight centuries, and that global temperature is rising towards peak temperatures last seen 5,000 to 10,000 years ago in the warmest part of our current interglacial period.
Many other impacts associated with the warming trend have become evident in recent years. Arctic summer sea ice cover has shrunk dramatically. The heat content of the ocean has increased. Global average sea level has risen by approximately 16 cm (6 inches) since 1901, due both to the expansion of warmer ocean water and to the addition of melt waters from glaciers and ice sheets on land. Warming and precipitation changes are altering the geographical ranges of many plant and animal species and the timing of their life cycles. In addition to the effects on climate, some of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere is being taken up by the ocean, changing its chemical composition (causing ocean acidification).
Earth’s global average surface temperature has risen, as shown in this plot of combined land and ocean measurements from 1850 to 2019, derived from three independent analyses of the available data sets. The temperature changes are relative to the global average surface temperature, averaged from 1961−1990. Source: Based on IPCC AR5, data from the HadCRUT4 dataset (black), NOAA Climate.gov; data from UK Met Office Hadley Centre (maroon), US National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies (red), and US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Centers for Environmental Information (orange).
Many complex processes shape our climate . . .
Based just on the physics of the amount of energy that CO2 absorbs and emits, a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration from pre-industrial levels (up to about 560 ppm) would by itself cause a global average temperature increase of about 1 °C (1.8 °F). In the overall climate system, however, things are more complex; warming leads to further effects (feedbacks) that either amplify or diminish the initial warming.
The most important feedbacks involve various forms of water. A warmer atmosphere generally contains more water vapour. Water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas, thus causing more warming; its short lifetime in the atmosphere keeps its increase largely in step with warming. Thus, water vapour is treated as an amplifier, and not a driver, of climate change. Higher temperatures in the polar regions melt sea ice and reduce seasonal snow cover, exposing a darker ocean and land surface that can absorb more heat, causing further warming. Another important but uncertain feedback concerns changes in clouds. Warming and increases in water vapour together may cause cloud cover to increase or decrease which can either amplify or dampen temperature change depending on the changes in the horizontal extent, altitude, and properties of clouds. The latest assessment of the science indicates that the overall net global effect of cloud changes is likely to be to amplify warming.
The ocean moderates climate change. The ocean is a huge heat reservoir, but it is difficult to heat its full depth because warm water tends to stay near the surface. The rate at which heat is transferred to the deep ocean is therefore slow; it varies from year to year and from decade to decade, and it helps to determine the pace of warming at the surface. Observations of the sub-surface ocean are limited prior to about 1970, but since then, warming of the upper 700 m (2,300 feet) is readily apparent, and deeper warming is also clearly observed since about 1990.
Surface temperatures and rainfall in most regions vary greatly from the global average because of geographical location, in particular latitude and continental position. Both the average values of temperature, rainfall, and their extremes (which generally have the largest impacts on natural systems and human infrastructure), are also strongly affected by local patterns of winds.
Estimating the effects of feedback processes, the pace of the warming, and regional climate change requires the use of mathematical models of the atmosphere, ocean, land, and ice (the cryosphere) built upon established laws of physics and the latest understanding of the physical, chemical and biological processes affecting climate, and run on powerful computers. Models vary in their projections of how much additional warming to expect (depending on the type of model and on assumptions used in simulating certain climate processes, particularly cloud formation and ocean mixing), but all such models agree that the overall net effect of feedback is to amplify warming.