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Global Warming

DEFINITION OF GLOBAL WARMING

SPEEDING UP THE PROCESS

GROWING EVIDENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING

ANOMALIES AND REFUTATIONS

SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS

INADEQUATE ACTION AND NEEDED TRANSFORMATIONS

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Understanding the causes of and responses to global warming requires interdisciplinary cooperation between social and natural scientists. The theory behind global warming has been understood by climatologists since at least the 1980s, but only in the new millennium, with an apparent tipping point in 2005, has the mounting empirical evidence convinced most doubters, politicians, and the general public as well as growing sections of business that global warming caused by human action is occurring.

DEFINITION OF GLOBAL WARMING

Global warming is understood to result from an overall, long-term increase in the retention of the suns heat around Earth due to blanketing by greenhouse gases, especially CO2 and methane. Emissions of CO2 have been rising at a speed unprecedented in human history, due to accelerating fossil fuel burning that began in the Industrial Revolution.

The effects of the resulting climate change are uneven and can even produce localized cooling (if warm currents change direction). The climate change may also initiate positive feedback in which the initial impact is further enhanced by its own effects, for example if melting ice reduces the reflective properties of white surfaces (the albedo effect) or if melting tundra releases frozen methane, leading to further warming. Debate continues about which manifestations are due to long-term climate change and which to normal climate variability.

SPEEDING UP THE PROCESS

Global warming involves an unprecedented speeding up of the rate of change in natural processes, which now converges with the (previously much faster) rate of change in human societies, leading to a crisis of adaptation. Most authoritative scientific bodies predict that on present trends a point of no return could come within ten years, and that the world needs to cut emissions by 50 percent by mid twenty-first century.

It was natural scientists who first discovered and raised global warming as a political problem. This makes many of the global warming concerns unique. Science becomes the author of issues that dominate the political agenda and become the sources of political conflict (Stehr 2001, p. 85). Perhaps for this reason, many social scientists, particularly sociologists, wary of trusting the truth claims of natural science but knowing themselves lacking the expertise to judge their validity, have avoided saying much about global warming and its possible consequences. Even sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, who see risk as a key attribute of advanced modernity, have said little about climate change.

For practical purposes, it can no longer be assumed that nature is a stable, well understood, background constant and thus social scientists do not need direct knowledge about its changes. Any discussion of likely social, economic, and political futures will have to heed what natural scientists say about the likely impacts of climate change.

GROWING EVIDENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING

While originally eccentric, global warming was placed firmly on the agenda in 1985, at a conference in Austria of eighty-nine climate researchers participating as individuals from twenty-three countries. The researchers forecast substantial warming, unambiguously attributable to human activities.

Since that conference the researchers position has guided targeted empirical research, leading to supporting (and increasingly dire) evidence, resolving anomalies and winning near unanimous peer endorsement. Skeptics have been confounded and reduced to a handful, some discredited by revelations of dubious funding from fossil fuel industries.

Just before the end of the twentieth century, American researchers released ice-thickness data, gathered by nuclear submarines. The data showed that over the previous forty years the ice depth in all regions of the Arctic Ocean had declined by approximately 40 percent.

Five yearly aerial photographs show the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean at a record low, with a loss of 50 cubic kilometers annually and glacier retreat doubling to 12 kilometers a year. In September 2005 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) doubled its estimates of the volume of melted fresh water flowing into the North Atlantic, reducing salinity and thus potentially threatening the conveyor that drives the Gulf Stream. Temperate mussels have been found in Arctic waters, and news broadcasts in 2005 and 2006 have repeatedly shown scenes of Inuit and polar bears (recently listed as endangered) cut off from their hunting grounds as the ice bridges melt.

In 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations scientific panel on climate change, had predicted that Antarctica would not contribute significantly to sea level rise this century. The massive west Antarctic ice sheet was assumed to be stable. However, in June 2005 a British Antarctic survey reported measurements of the glaciers on this ice sheet shrinking. In October 2005 glaciologists reported that the edges of the Antarctic ice sheets were crumbling at an unprecedented rate and, in one area, glaciers were discharging ice three times faster than a decade earlier.

In 2005 an eight-year European study drilling Antarctic ice cores to measure the past composition of the atmosphere reported that CO2 levels were at least 30 percent higher than at any time in the last 65,000 years. The speed of the rise in CO2 was unprecedented, from 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to 388 ppm in 2006. Early in 2007 the Norwegian Polar Institute reported acceleration to a new level of 390 ppm. In January 2006 a British Antarctic survey, analyzing CO2 in crevasse ice in the Antarctic Peninsula, found levels of CO2 higher than at any time in the previous 800,000 years.

In April 2005 a NASA Goddard Institute oceanic study reported that the earth was holding on to more solar energy than it was emitting into space. The Institutes director said: This energy imbalance is the smoking gun that we have been looking for (Columbia 2005).

The second IPCC report in 1996 had predicted a maximum temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the twenty-first century. The third report, in 2001, predicted a maximum rise of 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the twenty-first century. In October 2006 Austrian glaciologists reported in Geophysical Research Letters (Kaser et al.) that almost all the worlds glaciers had been shrinking since the 1940s, and the shrinking rate had increased since 2001. None of the glaciers (contrary to skeptics) was growing. Melting glaciers could pose threats to the water supply of major South American cities and is already manifest in the appearance of many new lakes in Bhutan.

In January 2007 global average land and sea temperatures were the highest ever recorded for this month; in February 2007 the IPCC Fourth Report, expressing greater certainty and worse fears than the previous one, made headlines around the world. In 1995 few scientists believed the effects of global warming were already manifest, but by 2005 few scientists doubted it and in 2007 few politicians were willing to appear skeptical.

Although rising temperatures; melting tundra, ice and glaciers; droughts; extreme storms; stressed coral reefs; changing geographical range of plants, animals, and diseases; and sinking atolls may conceivably all be results of many temporary climate variations, their cumulative impact is hard to refute.

ANOMALIES AND REFUTATIONS

The science of global warming has progressed through tackling anomalies cited by skeptics. Critics of global warming made attempts to discredit the methodology of climatologist Michael Manns famous Hockey stick graph (first published in Nature in 1998). Manns graph showed average global temperatures over the last 1,000 years, with little variation for the first 900 and a sharp rise in the last century. After more than a dozen replication studies, some using different statistical techniques and different combinations of proxy records (indirect measures of past temperatures such as ice cores or tree rings), Manns results were vindicated. A report in 2006 by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, supported much of Manns image of global warming history. There is sufficient evidence from the tree rings, boreholes, retreating glaciers and other proxies of past surface temperatures to say with a high level of confidence that the last few decades of the twentieth century were warmer than any comparable period for the last 400 years. For periods before 1600, the 2006 report found there was not enough reliable data to be sure but the committee found the Mann teams conclusion that warming in the last few decades of the twentieth century was unprecedented over the last 1,000 years to be plausible (National Academy of Science press release 2006).

Measurements from satellites and balloons in the lower troposphere have until recently indicated cooling, which contradicted measurements from the surface and the upper troposphere. In August 2005 a publication in Science of the findings of three independent studies described their measurements as nails in the coffin of the skeptics case. These showed that faulty data, which failed to allow for satellite drift, lay behind the apparent anomaly.

Another anomaly was that observed temperature rises were in fact less than the modelling of CO2 impacts predicted. This is now explained by evidence on the temporary masking properties of aerosols, from rising pollution and a cyclical upward swing of volcanic eruptions since 1960.

Critics of global warming have been disarmed and discredited. Media investigations and social research have increasingly highlighted the industry funding of skeptics and their think tanks, and the political pressures on government scientists to keep silent. Estimates of the catastrophic costs of action on emissions have also been contradicted most dramatically by the British Stern Report in October 2006. Many companies have been abandoning the skeptical business coalitions. The Australian Business Round Table on Climate Change estimated in 2005 that the cost to gross domestic product of strong early action would be minimal and would create jobs.

SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS

In May 2001 sixteen of the worlds national academies of science issued a statement, confirming that the IPCC should be seen as the worlds most reliable source of scientific information on climate change, endorsing its conclusions and stating that doubts about the conclusions were not justified.

In July 2005 the heads of eleven influential national science academies (from Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) wrote to the G8 leaders warning that global climate change was a clear and increasing threat and that they must act immediately. They outlined strong and long-term evidence from direct measurements of rising surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and from phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating glaciers and changes to many physical and biological systems (Joint Science Academies Statement 2005).

There are many unknowns regarding global warming, particularly those dependent on human choices; yet the consequences for society of either inadequate action or of any effective responses (through reduced consumption or enforced and subsidized technological change) will be huge. It is, for example, unlikely that the practices and values of free markets, individualism, diversity, and choice will not be significantly modified either by economic and political breakdowns or alternatively by the radical measures needed to preempt them.

INADEQUATE ACTION AND NEEDED TRANSFORMATIONS

Kyoto targets are at best a useful first step. However, even these targets, which seek to peg back emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, are unlikely to be met. World CO2 emissions in 2004 continued to rise in all regions of the world, by another 4.5 percent, to a level 26 percent higher than in 1990. A rise of over 2 degrees is considered inevitable if CO2 concentrations pass 400 ppm. At current growing emission rates, the concentration would reach 700 ppm by the end of the twenty-first century. The continuing industrialization of China, recently joined by India, points to the possibility of even faster rises than these projections indicate.

If unpredictable, amplifying feedback loops are triggered, improbable catastrophes become more likely. The Gulf Stream flow could be halted, freezing Britain and Northern Europe. Droughts could wipe out the agriculture of Africa and Australia, as well as Asia, where millions depend on Himalayan melt water and monsoon rains. If the ice caps melt completely over the next centuries, seas could rise by 7 meters, devastating all coastal cities. Will the human response to widespread ecological disasters give rise to solidarity and collective action, such as the aid that came after the 2004 Asian Tsunami or to social breakdowns, as seen in New Orleans after 2005s Hurricane Katrina and in the Rwandan genocide?

Social and technical changes with the scale and speed required are not unprecedented. The displacement of horsepower by automobiles, for example, was meteoric. Production of vehicles in the United States increased from 8,000 in 1900 to nearly a million by 1912. Substantial regulation or differential taxation and subsidies would be indispensable to overcome short term profit motives and free riding dilemmas (where some evade their share of the cost of collective goods from which they benefit). Gains in auto efficiency in the 1980s, for example, were rapidly reversed by a new fashion for sport utility vehicles.

The debates that have emerged in the early twenty-first century have been related to responses, with different winners and losers, costs, benefits, dangers, and time scales for each response. Advocates of reduced energy consumption or increased efficiency, or energy generation by solar, wind, tidal, hydro, biomass, geothermal, nuclear, or clean coal and geo-sequestration, argue often cacophonously. Yet it seems probable that all these options are needed.

It will be essential for social and natural scientists to learn to cooperate in understanding and preempting the potentially catastrophic collision of nature and society. In order to accomplish this, market mechanisms; technological innovation; international, national, and local regulations; and cultural change will all be needed. Agents of change include governments, nongovernmental organizations, and public opinion, but the most likely front-runner might be sectors of capital seeking profit by retooling the energy and transport systems, while able to mobilize political enforcement.

SEE ALSO Disaster Management; Greenhouse Effects; Science

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Columbia University Earth Institute. 2005. Press release 28, April. http://www.earthinstitute.columbia.edu/news/2005/story04-28-05.html.

Cooper, Richard N., and Richard Layard. 2002. What the Future Holds: Insights from Social Science. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Camberwell, U.K.: Penguin, Allen Lane.

Dunlap, Riley H., Frederick H. Buttel, Peter H. Dickens, and August Gijswijt, eds. 2002, Sociological Theory and the Environment: Classical Foundations, Contemporary Insights, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Flannery, Tim. 2006. The Weather Makers. Berkeley, CA: Grove Atlantic.

Kaser, G., et al. Mass Balance of Glaciers and Ice Caps: Consensus Estimates for 19612004. Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 33. 2006.

Legget, Jeremy. 2000. The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era. New York: Routledge.

Leggett, Jeremy. 2005. Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis. London: Portobello.

Monbiot, George. 2006. Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning. London: Allen Lane.

National Academy of Sciences. 2006. Press release 22, June. http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=11676.

Stehr, Nico. 2001. Economy and Ecology in an Era of Knowledge-Base Economies. Current Sociology 49(1) January: 6790.

Zillman, John W. 2005. Uncertainty in the Science of Climate Change. In Uncertainty and Climate Change: The Challenge for Policy, Policy Paper 3. Canberra: Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. http://www.assa.edu.au/publications/op/op22005.pdf.

Constance Lever-Tracy

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Global Warming

Introduction

Global warming is a long-term increase in Earth's average surface temperature. Because global warming does not cause uniform warming in all locations and because many other changes in climate are occurring, scientists often prefer to speak of “global climate change” rather than of global warming when referring to the whole complex of changes being caused by human activities. In such contexts, the phrase “global warming” is reserved for the warming trend as such, apart from other effects. However, in general usage it still refers to the sum of all changes occurring in Earth's climate as a result of human activities. A major effect of global warming is redistribution of climatic zones defined by temperature, precipitation, and associated ecosystems.

Global climate changes, including episodes of global cooling and warming, have occurred many times throughout Earth's history as a result of natural variations in solar radiation, atmospheric chemistry, oceanic and atmospheric circulations, volcanic eruptions, and other causes. Global warming in the last few decades, however, is primarily caused by human activities that started during the Industrial Revolution, when human burning of fossil fuels began to increase drastically, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Atmospheric concentrations of carbon CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and artificial chemicals called halocarbons have long been increasing as a result of emissions from fossil-fuel burning and other activities. Increased atmospheric concentrations of these gases are causing Earth to warm.

As of 2005, atmospheric levels of CO2 and CH4 were far higher than at any time in at least 650,000 years. Global average surface temperature has increased by about 0.23°F (0.13°C) per decade for the last 50 years, and has increased more rapidly in recent years: the two warmest years since instrumental records began in the 1800s were 1998 and 2005.

Although a few scientists continue to dispute that recent climate warming is caused by human activities, this is no longer doubted by the great majority of climatologists, meteorologists, and geophysicists. The 2007 Assessment Report of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pronounced that global warming is now “unequivocal” and that it is more than 90% likely that most of the global warming observed since the mid-twentieth century is caused by anthropogenic (human-caused) releases of greenhouse gases.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Solar radiation is the major source of energy arriving at Earth's surface (a small fraction, about 1/7500, comes from Earth's interior). Much of this incoming energy is at short wavelengths (ultraviolet and visible light). These forms of light are absorbed by Earth's surface, where their energy drives atmospheric and oceanic circulation and fuels biological processes like photosynthesis. The surface then re-radiates most of this energy as longer-wavelength light, variously termed heat radiation, infrared light, or infrared radiation. If Earth's atmosphere were completely transparent to infrared radiation, this re-radiated energy would simply shine out into space and the planet would have an average surface temperature of about 0°F (–18°C).

However, certain gases in the atmosphere, mostly notably CO2, CH4, and water vapor (H2O), absorb some of the infrared energy and are warmed, warming the air and, by conduction, the land and sea. These gases are termed greenhouse gases because, like the glass windows of a greenhouse, they allow solar energy to enter Earth's atmosphere but impede the loss of heat. Earth's atmosphere naturally contains certain levels of these greenhouse gases. The resulting natural greenhouse effect maintains the planet's average temperature at a livable 59°F (15°C). This natural greenhouse effect has been crucial to the evolution and survival of life on Earth. A surface temperature of 59°F is sufficient to maintain most of Earth's water in liquid form, whereas 0°F (18°C) is too cold for most organisms to live or for ecological processes to function.

Although atmospheric levels of CO2 and CH4 have varied greatly over deep geologic time (hundreds of millions of years), by the time of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750, their concentrations had been fairly stable for hundreds of thousands of years. The pre-industrial concentration of CO2 was about 280 ppm (parts per million by volume), of CH4 about 0.7 ppm, and of NO2 about 0.285 ppm. (The special case of water vapor is discussed below.) As of 2005, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 had increased to about 379 ppm, a 36% increase. The concentration of CH4 has gone up to 1.8 ppm and that of N2O to 0.319 ppm. Concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other completely human-made greenhouse gases have increased from zero in pre-industrial times to about 0.7 ppb (parts per billion by volume).

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased more quickly since the middle of the twentieth century, coinciding with rapid human population growth and global industrialization. The largest single cause of greenhouse gas releases has been the burning of fossil fuels, including oil, natural gas, and coal. Fossil fuels contain carbon which, in burning, combines with oxygen to create CO2.

Deforestation is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. As they grow, trees, like all plants, take in CO2, incorporate the carbon in their structure, and release O2 into the atmosphere. Deforestation therefore destroys a carbon sink that tends to lower the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Deforestation also releases CO2 and CH4 through the burning and decay of trees and soil carbon in deforested areas.

Agriculture is a primary cause of deforestation. It also releases large quantities of CH4 through decomposition of organic materials in livestock digestive systems, livestock waste-treatment facilities, and flooded rice fields. Agricultural fertilizers and combustion of fossil fuels and solid wastes are the primary sources of increased N2O emissions.

Industrial processes emit a variety of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Many of these chemicals also attack the ozone layer, and their manufacture and use has been limited by the Montreal Protocol treaty of 1987.

Greenhouse gases vary greatly in their ability to absorb infrared radiation. On a per-molecule basis, methane is about 21–40 times more absorptive than carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is 200–270 times more absorptive, and CFCs are 3–15 thousand times more absorptive. CO2, however, is present in the atmosphere at much higher concentrations than the more-powerful greenhouse gases and has experienced the greatest increases due to human activity. CO2 is responsible for about 60% of the human contribution to increased atmospheric heat retention, termed radiative forcing.

Water vapor is responsible for more of the greenhouse effect than any other single gas, but is not a primary driver of global warming. This apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that the residence time of water vapor in the atmosphere is short. Increased water vapor concentrations, left to themselves, would disappear in a matter of weeks as rain or snow fall from clouds. The other greenhouse gases, however, linger for decades: these gases force the atmosphere to warm, increasing its ability to hold water vapor. This increased level of water vapor acts to warm the world further. Therefore, water vapor acts as a feedback factor in global warming.

WORDS TO KNOW

ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by people or resulting from human activities. Usually used in the context of emissions that are produced as a result of human activities.

CARBON SINK: Any process or collection of processes that is removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it is emitting. A forest, for example, is a carbon sink if more carbon is accumulating in its soil, wood, and other biomass than is being released by fire, forestry, and decay. The opposite of a carbon sink is a carbon source.

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The period, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, during which humans began to use steam engines as a major source of power.

INFRARED RADIATION: Electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength shorter than radio waves but longer than visible light that takes the form of heat.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all countries with the goal of mitigating climate change. The United States, as of early 2008, was the only industrialized country to have not ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which is due to be replaced by an improved and updated agreement starting in 2012.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: The process by which green plants use light to synthesize organic compounds from carbon dioxide and water. In the process, oxygen and water are released. Increased levels of carbon dioxide can increase net photosynthesis in some plants. Plants create a very important reservoir for carbon dioxide.

RADIATIVE FORCING: A change in the balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation. Without any radiative forcing, solar radiation coming to Earth would continue to be approximately equal to the infrared radiation emitted from Earth. The addition of greenhouse gases traps an increased fraction of the infrared radiation, reradiating it back toward the surface and creating a warming influence (i.e., positive radiative forcing because incoming solar radiation will exceed outgoing infrared radiation).

RESIDENCE TIME: For a greenhouse gas, the average amount of time a given amount of the gas stays in the atmosphere before being absorbed or chemically altered. The residence time of a greenhouse gas is relevant to policy decisions about emitting the gas: emissions of a gas with a long residence time create global warming over decades, centuries, or millennia, until natural processes remove the emitted quantities of gas.

Impacts and Issues

Most scientists today are convinced that an increase in greenhouse gases is resulting in an intensification of Earth's greenhouse effect, with resulting global warming and climate change. The exact climatic response to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and its potential effects on humans are difficult to predict, but can be foretold in outline. Moreover, computer models of climate are constantly improving, allowing more realistic predictions to be made about future climate change. If global climate change proceeds as recent scientific studies forecast, it will likely have substantial negative ecological consequences.

Earth's surface temperature is variable from place to place and over time. Furthermore, the systems that interact to maintain the planet's temperature and climate are complex; cause-and-effect relationships between the oceans, atmosphere, land, living things, and nonliving chemistry are numerous. In spite of these scientific challenges, there is overwhelming evidence that Earth has warmed significantly during the past 150 years or so. Climate records show that from 1906 to 2005 there was a 1.3°F (0.74°C) increase in Earth's average surface temperature, with twice as much warming as this global average occurring in the Arctic and over the West Antarctic Peninsula. The oceans have also warmed, though not as much.

Recent observations show dramatic melting of the Arctic sea ice, accelerated melting of the Greenland ice cap, and accelerated seaward flow of glaciers on the western peninsula of Antarctica. Global sea-level has risen since the mid 1800s; for 1961–2003, at about 0.07 in (1.8 mm) per year. Alterations have been seen in large-scale weather phenomena like the southeast Indian monsoon season, Atlantic hurricane season, El Niño/Southern Oscillation, and North African drought cycle. Wildlife and plants are shifting their ranges to higher latitudes (closer to the poles, to track cool weather as climate warms) and to higher altitudes in mountainous regions. Many other types of observations, some of which are reviewed elsewhere in this book, independently demonstrate the reality of global warming and the complex changes it has produced in regional climates.

The aforementioned observations agree with predictions by computerized mathematical models of global climate processes. These three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs) simulate the complex movements of energy and mass involved in the global circulation of the atmosphere, oceans, and living things. Scientists use GCMs to predict the effects of changes in specific variables, like the atmospheric concentration of CO2, on the rest of the global climate system. Because of the complexity of the computational problem, GCMs that attempt to predict global climate change have somewhat variable results. However, modelers now agree that increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases have resulted, and will continue to result, in global warming. For example, one GCM that doubles the present CO2 concentration to about 700 ppm predicts a 2–6°F (1.1–3.3°C) rise in global temperature and suggests that the warming would be 2–3 times more intense at high latitudes—nearer the poles— than in the tropics. These predictions are consistent with changes seen so far, or, if anything, tend to underestimate the pace of warming.

Other predicted consequences of warming include large-scale shifts in atmospheric and oceanographic circulation patterns, partial melting of the polar ice caps, global sea-level rise, reorganization of Earth's climatic zones, and establishment of new large-scale weather patterns. Changes in the distribution of heat, precipitation, and weather phenomena like storms and floods will affect the productivity and distribution of natural and managed vegetation. Animals and microorganisms will experience dramatic changes in their habitats and face higher rates of species extinction. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a rise of about 4°F (2.2°C) above the pre-industrial average will likely commit 15– 37% of all plant and animal species to extinction. Most biologists agree that global warming is a serious threat to biodiversity and to the health of ecosystems worldwide.

IN CONTEXT: GREENHOUSE-GAS EMISSION TRENDS

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have grown since pre-industrial times, with an increase of 70% between 1970 and 2004 (high agreement, much evidence).”

  • “Since pre-industrial times, increasing emissions of GHGs due to human activities have led to a marked increase in atmospheric GHG concentrations….”
  • “Between 1970 and 2004, global emissions of CO2, CH4, N2O, HFCs, PFCs, and SF6, weighted by their global warming potential (GWP), have increased by 70% (24% between 1990 and 2004)…. The emissions of these gases have increased at different rates. CO2 emissions have grown between 1970 and 2004 by about 80% (28% between 1990 and 2004) and represented 77% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions in 2004….”

SOURCE:Metz, B., et al., eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

The predicted climatic and biological changes associated with anthropogenic global warming are likely to have negative outcomes for Earth's human population, although it is likely that some regions will be more severely affected than others. As of 2000, about 400 million people lived within 65.6 ft (20 m) of sea level and within 12.4 mi (20 km) of a coast. Even small increases in global sea level, accompanied by increasingly intense coastal storms and floods, can therefore threaten the lives and property of a large number of people. Changes in regional temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather events would affect the managed agriculture, fishing, and forestry that provide food and shelter for Earth's human population.

Most scientists and many international policymakers now consider global warming to be a credible threat to Earth's natural environment and human population. However, attempts to prevent anthropogenic global warming, especially measures that require socioeconomic sacrifice or unfamiliar forms of behavior, have been controversial. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol—an extension of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by most nations—acknowledges that human activities can alter global climate and commits signatory nations to reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions. As of June 2007, 172 nations had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. As of early 2008, the United States, the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gases (edged out by China in 2007) and one of the biggest emitters on a person-by-person basis, had not ratified the treaty. Neither, up to that time, had Australia, the world's largest per capita producer of greenhouse gases as of 2005. These governments argued that the science of global warming remains inconclusive and that the economic consequences of action would be too great. Negotiations for a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol began in November 2007. However, in December of that year, Australia (with a new prime minister after a general election) announced that it was going to ratify the protocol.

Although there are ongoing research efforts to study methods of carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, most proposals to inject large quantities of CO2 into underground reservoirs or oceans have, so far, met with economic, technological, and environmental barriers.

Increased extreme weather is a predicted consequence of global climate change. In August 2007, scientists at the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations, announced that during the first half of 2007, Earth showed significant increases above long-term global averages in both high temperatures and frequency of extreme weather events, including heavy rainfalls, cyclones, and windstorms. Global average land temperatures for January and April of 2007 were the warmest recorded keeping for those two months since record keeping began in the 1800s.

Primary Source Connection

This article details comments about global climate change made to schoolchildren by Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations. Ban states that global climate change will have major impacts on agriculture, economic activity, and migration patterns. Poor people living in developing countries will be among those who suffer the greatest impact from global climate change. Ban asserts that international cooperation will be necessary to win the “war” on global climate change.

William M. Reilly is the U.N. Correspondent for the United Press International (UPI).

THE U.N.'S WAR ON GLOBAL WARMING

UNITED NATIONS, March 5 (UPI) —U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reached back to his past to tell the students he was addressing how as a child he first became aware of the world organization he now heads and how his experience shapes the way he equates the fight against global warming with war.

He spoke last Thursday at the U.N. International School in New York debating climate change.

Having taken over as secretary-general only 59 days earlier, from Kofi Annan, Ban said the speech was the first at the GA podium.

“A child of the Korean war, I grew up viewing the United Nations as a savior; an organization which helped my country, the Republic of Korea, recover and rebuild from a devastating conflict,” the secretary-general said, referring to the 1950–1953 war. “Because of decisions taken in this building, my country was able to grow and prosper in peace,” he said.

The prosperity helped Ban, from a farming village, rise up through his country's diplomatic ranks and become secretary-general.

But Ban said the big difference between the era in which he grew up and the world his audience would inherit was “the relative dangers we face.”

“Yet there is one crucial difference,” he said. “For my generation, coming of age at the height of the cold war, fear of a nuclear winter seemed the leading existential threat on the horizon.”

“Today, war continues to threaten countless men, women and children across the globe,” the secretary-general said. “It is the source of untold suffering and loss and the majority of the U.N.'s work still focuses on preventing and ending conflict. But the danger posed by war to all of humanity—and to our planet—is at least matched by the climate crisis and global warming.”

Said Ban, “I believe that the world has reached a critical stage in its efforts to exercise responsible environmental stewardship. Despite our best intentions and some admirable efforts to date, degradation of the global environment continues unabated, and the world's natural resource base is being used in an unsustainable manner.”

“Moreover, the effects of climate change are being felt around the world,” he said. “The latest assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has established a strong link between human activity and climate change. The panel's projections suggest that all countries will feel the adverse impact.”

Not for the first time, Ban warned, “It is the poor—in Africa, small-island developing states and elsewhere— who will suffer most, even though they are the least responsible for global warming.”

He has mentioned such consequences previously, when listing climate change among his top priorities as new secretary-general.

“I am encouraged to know that, in the industrialized countries from which leadership is most needed, awareness is growing,” Ban said. “In increasing numbers, decision makers are recognizing that the cost of inaction or delayed action will far exceed the short-term investments needed to address this challenge.”

One of the issues he hoped the students would consider is “that there is an inextricable, mutually dependent relationship between environmental sustainability and economic development” around the world.

“Global warming has profound implications for jobs, growth and poverty. It affects agricultural output, the spread of disease and migration patterns,” Ban said. “It determines the ferocity and frequency of natural disasters. It can prompt water shortages, degrade land and lead to the loss of biodiversity.”

The secretary-general said in coming decades, “changes in our environment and the resulting upheavals—from droughts to inundated coastal areas to loss of arable lands—are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict.”

“These issues transcend borders. That is why protecting the world's environment is largely beyond the capacity of individual countries,” he said, arguing the need for concerted and coordinated international action will mean “the natural arena for such action is the United Nations.”

Said the secretary-general, “We are all complicit in the process of global warming. Unsustainable practices are deeply entrenched in our everyday lives. But in the absence of decisive measures, the true cost of our actions will be borne by succeeding generations, starting with yours.”

“That would be an unconscionable legacy; one which we must all join hands to avert,” he said. “As it stands, the damage already inflicted on our ecosystem will take decades, perhaps centuries, to reverse, if we act now.”

“Unfortunately, my generation has been somewhat careless in looking after our one and only planet,” Ban said. “But, I am hopeful that is finally changing and I am also hopeful that your generation will prove far better stewards of our environment.”

William M. Reilly

reilly, william m. “the u.n.'s war on global warming.” upi. march5, 2007. < http://www.upi.com/international_intelligence/analysis/2007/03/05/analysis_the_uns_war_on_global_warming/6584/> (accessed november29, 2007).

See Also Feedback Factors; Greenhouse Effect; Greenhouse Gases.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth:The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2006.

Lal, Rattan, et al. Climate Change and Global Food Security. New York: CRC, 2005.

McCaffrey, Paul. Global Climate Change. Minneapolis, MN: H. W. Wilson, 2006.

Metz, B., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Parry, M. L., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Solomon, S., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Weart, Spencer. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Web Sites

“Climate Change.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. < http://epa.gov/climatechange/index.html> (accessed November 20, 2007).

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. < http://www.ipcc.ch> (accessed November 19, 2007).

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. < http://unfccc.int/2860.php> (accessed November 1, 2007).

Larry Gilman

views updated

Global Warming

Earths Greenhouse Effect

Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases

Predictions and Evidence of Global Warming

Resources

Global warming refers to a long-term increase in the Earths average surface temperature that results in large-scale changes in global climate, including redistribution of climatic zones defined by temperature, precipitation, and associated ecosystems. Global climate changes and episodes of global warming, have occurred throughout geologic history as a result of natural variations in incoming solar radiation, atmospheric chemistry, and oceanic and atmospheric circulation. Anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming and climate change are an ongoing outcome of human activities during the last 150 years, that is, since the Industrial Revolution, when human burning of fossil fuels multiplied many times. Scientific data show that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and human-made chemicals called halocarbons are increasing as a result of emissions associated with human activities, and models predict that this environmental change may lead to global warming. Studies of Antarctic ice cores published in 2005 showed that atmospheric carbon dioxide is now 27% higher than any other point in the last 650,000 years.

Earths Greenhouse Effect

Solar radiation is the major source of energy to Earths surface. Much of that incoming short-wavelength energy is absorbed by the surface where it drives atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and fuels biological processes like photosynthesis. The land and sea surfaces then reradiate extra longer-wavelength heat, or infrared, energy. If Earths atmosphere were transparent to the emitted infrared radiation, the planet would cool relatively efficiently and would have an average surface temperature of about 0°F (18°C). However, the Earths naturally occurring greenhouse effect maintains the planets average temperature at a more livable 59°F (15°C) by trapping some of the escaping heat within the atmosphere. Small concentrations of so-called greenhouse gases, also known as radiatively active gases, absorb some of the infrared energy and thereby delay its passage to space. Water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3) are the most concentrated and effective greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect has been extremely important to the evolution and survival of life on Earth. A surface temperature of 59° F is sufficient to maintain the Earths reservoirs of life-sustaining liquid water, and to impel climatic processes, whereas 0°F is too cold for most organisms to live or for ecological processes to function well.

Atmospheric Concentrations of Greenhouse Gases

Prior to the modern influence of human activities on atmospheric chemistry, the naturally occurring greenhouse gases had fairly stable atmospheric concentrations: carbon dioxide about 280 ppm (or parts per million by volume), methane 0.7 ppm, and nitrous oxide 0.285 ppm. (Human activities do not appear to affect the concentration of water vapor, which varies naturally over time.) Today, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased to about 364 ppm, while that of CH4 is 1.7 ppm, and N2O is 0.304 ppm. The concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and other completely man-made greenhouse gases, have increased from essentially zero to about 0.7 ppb (parts per billion by volume).

Atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases have increased particularly quickly since the middle of the twentieth century, coinciding with rapid human population growth and intensive global industrialization. The combined effects of fossil fuel use and deforestation have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Fossil fuels, like oil, natural gas, and coal contain carbon in their chemical structure that, when liberated by combustion, combines with oxygen to create CO2. Trees, like all plants, take in CO2, incorporate carbon in their structure, and emit O2 back into the atmosphere; deforestation destroys carbon sinks that lower the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Fossil-fuel mining, decomposition of organic materials in human and livestock waste treatment facilities, and flooding in rice agriculture have led to increased emissions of CH4. Agricultural fertilizers, and combustion of fossil fuels and solid wastes account for increased N2O emissions. Industrial processes emit a variety of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases like CFCs, hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

The greenhouse gases vary greatly in their ability to absorb infrared radiation. On a per-molecule basis, methane is about 25-40 times more absorptive than carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is 200-270 times, and CFCs are 3-15 thousand times. CO2, however, has by far the largest atmospheric concentration, and has experienced the greatest increases due to human activity. CO2 is responsible for about 60% of the human contribution to increased atmospheric heat retention.

Predictions and Evidence of Global Warming

Most atmospheric scientists today, with few exceptions, are convinced that the well-documented increase in greenhouse gases is resulting in an intensification of Earths naturally occurring greenhouse effect, with resulting climate change. The exact climatic response to increased concentrations of radia-tively active gases, and its potential effects on humans are, however, difficult to predict. If global climate change proceeds as most recent scientific studies forecast, it will have substantial and disastrous climatic, ecological, and sociopolitical consequences.

The Earths surface is surface temperature is variable from place to place and over time. Furthermore, the systems that interact to maintain the planets temperature and climate are extremely complex; cause-and-effect relationships between changes in one system, the atmosphere in this case, and results in another, global climate, are very difficult to predict, observe, and prove. In spite of these scientific challenges, there is significant evidence that the Earth has warmed significantly during the past 150 years or so, and that global climate has responded to the temperature increase. Climate records show a 1°F increase in the average temperature of the Earths oceans, atmosphere, and solid surface since the late 1900s. Geologic and historical studies document dramatic thinning and shrinkage of the polar ice caps, and retreat of Earths alpine glaciers. Less conclusive, but still suggestive, data supporting anthropogenic global warming include a several centimeter increase in global sea-level since 1900, and alterations in large-scale weather phenomena like the southeast Indian monsoon, Atlantic hurricane season, El Niño Southern Oscillation, and North African drought cycle.

The empirical, or observed, data listed above generally agree with predictions computed by mathematical models of global climate processes. These virtual experiments, called three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs), simulate the complex movements of energy and mass involved in the global circulation of the atmosphere and oceans. Scientists use GCMs to predict the effects of a change in a specific variable, like the concentration of atmospheric CO2, on the rest of the global climate system. Because of the complexity of the computational problem, GCMs that attempt to predict global climate change have had somewhat variable results. However, most experiments do suggest that the increased concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases has resulted, and will continue to result, in global warming. For example, one GCM that doubles the present CO2 concentration to about 700 ppm predicts a 2-6° F rise in global temperature, and suggests that the warming would be 2-3 times more intense at high latitudes than in the tropics.

Other predicted consequences of warming include large-scale shifts in atmospheric and oceanographic circulation patterns, melting of the polar ice caps, global sea-level rise, reorganization of the Earths climatic zones, and establishment of new large-scale weather patterns. Such changes in the distribution of heat, precipitation, and weather phenomena like storms and floods would affect the productivity and distribution of natural and managed vegetation. Animals and microorganisms would experience dramatic changes in their habitats, and perhaps face much higher rates of species extinction. Most ecologists consider that global warming, if were it to occur as predicted, would represent a serious threat to biodiversity and to the health of ecosystems worldwide.

The predicted climatic and biological changes associated with anthropogenic global warming could have potentially disastrous outcomes for the Earths human population. In 2006, about two thirds of the worlds population, some 4 billion people, lived within 120 miles (400 km) of the coast. Even small increases in global sea level, and in the intensity of coastal storms and floods, would threaten the lives and property of large numbers of people. Changes in regional temperature, precipitation, and weather, as well as biological health, would affect the managed agriculture, fishing, and forestry that provide food and shelter for the Earths burgeoning human population.

Most scientists, and many international policymakers, now consider global warming to be a credible threat to the Earths natural environment and human

KEY TERMS

Global warming A projected increase in Earths surface temperature caused by an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases, which absorb infrared energy emitted by Earths surface, thereby slowing its rate of cooling.

Greenhouse effect The warmingof Earths atmosphere as a result of the capture of heat re-radiated from the Earth by certain gases present in the atmosphere.

population. However, because the specific consequences of global warming are difficult to predict, and in some cases unknown, the scientific community remains divided about the potential effects of the phenomenon. Attempts to prevent anthropogenic global warming, especially measures that require socioeco-nomic sacrifice, have therefore been extremely controversial. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC),also called the Kyoto Protocol, acknowledges that human activities can alter global climate, and requires signatory nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As of October 2006, 166 nations had ratified the Kyoto protocol. The United States, by far the worlds largest net producer of greenhouse gases and one of the biggest per capita, had not signed the treaty. Neither had Australia, the worlds largest per capita producer of greenhouse gasses as of 2005. These governments argued that the science of global warming remains inconclusive, and that the economic consequences of action would be too great.

Resources

BOOKS

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books, 2006.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Safeguarding the Ozone Layer and the Global Climate System: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lal, Rattan, et al. Climate Change and Global Food Security. New York: CRC, 2005.

McCaffrey, Paul. Global Climate Change. Minneapolis: H. W. Wilson, 2006.

OTHER

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. <http://www.ipcc.ch> (accessed November 1, 2006).

United Nations. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. <http://unfccc.int/2860.php> (accessed November 1, 2006).

United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change. <http://epa.gov/climatechange/index.html> (accessed November 1, 2006).

Bill Freedman
Laurie Duncan

views updated

Global Warming

Introduction

Global warming is a long-term increase in Earth’s average surface temperature. Because global warming does not cause uniform warming in all locations and because many other changes in climate are occurring, scientists often prefer to speak of “global climate change” rather than of global warming when referring to the whole complex of climate changes being caused by human activities. Thus, scientists often reserve the phrase “global warming” for higher temperatures as such, apart from other climate changes. However, in general usage it still refers to the sum of all changes occurring in Earth’s climate as a result of human activities. A major effect of global warming is redistribution of climatic zones as defined by temperature, precipitation, and associated ecosystems.

Global climate changes, including episodes of global cooling and warming, have occurred many times throughout Earth’s history as a result of natural variations in solar radiation, atmospheric chemistry, oceanic and atmospheric circulations, volcanic eruptions, and other factors. Global warming in the last few decades, however, is primarily caused by human activities that started during the Industrial Revolution, when human burning of fossil fuels began to increase drastically, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2). Atmospheric concentrations of CO2, methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and artificial chemicals called halocarbons have long been increasing as a result of emissions from fossil-fuel burning and other activities. Increased atmospheric concentrations of these gases are causing Earth to warm.

As of 2008, atmospheric levels of CO2 and CH4 were about a third higher than at any time in at least 650,000 years, as shown by air bubbles trapped in ancient Antarctic ice. Global average surface temperature had increased by about 0.23°F (0.13°C) per decade for the last 50 years, and had increased more rapidly in recent years: The two warmest years since instrumental records began in the 1800s were 1998 and 2005.

Although a few scientists continue to doubt that recent climate warming is caused by human activities, this is no longer disputed by the great majority of climatologists, meteorologists, and geophysicists. The 2007 Assessment Report of the United NationsIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pronounced that global warming is now “unequivocal” and that it is more than 90% likely that most of the global warming observed since the mid-twentieth century is caused by anthropogenic releases of greenhouse gases.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Solar radiation is the major source of energy arriving at Earth’s surface (a small fraction, about 1/7500, comes from Earth’s interior). Much of this incoming energy is at short wavelengths (ultraviolet and visible light). These forms of light are absorbed by Earth’s surface, where their energy drives atmospheric and oceanic circulations and biological processes like photosynthesis. The surface then re-radiates most of this energy as longer-wavelength light, variously termed heat radiation, infrared light, or infrared radiation. If Earth’s atmosphere were completely transparent to infrared radiation, this re-radiated energy would simply shine out into space and the planet would have an average surface temperature of about 0°F (–18°C).

However, certain gases in the atmosphere, mostly notably CO2, CH4, and water vapor (H2O), absorb some of the infrared light radiated by Earth’s surface and are warmed. This warms the atmosphere directly and warms Earth’s surface both by contact with warmer air and by re-radiation of infrared radiation from the atmosphere. The overall effect is to slow the escape of energy from Earth, warming the planet like an invisible blanket. Gases that have this effect are termed greenhouse gases because, like the glass windows of a greenhouse, they allow solar energy to enter Earth’s atmosphere but impede the loss of heat. Earth’s atmosphere naturally contains certain levels of greenhouse gases. The resulting natural greenhouse effect maintains the planet’s average temperature at a livable 59°F (15°C). This natural greenhouse effect has been crucial to the evolution and survival of life on Earth. Today’s average surface temperature of 59°F is sufficient to maintain most of Earth’s water in liquid form, but 0°F (-18°C) would be too cold for most organisms to live or for ecological processes to function.

Although atmospheric levels of CO2 and CH4 have varied greatly over geologic time (hundreds of millions of years), by the time of the beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1750, their concentrations had been fairly stable for hundreds of thousands of years. The pre-industrial concentration of CO2 was about 280 parts per million by volume (ppm), of CH4 about 0.7 ppm, and of NO2 about 0.285 ppm. (The special case of water vapor is discussed later.) As of 2005, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 had increased to about 379 ppm, a 36% increase. The concentration of CH4 has gone up to 1.8 ppm and that of N2O to 0.319 ppm. Concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other completely human-made greenhouse gases have increased from zero in pre-industrial times to about 0.7 ppb (parts per billion by volume).

Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased more quickly since the middle of the twentieth century, coinciding with rapid human population growth and global industrialization. The largest single cause of greenhouse gas releases has been the burning of fossil fuels, including oil, natural gas, and coal. Fossil fuels contain carbon which, in burning, combines with oxygen to create CO2.

Deforestation is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. As they grow, trees, like all plants, take in CO2, incorporate the carbon in their structure, and release O2 into the atmosphere. Deforestation therefore destroys a carbon sink that tends to lower the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Deforestation also releases CO2 and CH4 through the burning and decay of trees and soil carbon in deforested areas.

Agriculture is a primary cause of deforestation. It also releases large quantities of CH4 through decomposition of organic materials in livestock digestive systems, livestock waste-treatment facilities, and flooded rice fields. Agricultural fertilizers and combustion of fossil fuels and solid wastes are the primary sources of increased N2O emissions.

Industrial processes emit a variety of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons

WORDS TO KNOW

ANTHROPOGENIC: Made by humans or resulting from human activities.

CARBON SINK: A location like a forest where there is net storage of carbon as sequestration exceeds release.

INFRARED RADIATION: Electromagnetic radiation of a wavelength shorter than radio waves but longer than visible light that takes the form of heat.

INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: The period, beginning about the middle of the eighteenth century, during which humans began to use steam engines as a major source of power.

KYOTO PROTOCOL: Extension in 1997 of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by almost all member countries with the goal of mitigating climate change.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: The process by which plants fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using the energy of sunlight.

RADIATIVE FORCING: A change in the balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation, resulting in warming or cooling of Earth’s surface.

RESIDENCE TIME: For a greenhouse gas, the average amounof time a given amount of the gas stays in the atmosphere before being absorbed or chemically altered.

(PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Many of these chemicals also attack the ozone layer, and their manufacture and use has been limited by the Montreal Protocol treaty of 1987.

Greenhouse gases vary greatly in their ability to absorb infrared radiation. On a per-molecule basis, methane is about 21-40 times more absorptive than carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is 200-270 times more absorptive, and CFCs are 3,000-15,000 times more absorptive. CO2, however, is present in the atmosphere at much higher concentrations than the more-powerful greenhouse gases and has experienced the greatest increases due to human activity. CO2 is responsible for about 60% of the human contribution to increased atmospheric heat retention, termed radiative forcing.

Water vapor is responsible for more of the greenhouse effect than any other single gas, but is not a primary driver of global warming. This apparent contradiction is explained by the fact that the residence time of water vapor in the atmosphere is short. Increased water vapor concentrations, left to themselves, would disappear in a matter of weeks as rain or snow fall from clouds. The other greenhouse gases, however, linger for decades: These gases force the atmosphere to warm, increasing its ability

to hold water vapor. This increased level of water vapor acts to warm the world further. Therefore, water vapor acts as a feedback factor in global warming.

Impacts and Issues

Most scientists today are convinced that an increase in greenhouse gases is resulting in an intensification of Earth’s greenhouse effect, with resulting global warming and climate change. The exact climatic response to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases and its potential effects on humans are difficult to predict, but can be foretold in outline. Moreover, computer models of climate are constantly improving, allowing more realistic predictions to be made about future climate change. If global climate change proceeds as recent scientific studies forecast, it will likely have substantial negative ecological consequences.

Earth’s surface temperature is variable from place to place and over time. Furthermore, the systems that interact to maintain the planet’s temperature and climate are complex; cause-and-effect relationships between the oceans, atmosphere, land, living things, and nonliving chemistry are numerous. In spite of these scientific challenges, there is overwhelming evidence that Earth has warmed significantly during the past 150 years or so. Climate records show that from 1906 to 2005 there was a 1.3°F (0.74°C) increase in Earth’s average surface temperature, with twice as much warming as this global average occurring in the Arctic and over the West Antarctic Peninsula. The oceans have also warmed, though not as much.

Recent observations show dramatic melting of the Arctic sea ice, accelerated melting of the Greenland ice cap, and accelerated seaward flow of glaciers on the western peninsula of Antarctica. Global sea-level has risen since the mid-1800s; for 1961–2003, at about .07 in (1.8 mm) per year. Alterations have been seen in large-scale weather phenomena like the southeast Indian monsoon season, Atlantic hurricane season, El Niño/ Southern Oscillation, and North African drought cycle. Wildlife and plants are shifting their ranges to higher latitudes (closer to the poles, to track cool weather as climate warms) and to higher altitudes in mountainous regions. Many other types of observations, some of which are reviewed elsewhere in this book, independently demonstrate the reality of global warming and the complex changes it has produced in regional climates.

The aforementioned observations agree with predictions by computerized mathematical models of global climate processes. These three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs) simulate the complex movements of energy and mass involved in the global circulation of the atmosphere, oceans, and living things. Scientists use GCMs to predict the effects of changes in specific variables, like the atmospheric concentration of CO2, on the rest of the global climate system. Because of the complexity of the computational problem, GCMs that attempt to predict global climate change have some what variable results. However, modelers now agree that increased concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases have resulted, and will continue to result, in global warming. For example, one GCM that doubles the present CO2 concentration to about 700 ppm predicts a 2-6°F (1.1-3.3°C) rise in global temperature and suggests that the warming would be 2 to 3 times more intense at high latitudes—nearer the poles—than in the tropics. These predictions are consistent with changes seen so far, or, if anything, tend to underestimate the pace of warming.

Other predicted consequences of warming include large-scale shifts in atmospheric and oceanographic circulation patterns, partial melting of the polar ice caps, global sea-level rise, reorganization of Earth’s climatic zones, and establishment of new large-scale weather patterns. Changes in the distribution of heat, precipitation, and weather phenomena like storms and floods will affect the productivity and distribution of natural and managed vegetation. Animals and microorganisms will experience dramatic changes in their habitats and face higher rates of species extinction. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a rise of about 4°F (2.2°C) above the pre-industrial average will likely commit 15-37% of all plant and animal species to extinction. Most biologists agree that global warming is a serious threat to biodiversity and to the health of ecosystems worldwide.

The predicted climatic and biological changes associated with anthropogenic global warming are likely to have negative outcomes for Earth’s human population, although it is likely that some regions will be more severely affected than others. As of 2000, about 400 mil-

IN CONTEXT: AUTHORITATIVE ARGUMENTS AND EVIDENCE ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.”

…“Eleven of the last twelve years (1995–2006) rank among the 12 warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850).”

SOURCE: Solomon, S., et al, eds. “IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers.” In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

lion people lived within 65.6 ft (20 m) of sea level and within 12.4 mi (20 km) of a coast. Even small increases in global sea level, accompanied by increasingly intense coastal storms and floods, can therefore threaten the lives and property of a large number of people. Changes in regional temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather events would affect the managed agriculture, fishing, and forestry that provide food and shelter for Earth’s human population.

Most scientists and many international policymakers now consider global warming to be a credible threat to

Earth’s natural environment and human population. However, attempts to prevent anthropogenic global warming, especially measures that require socioeconomic sacrifice or unfamiliar forms of behavior, have been controversial. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol—an extension of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international treaty signed by most nations—acknowledges that human activities can alter global climate and commits signatory nations to reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions. As of January 2008, 177 nations had ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The United States, the world’s second largest producer of greenhouse gases (after China) and one of the biggest emitters on a person-by-person basis, was the only industrialized country in the world to have not ratified the treaty. (Australia, another holdout, signed in late 2007.) The U.S. government argued that the science of global warming remains inconclusive and that the economic consequences of action would be too great. Negotiations for a follow-up treaty to the Kyoto Protocol began in November 2007.

Although there are ongoing research efforts to study methods of carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, most proposals to inject large quantities of CO2 into underground reservoirs or oceans have, so far, met with economic, technological, and environmental barriers.

Increased extreme weather is a predicted consequence of global climate change. In August 2007, scientists at the World Meteorological Organization, an agency of the United Nations, announced that during the first half of 2007, Earth showed significant increases above long-term global averages in both high temperatures and frequency of extreme weather events, including heavy rainfalls, cyclones, and wind storms. Global average land temperatures for January and April of 2007 were the warmest recorded for those two months since records began in the 1800s.

See Also Climate Change; Greenhouse Effect; Greenhouse Gases; Ice Cores; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; IPCC 2007 Report; Kyoto Protocol; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2006.

Lal, Rattan, et al. Climate Change and Global Food Security. New York: CRC, 2005.

McCaffrey, Paul. Global Climate Change. Minneapolis, MN: H. W. Wilson, 2006.

Metz, B., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Parry, M. L., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Solomon, S., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Weart, Spencer. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Web Sites

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (United Nations). “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” 2008. http://www.ipcc.ch (accessed March 24, 2008).

United Nations. “United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” 2008. http://unfccc.int/2860.php (accessed March 24, 2008).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Climate Change.” March 14, 2008. http://epa.gov/climatechange/index.html (accessed March 24, 2008).

Larry Gilman

views updated

Global Warming


Global warming is the gradual rise of the earth's near-surface temperature over approximately the last hundred years. The best available scientific evidencebased on continuous satellite monitoring and data from about 2,000 meteorological stations around the worldindicates that globally averaged surface temperatures have warmed by about 0.3 to 0.6°C since the late nineteenth century. Different regions have warmedsome have even cooledby different amounts. Generally, the Northern Hemisphere has warmed to a greater extent than the Southern Hemisphere, and mid to high latitudes have generally warmed more than the tropics.

Since the advent of satellites, it has become possible for scientists to thoroughly monitor the earth's climate on a global scale. To examine the historical climate record, however, scientists have to use earlier, sparser forms of measurement, such as long-standing temperature records and less exact "proxy" data, such as the growth of coral, tree rings, as well as information from ice cores, which contain trapped gas bubbles and dust grains representative of the climate in which they were deposited. The bubbles in these cores contain oxygen, particularly oxygen isotopes 180 to 160, which are sensitive to variations in temperature. From the ratio between these isotopes at varying ice depths scientists can reconstruct a picture of the temperature variations over time in specific locations. Greater measurement uncertainty surrounds the earlier parts of this record because of sparse coverage (especially in ocean regions). Despite this uncertainty, the balance of scientific evidence confirms that there has been a discernable warming over the last century.


Causes

Gases such as water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide allow short-wave radiation from the sun to pass through to the surface of the earth, but do not allow long-wave radiation reflected from the earth to travel back out into space. This naturally occurring insulation processdubbed the greenhouse

LEADING COAL-BURNING STATES FOR ELECTRIC POWER GENERATION IN THE UNITED STATES
rank state use (million tons)
source: Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy. Electric Power Annual 2000 , vol. 1. Available from http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epav1.
1 texas 99.7
2 indiana 59.5
3 ohio 55.9
4 pennsylvania 52.1
5 illinois 46.6
6 kentucky 40.2
7 missouri 37.3
8 west virginia 37.0
9 alabama 35.6
10 michigan 33.7
11 georgia 33.5
12 north carolina 29.9
13 florida 29.9
14 wyoming 26.5
15 tennessee 26.1
16 north dakota 25.1
  other states 322.4
  total 990.966

effectkeeps the earth warm: In its absence, the earth would be about 33°C cooler than it is now. However, as the concentration of greenhouse gases increases (due largely to human activities), most scientists agree that the effect is expected to intensify, raising average global temperatures.

However, the earth's climate is known to vary on long timescales. The existence of naturally occurring ice ages and warm periods in the distant past demonstrates that natural factors such as solar variability, volcanic activity, and fluctuations in greenhouse gases play important roles in regulating the earth's climate. A minority of scientists believe that purely natural variations in these factors can account for the observed global warming.


Climate in the Twenty-first Century

Climate forecasts are inherently imprecise largely because of two different sorts of uncertainty: incomplete knowledge about how the system worksunderstandable for a system governed by processes the spatial scales of which range from the molecular to the global and uncertainty about how important climate factors will evolve in the future. A variety of factors affect temperature near the surface of the earth, including variability in solar output, volcanic activity, and dust and other aerosols, in addition to concentrations of greenhouse gases.

However, this uncertainty does not stop one from making some broad statements about (1) the likelihood of the sources of observed global warming and (2) the likely effects of continued warming. In the first case, attempts by climate modelers to reproduce the observed global near-surface temperature record using only natural variability in climate models have proved inadequate. The Third Assessment Report (2001) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attributes some 80 percent of recent rises in global temperature to human activities, with other important contributions coming from volcanic and solar sources. Over the coming century, likely effects of continued warming include higher daily maximum and minimum temperatures, more hot days over most land areas, fewer frosts in winter, fewer cold days over most land areas, a reduced daily range of temperatures, more extreme precipitation events (all very likely), increased risk of drought, increases in cyclone peak wind, and precipitation intensity (likely). Other effects, such as the disintegration of Antarctic ice sheets, carry potentially enormous implications, but are considered very unlikely.


Responses to Climate Change

These effects are likely to be beneficial in some places, but disruptive in most, and as a consequence, governments around the world have begun planning responses to climate change. These fall into two categories: mitigation, which involves taking action to prevent climate change (usually by cutting greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation, which involves adapting to the effects as and after they happen. For example, if sea levels rise in the next century due to thermal expansion of the oceans, low lying areas such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh may be flooded. A mitigation strategy would involve trying to cut emissions to forestall the heat-driven sea level rise, whereas an adaptation strategy might be to build large barriers to prevent the sea level rise from flooding these countries. In wealthy countries such as the Netherlands this is perhaps a viable option. It is not so clear that Bangladeshone of the world's poorest countrieswill be in a position to implement this sort of strategy.

Because of the potentially serious ramifications of continued global warming, the World Meteorological Organisation and United Nations Environment Programme jointly established the IPCC in 1988. It assesses scientific and socioeconomic information on climate change and related impacts, and provides advice on the options for either mitigating climate change by limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases, or adapting to expected changes through developments such as building higher flood defenses.

In the wake of the general increase in the awareness of environmental issues in the Western world since the 1970s, global warming has become an important political issue in the last decade. Following the successful implementation of the Montréal Protocol (1987) that prohibited the production of ozone-depleting gases (i.e., chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs], halons, and carbon tetrachloride) starting in 2000, the international community sought to address the problem of global warming in the Kyoto Protocol (1992). This involves industrialized countries taking the lead on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The protocol requires them to decrease their emissions to 90 percent of their 1990 levels. The Kyoto Protocol comes into effect if fifty-five parties to the convention ratify the protocol, with "annex 1" (or industrialized) parties accounting for 55 percent of that group's carbon dioxide emissions in 1990.

This approach has proved controversial for a variety of reasons: (1) It applies primarily to industrialized countries, freeing some of the world's worst polluters, such as China and Saudi Arabia, from having to comply; (2) the reductions are arbitrarily fixed at 10 percent of a country's 1990 level, irrespective of whether that country is a big polluter, like the United States, or a relatively small polluter, like Sweden; (3) disagreements about whether the cuts imposed by the treaty will actually be worth the economic costs; (4) the treaty targets only gross emissions rather than net emissionsduring the negotiations key differences emerged between a group of nations that favored the use of man-made forests as "carbon sinks" planted to soak up carbon emissions, and countries that believed this to be an inadequate response.

Although the Kyoto Protocol has been enthusiastically backed by European countries, various wealthy countries remain outside the treaty, most notably Australia and the United States. The U.S. decision to not sign the Kyoto Protocol has proved particularly controversial, as the United States emits some 23 percent of global greenhouse emissions, while only containing 5 percent of the global population. The current Bush administration does not intend to ratify the agreement on the grounds "that the protocol is not sound policy," according to U.S. Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky.

see also Carbon Dioxide; CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons); Greenhouse Gases; Halon; Methane (CH4); NOx (Nitrogen Oxides); Ozone; Treaties and Conferences.

Bibliography

Burroughs, William James. Climate Change: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Harvey, L.D. Danny. Global Warming: The Hard Science. Prentice Hall, 1999.


Internet Resources

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Web site. Available at http://www.ipcc.ch.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Climate Change 2001: IPCC Third Assessment Report." Available at http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar.

David Frame

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GLOBAL WARMING

GLOBAL WARMING. Gases created through human industrial and agricultural practices (primarily carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and wood, as well as methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons) increase the heat-reflecting potential of the atmosphere, thereby raising the planet's average temperature.

Early Scientific Work

Since the late nineteenth century, atmospheric scientists in the United States and overseas have known that significant changes in the chemical composition of atmospheric gases might cause climate change on a global scale. In 1824, the French scientist Jean-Baptiste Fourier described how the earth's atmosphere functioned like the glass of a greenhouse, trapping heat and maintaining the stable climate that sustained life. By the 1890s, some scientists, including the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius and the American geologist Thomas Chamberlain, had discerned that carbon dioxide had played a central role historically in regulating global temperatures.

In 1896, Arrhenius provided the first quantitative analysis of how changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide could alter surface temperatures and ultimately lead to climatic change on a scale comparable with the ice ages. In 1899, Chamberlain similarly linked glacial periods to changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide and posited that water vapor might provide crucial positive feedback to changes in carbon dioxide. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Arrhenius further noted that industrial combustion of coal and other fossil fuels could introduce enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to change the temperature of the planet over the course of a few centuries. However, he predicted that warming would be delayed because the oceans would absorb most of the carbon dioxide. Arrhenius further posited various societal benefits from this planetary warming.

Developing Scientific Consensus

Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists con-firmed these early predictions as they probed further into the functioning of the earth's atmospheric system. Early in the century, dozens of scientists around the world contributed to an internationally burgeoning understanding of atmospheric science. By the century's close, thousands of scientists collaborated to refine global models of climate change and regional analyses of how rising temperatures might alter weather patterns, ecosystem dynamics, agriculture, oceans and ice cover, and human health and disease.

While no one scientific breakthrough revolutionized climate change science or popular understanding of the phenomenon, several key events stand out to chart developing scientific understanding of global warming. In 1938, Guy S. Callendar provided an early calculation of warming due to human-introduced carbon dioxide and contended that this warming was evident already in the temperature record. Obscured by the onset of World War II and by a short-term cooling trend that began in the 1940s, Callendar's analysis received short shrift. Interest in global warming increased in the 1950s with new techniques for studying climate, including analysis of ancient pollens, ocean shells, and new computer models. Using computer models, in 1956, Gilbert N. Plass attracted greater attention to the carbon dioxide theory of climate change. The following year, Roger Revelle and Hans Suess showed that oceanic absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide would not be sufficient to delay global warming. They stressed the magnitude of the phenomenon:

Human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future. Within a few centuries we are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years. (Cristianson, Greenhouse, pp. 155–156)

At the same time, Charles Keeling began to measure the precise year-by-year rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. In 1965, the President's Scientific Advisory Committee issued the first U.S. government report that summarized recent climate research and outlined potential future changes resulting from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, the rise of sea level, and the warming of oceans.

By the late 1970s, atmospheric scientists had grown increasingly confident that the buildup of carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and related gases in the atmosphere would have a significant, lasting impact on global climate. Several jointly written government reports issued during President Jimmy Carter's administration presented early consensus estimates of global climate change. These estimates would prove consistent with more sophisticated models refined in the two decades following. A 1979 National Research Council report by Jule G. Charney, Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, declared that "we now have incontrovertible evidence that the atmosphere is indeed changing and that we ourselves contribute to that change. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are steadily increasing, and these changes are linked with man's use of fossil fuels and exploitation of the land" (p. vii). The Charney report estimated a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would probably result in a roughly 3-degree Celsius rise in temperature, plus or minus 1.5 degrees.

Global Warming Politics

As climate science grew more conclusive, global warming became an increasingly challenging political problem. In January 1981, in the closing days of the Carter administration, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) published Global Energy Futures and the Carbon Dioxide Problem. The CEQ report described climate change as the "ultimate environmental dilemma," which required collective judgments to be made, either by decision or default, "largely on the basis of scientific models that have severe limitations and that few can understand." The report reviewed available climate models and predicted that carbon dioxide–related global warming "should be observable now or sometime within the next two decades"

(p. v). With atmospheric carbon dioxide increasing rapidly, the CEQ report noted that the world was already "performing a great planetary experiment" (p. 52).

By the early 1980s, the scientific models of global warming had established the basic contours of this atmospheric phenomenon. Federal environmental agencies and scientific advisory boards had urged action to curb carbon dioxide emissions dramatically, yet little state, federal, or international policymaking ensued. Decades-old federal and state subsidies for fossil fuel production and consumption remained firmly in place. The federal government lessened its active public support for energy efficiency initiatives and alternative energy development. Falling oil and natural gas prices throughout the decade further undermined political support for a national energy policy that would address the problem of global warming.

A complicated intersection of climate science and policy further hindered effective lawmaking. Scientists urged political action, but spoke in a measured language that emphasized probability and uncertainty. Many scientists resisted entering the political arena, and expressed skepticism about their colleagues who did. This skepticism came to a head in reaction to the government scientist James Hansen's efforts to focus national attention on global warming during the drought-filled summer of 1988. As more than 400,000 acres of Yellowstone National Park burned in a raging fire, Hansen testified to Congress that he was 99 percent certain that the earth was getting warmer because of the greenhouse effect. While the testimony brought significant new political attention in the United States to the global warming problem, many of Hansen's scientific colleagues were dismayed by his definitive assertions. Meanwhile, a small number of skeptical scientists who emphasized the un-certainty of global warming and the need to delay policy initiatives fueled opposition to political action.

In 1988, delegates from nearly fifty nations met in Toronto and Geneva to address the climate change problem. The delegates formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), consisting of more than two thousand scientists from around the world, to assess systematically global warming science and policy options. The IPCC issued its first report in 1990, followed by second and third assessments in 1995 and 2001. Each IPCC report provided increasingly precise predictions of future warming and the regional impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, books like Bill McKibben's The End of Nature (1989) and Senator Albert Gore Jr.'s Earth in the Balance (1992) focused popular attention in the United States on global warming.

Yet these developments did not prompt U.S. government action. With its major industries highly dependent on fossil fuel consumption, the United States instead helped block steps to combat climate change at several international conferences in the late 1980s and 1990s. At the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, U.S. negotiators successfully thwarted a treaty with mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the Rio conference adopted only voluntary limits. In 1993, the new administration of Bill Clinton and Albert Gore Jr. committed itself to returning United States emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The administration also attempted to adjust incentives for energy consumption in its 1993 energy tax bill. Defeated on the tax bill and cowed when Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, however, the Clinton administration backed away from significant new energy and climate initiatives.

At the highly charged 1997 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, more than 160 countries approved a protocol that would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and three chlorofluorocarbon substitutes. In the United States, powerful industry opponents to the Kyoto Protocol, represented by the Global Climate Coalition (an industry association including Exxon, Mobil, Shell Oil, Ford, and General Motors, as well as other automobile, mining, steel, and chemical companies), denounced the protocol's "unrealistic targets and timetables" and argued instead for voluntary action and further research. Along with other opponents, the coalition spent millions of dollars on television ads criticizing the agreement, focusing on possible emissions exemptions for developing nations. Although the Clinton administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, strong Senate opposition to the agreement prevented ratification. In 2001, President George W. Bush withdrew his executive support for the protocol.

Growing Signals of Global Warming

By the end of the 1990s, climate science had grown increasingly precise and achieved virtual worldwide scientific consensus on climate change. The 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that global average surface temperature had increased by 0.6 degrees Celsius during the twentieth century, largely due to greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere had increased by approximately 30 percent since the late nineteenth century, rising from 280 parts per million (ppm) by volume to 367 ppm in 1998.

By 2001, signs of global warming were increasingly widespread. With glaciers around the world melting, average sea levels rising, and average precipitation increasing, the 1990s registered as the hottest decade on record in the past thousand years. Regional models predicted widespread shifting of ecosystems in the United States, with alpine ecosystems expected largely to disappear in the lower forty-eight states while savannas or grasslands replace desert ecosystems in the Southwest. The IPCC 2001 report estimated an increase of between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100, a projected increase in global temperature very likely "without precedent during at least the last 10,000 years."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Christianson, Gale E. Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming. New York: Walker, 1999.

Council on Environmental Quality. Global Energy Futures and the Carbon Dioxide Problem. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1981.

Handel, Mark David, and James S. Risbey. An Annotated Bibliography on Greenhouse Effect Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Global Change Science, 1992.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptations, and Vulnerability. Edited by James J. McCarthy et al. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

———. Climate Change 2001: Mitigation. Edited by Bert Metz et al. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

———. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Edited by J. T. Houghton et al. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. 10th anniv. ed. New York: Anchor, 1999.

National Research Council. Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1979.

PaulSabin

See alsoClimate ; Conservation .

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Global Warming and the Ocean

The Earth's climate seems stable in respect to humankind's limited length of historical knowledge, but in reality, it is an ever-changing system. Climate change has been occurring since the Earth began, passing through long periods of fluctuating temperatures.

Climatologists refer to the historical record, which goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, to study recent shifts in climate. This record of temperature measurements indicates that since 1860, the mean (average) annual surface temperature of the Earth has risen by about 0.5 Celsius degrees (0.9 Fahrenheit degrees). This finding supports the theory that the Earth is presently in a period of global warming. The questions important to scientists and policymakers are the extent, period, and cause of the warming.

Factors in Global Warming

One major factor in global warming is a solar heating process termed the greenhouse effect . The glass structure of a greenhouse allows most of the Sun's light inside, but stops a good share of the heat from escaping. This causes the temperature inside the greenhouse to be warmer than the outside air.

The Earth's atmosphere, along with certain greenhouse gases , acts much like a greenhouse, absorbing the infrared energy emitted by the Earth and warming the atmosphere. Without the presence of a greenhouse effect, the temperature of the Earth would be about 18°C (0.4°F) instead of its present 15°C (59°F).

The most abundant greenhouse gas is water vapor, followed closely by carbon dioxide (CO2). There also are trace gases including methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), tropospheric ozone (O3), and human-made chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These trace compounds, though in very low concentrations, are important because they absorb far more radiation, molecule per molecule, than does carbon dioxide. The estimated percent contributions of these greenhouse gases to increased greenhouse effect based on their present concentration in parts per billion by volume (ppbv) are as follows.

Gas ppbv %
CO2 353,000 60
CH4 1700 15
N2O 310 5
O3 1050 8
CFC-11 0.28 4
CFC-12 0.48 8

Carbon Dioxide.

The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere varies over time. Carbon dioxide is both natural and human-made, and has increased by 25 percent in the last 125 years. Human industrial activities, especially since the Industrial Revolution , have increased the CO2 content of the atmosphere. The increase is evident in the following figure, which shows atmospheric CO2 in parts per million (ppm) at three locations: South Pole (red circle); Siple, Antarctica (blue square); and Mauna Loa, Hawaii (green square).

The burning of fossil fuels , such as oil, coal and natural gases, are sources of energy that release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide uptake by plants during photosynthesis, and release by animals during respiration also influences the amount of atmospheric CO2.

There are more land plants in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere simply because there is more land north of the equator. Each year during Northern summers, plants absorb more carbon dioxide than is produced. When the growing season ends in the Northern Hemisphere, the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere resumes the increase that results from the burning of fossil fuels. The seasonal influence of land plants is obvious in the following diagram, which shows atmospheric CO2 in parts per million (ppm) for Mauna Loa, Hawaii.

Because carbon dioxide is 30 times more soluble in water than are most common gases, the ocean contains most of the carbon dioxide in the oceanatmosphere system. The phytoplankton living in the surface layers of the world's oceans convert CO2 into plant tissue, and in some cases use CO2 to build calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells. As organisms die, their remains deposit on the ocean floor, along with other debris, burying calcium carbonate and organic carbon in sea-floor sediments. The ocean therefore performs as a giant sink for carbon dioxide, absorbing the gas and removing it from the atmosphere while depositing much if it as marine sediments.

Ocean Water and Temperature.

The Earth seems to have had a relatively constant temperature over long periods of geologic time. It is reradiating energy back to space at a rate approximately equal to the rate it receives energy. Most of the energy the Earth receives from the Sun lies within the ultraviolet and visible light spectra. The atmosphere is transparent to most of this radiation, but the oceans and the continents absorb about half of it.

Because of the high heat capacity of water, the oceans can absorb and hold much more solar energy than the air or the continents. When the oceans reradiate this stored energy back toward space, it is changed to infrared energy. The greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorb some of this infrared radiation, which warms the atmosphere.

Paleoclimatology

To understand how the present-day global climate compares to past climates, scientists have had to look beyond the limited 140 years of weather data and examine the Earth's paleoclimate. Paleoclimate is a term used to describe the ancient climate long before instruments were developed. Instead of instrumental measurements of weather and climate, paleoclimatologists use natural environmental (proxy) records to estimate past climate conditions.

Research methods involve analyzing sediment core samples from the ocean floor and ice cores from the polar ice packs.* Some of the things being sought are fossil plankton , plant pollen, and preserved insects that are locked in ocean sediments, and chemical and isotopic data from sediments and polar ice. By dating the samples and identifying species and abundance, researchers can reconstruct the general climate of a region during its geologic past. For example, globally averaged temperatures and the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in parts per million (ppm) over the past 160,000 years have been estimated as follows.

The paleoclimatic record not only allows scientists to examine global temperature fluctuations over the last several centuries, but it also reveals past climate change even farther back in time. This perspective is an important tool used to help understand the possible causes of the present-day global warming.

The Effects of Global Warming

In 1988, the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to evaluate information on climate change. In a 2001 report, the IPCC concluded that 1) global warming will occur if greenhouse gas concentrations increase, and 2) the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is increasing. It can thus be inferred that global warming is occurring.

Each year, human activities inject 6 billion tons (6 gigatons) of CO2 into the atmosphere. Three gigatons remain there, 1.5 gigatons go into the ocean, and the fate of the remaining 1.5 gigatons is unknown. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide were about 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), and current levels are about 370 ppmv. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today has not been exceeded in the last 420,000 years. By the end of the twenty-first century, some scientists expect to see carbon dioxide concentrations of anywhere from 490 to 1260 ppmv, which is 75 percent to 350 percent above the estimated pre-industrial concentration.

The projected temperature change of 1.5°C to 4°C (3°F to 7°F) by the year 2100 would be unprecedented in comparison with the best available records from the last several thousand years. This could cause higher sea-surface temperatures, intense tropical storms, longer and more intense heat waves, and melting of ice in glaciers and ice shelves.

Warming is expected to be more pronounced in high northern latitudes than in high southern latitudes. An increase in temperature accompanied by an increase in rainfall could decrease the density of the surface sea water that now sinks to the ocean floor forming the North Atlantic Deep Water. In that case, the thermohaline circulation of the ocean would be altered, and could further accelerate global warming. Computer models of climate change are undergoing continual refinement in an effort to decrease the uncertainty of these predictions.

see also Algal Blooms in the Ocean; Carbon Dioxide in the Ocean and Atmosphere; Climate and the Ocean; El NiÑo and La NiÑa; Glaciers, Ice Sheets, and Climate Change; Global Warming and Glaciers; Global Warming and the Hydrologic Cycle; Global Warming: Policy-making; Ice at Sea; Ice Cores and Ancient Climatic Conditions; Ocean Biogeochemistry; Ocean Currents; Ocean-Floor Sediments; Oceans, Polar; Sea Level; Sea Water, Physics and Chemistry Of.

Ron Crouse

Bibliography

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Geneva, Switzerland: World Meteorological Organization and UN Environment Programme, 2001. Available online at <http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/index.htm>.

Philander, S. George. Is the Temperature Rising? The Uncertain Science of Global Warming. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Thurman, Harold V., and Elizabeth A. Burton. Introductory Oceanography, 9th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

Internet Resources

Climate Monitoring and Diagnostic Laboratory. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. <http://www.cmdl.noaa.gov/>.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. <http://www.ipcc.ch>.

* See "Ocean-Floor Sediments" for a photograph of a sediment core, and "Ice Cores and Ancient Climatic Conditions" for a photograph of an ice core.

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Global warming

Global warming refers to a long-term increase in the Earth's surface temperature that results in large-scale changes in global climate , namely redistribution of climatic zones defined by temperature, precipitation , and associated adapted ecosystems. Global climate changes, and episodes of global warming, have occurred throughout geologic history as a result of natural variations in incoming solar radiation , atmospheric chemistry , and oceanic and atmospheric circulation . Anthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming and climate change are a potential outcome of human activities during the last 150 years. Scientific data show that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide , methane, nitrous oxide, and man-made chemicals called halocarbons are increasing as a result of emissions associated with human activities, and models predict that this environmental change may lead to global warming.


Earth's greenhouse effect

Solar radiation is the major source of energy to Earth's surface. Much of that incoming short-wave-length energy is absorbed by the surface where it drives atmospheric and oceanic circulation, and fuels biological processes like photosynthesis . The land and sea surfaces then reradiate extra longer-wavelength heat , or infrared, energy. If Earth's atmosphere were transparent to the emitted infrared radiation, the planet would cool relatively efficiently and would have an average surface temperature of about 0°F (-18°C). However, the Earth's naturally occurring "greenhouse effect" maintains the planet's average temperature at a more livable 59°F (15°C) by trapping some of the escaping heat within the atmosphere. Small concentrations of so-called "green-house gases," also known as radiatively active gases, absorb some of the infrared energy and thereby delay its passage to space . Water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3) are the most concentrated and effective greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect has been extremely important to the evolution and survival of life on Earth . A surface temperature of 59°F is sufficient to maintain the Earth's reservoirs of life-sustaining liquid water, and to impel climatic processes, whereas 0°F is too cold for most organisms to live or for ecological processes to function well.


Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases

Prior to the modern influence of human activities on atmospheric chemistry, the naturally occurring greenhouse gases had fairly stable atmospheric concentrations: carbon dioxide about 280 ppm (or parts per million by volume ), methane 0.7 ppm, and nitrous oxide 0.285 ppm. (Human activities do not appear to affect the concentration of water vapor, which varies naturally over time.) Today, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased to about 364 ppm, while that of CH4 is 1.7 ppm, and N2O is 0.304 ppm. The concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) , and other completely man-made, or synthetic, greenhouse gases, have increased from essentially zero to about 0.7 ppb (parts per billion by volume).

Atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases have increased particularly quickly since the middle of the twentieth century, coinciding with rapid human population growth and intensive global industrialization. The combined effects of fossil fuel use and deforestation have increased the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Fossil fuels , like oil, natural gas , and coal contain carbon in their chemical structure that, when liberated by combustion , combines with oxygen to create CO2. Trees, like all plants, take in CO2, incorporate carbon in their structure, and emit O2 back into the atmosphere; deforestation destroys carbon "sinks" that lower the atmospheric concentration of CO2. Fossil-fuel mining , decomposition of organic materials in human and livestock waste treatment facilities, and flooding in rice agriculture have led to increased emissions of CH4. Agricultural fertilizers , and combustion of fossil fuels and solid wastes account for increased N2O emissions. Industrial processes emit a variety of powerful synthetic greenhouse gases like CFCs, hydrofluorcarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).

The greenhouse gases vary greatly in their ability to absorb infrared radiation. On a per-molecule basis, methane is about 25–40 times more absorptive than carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide is 200–270 times stronger, and CFCs are 3–15 thousand times more effective. CO2, however, has by far the largest atmospheric concentration, and has experienced the greatest increases; CO2 is responsible for about 60% of the human contribution to increased atmospheric heat retention.


Predictions and evidence of global warming

Most atmospheric scientists assume that the well-documented increase in greenhouse gases will result in an intensification of Earth's naturally occurring greenhouse effect, and to global warming. The exact climatic response to increased concentrations of radiatively active gases, and its potential effects on humans are, however, difficult to measure or predict. However, if global warming were to occur as most scientific studies predict, it would have substantial climatic, ecological, and sociopolitical consequences.

The Earth's surface is surface temperature is extremely variable from place to place, and over time . Furthermore, the systems that interact to maintain the planet's temperature and climate are extremely complex; cause-and-effect relationships between changes in one system, the atmosphere in this case, and results in another, global climate, are very difficult to predict, observe, and "prove." In spite of these scientific challenges, there is significant evidence that the Earth has warmed significantly during the past 150 years or so, and that global climate has responded to the temperature increase. Climate records show a 1°F increase in the average temperature of the Earth's oceans, atmosphere, and solid surface since the late 1900s. Geologic and historical studies document dramatic thinning and shrinkage of the polar ice caps , and retreat of Earth's alpine glaciers . Less conclusive, but still suggestive, data supporting anthropogenic global warming include a several centimeter increase in global sea-level since 1900, and alterations in large-scale weather phenomena like the southeast Indian monsoon , Atlantic hurricane season, El Niño Southern Oscillation, and North African drought cycle.

The empirical, or observed, data listed above generally agree with predictions computed by mathematical models of global climate processes. These "virtual experiments," called three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs), simulate the complex movements of energy and mass involved in the global circulation of the atmosphere and oceans. Scientists use GCMs to predict the effects of a change in a specific variable, like the concentration of atmospheric CO2, on the rest of the global climate system. Because of the complexity of the computational problem, GCMs that attempt to predict global climate change have had somewhat variable results. However, most experiments do suggest that the increased concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases has resulted, and will continue to result, in global warming. For example, one GCM that doubles the present CO2concentration to about 700 ppm predicts a 2°-6°F rise in global temperature, and suggests that the warming would be 2–3 times more intense at high latitudes than in the tropics.

Other predicted consequences of warming include large-scale shifts in atmospheric and oceanographic circulation patterns, melting of the polar ice caps, global sea-level rise, reorganization of the Earth's climatic zones, and establishment of new large-scale weather patterns. Such changes in the distribution of heat, precipitation, and weather phenomena like storms and floods would affect the productivity and distribution of natural and managed vegetation. Animals and microorganisms would experience dramatic changes in their habitats, and perhaps face much higher rates of species extinction . Most ecologists consider that global warming, if were it to occur as predicted, would represent a serious threat to biodiversity and to the health of ecosystems worldwide.

The predicted climatic and biological changes associated with anthropogenic global warming could have potentially disastrous outcomes for the Earth's human population. In 1998, more than half of the world's population, some 3.2 billion people, lived with in 120 miles of the ocean . Even small increases in global sea level , and in the intensity of coastal storms and floods, would threaten the lives and property of large numbers of people. Changes in regional temperature, precipitation, and weather, as well as biological health, would affect the managed agriculture, fishing, and forestry that provide food and shelter for the Earth's burgeoning human population.

Most scientists, and many international policy-makers, now consider global warming to be a credible threat to the Earth's natural environment and human population. However, because the specific consequences of global warming are difficult to predict, and in some cases unknown, the scientific community remains divided about the potential effects of the phenomenon. Attempts to prevent anthropogenic global warming, especially measures that require socioeconomic sacrifice, have therefore been extremely controversial. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC), also called the Kyoto Protocol, acknowledges that human activities can alter global climate, and requires signatory nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As of November 2002, 181 nations had signed, ratified, or acceded to the conditions of the Kyoto protocol. However, the United States, by far the world's largest per-capita producer of greenhouse gases, did not sign the treaty on the grounds that the science of global warming remains inconclusive, and that the economic consequences of action would be too great.


Resources

books

Evans, C.A., and N.H. Marcus. Biological Consequences of Global Climate Change. University Science Books,1996.

Freedman, B. Environmental Ecology. Academic Press, 1996.

Houghton, J.T. Global Warming: The Complete Briefing. Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Philander, S.G. Is the Temperature Rising?: The Uncertain Science of Global Warming. Princeton University Press, 1998.

organizations

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. United Nations Environment Program, Two UN Plaza, Room DC2–803, New York, NY 10017. (212) 963–8210. <http://www.ipcc.ch.>

other

United Nations. "United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change." November 10, 2002 [cited November 13, 2002]. <http://unfccc.int/index.html>.

United States Environmental Protection Agency. "Global Warming." October 2, 2002 [cited November 13, 2002]. <http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/index.html>.


Bill Freedman
Laurie Duncan

KEY TERMS

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Global warming

—A projected increase in Earth's surface temperature caused by an increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases, which absorb infrared energy emitted by Earth's surface, thereby slowing its rate of cooling.

Greenhouse effect

—The warming of the Earth's atmosphere as a result of the capture of heat re-radiated from the Earth by certain gases present in the atmosphere.

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Global Warming and the Hydrologic Cycle

To maintain the global water balance, evaporation from oceans worldwide must be balanced by precipitation into the oceans plus runoff from the continents. Earth's atmosphere contains only 0.001 percent of the Earth's water, yet it is an essential component of the global hydrologic cycle: currents of air carry water vapor over land, and the resulting precipitation enables life on land.

Increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases , mainly carbon dioxide, have led to a warming at the surface, by nearly 0.6°C (1.0°F) during the twentieth century, and it is widely believed that this trend will continue in the twenty-first century, leading to a higher sea-surface temperature, among other factors.

One intuitive consequence of a warmer ocean surface is a larger vapor-pressure difference between the sea surface and the adjacent atmosphere. This would enhance the evaporation rate, and hence increase the other components of the hydrologic cycle.

Numerous empirical observations and models of the global climate confirm the hypothesis that global warming enhances the global hydrologic cycle. For instance, a global warming by 4°C (7.2°F) is expected to increase global precipitation by about 10 percent. Models suggest that the increase is more likely to come as heavier rainfall, rather than as more frequent rainfalls or falls of longer duration.

Evidence of Hydrologic Changes

The following seven arguments suggest that the hydrologic cycle already has measurably intensified. First, observed global warming is almost entirely due to an increase in nighttime temperature. Daily minimum temperatures have increased at twice the rate of daytime temperatures since 1950 (roughly 1.0°C versus 0.5°C). This suggests increased cloudiness and/or humidity at night, and increased evaporative cooling during the daytime. (This cooling is analogous to body heat evaporating rubbing alcohol from one's skin, leaving one's body somewhat cooled in the process.)

Second, radiosonde (balloon-borne instrumentation) and satellite data suggest that the mean (average) atmospheric water-vapor concentration has increased. This enables storms to generate more precipitation.

Third, precipitation amounts have changed in different ways in various regions during the last 80 years, but they generally have increased in the middle and high latitudes, often in excess of 10 percent. In the United States, annual rainfall has increased by about 10 percent during the twentieth century, on average. The largest increases in precipitation are expected to occur near polar regions, for two reasons. One, observations and climate models indicate that the warming rate has been and will continue to be the highest there, and warmer air can hold more water vapor. Two, the warming will reduce the extent of sea ice , thereby allowing more evaporation from open water.

It should be noted that decreases in precipitation have been observed in some regions. In the Northern Hemisphere tropics, especially in Africa, a significant decrease in rainfall has occurred since 1950. Intense drought plagues the African Sahel region more than ever before. Yet in the tropical Pacific, the sea-surface temperature, evaporation rate, and rainfall amounts all have increased.

Fourth, the observed increase in precipitation in the last few decades has been due in large part to a disproportionate increase in heavy and extreme precipitation rates. This is consistent with climate model predictions.

Fifth, an increased intensity of storms associated with atmospheric fronts in the Northern Hemisphere has been observed over the past few decades.

Sixth, on a longer timescale, ice cores drilled on the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica show that during the last glacial maximum, 20,000 years before the present (BP), there was more dust in the air. There is other evidence that suggests that global precipitation amounts were lower during the Ice Age. Apparently the hydrologic cycle intensified after the Ice Age, and more aerosols were washed out before they could settle on the ice sheets, explaining the cleaner layers of ice in the ice cores after 20,000 BP.

Finally, more rain tends to fall if the monthly mean (average) temperature is above normal, as shown by observations in the United States and in Australia. This is consistent with model predictions.

An enhancing hydrologic cycle, in turn, may enhance global warming, through several mechanisms. One mechanism is the water-vapor feedback, because water vapor is a key greenhouse gas. Also, increased cloudiness heats the planet, at least if the clouds are high or deep, as is the case for most storms. This is because high or deep clouds reduce the outgoing long-wave radiation more than the net incoming short-wave radiation.

Consequences of Global Warming

Although a larger global mean annual rainfall and a smaller number of frost days may have beneficial effects, especially for agriculture, the various factors listed above also have the following undesirable consequences.

  • Rising nighttime temperatures exacerbate heat waves and reduce the beneficial effects of frost in killing pests or insect-borne diseases.
  • The positive water-vapor feedback loop may increase the rate of global warming. This response is one of the major uncertainties in climate-change prediction.
  • Higher temperatures and heavier precipitation in winter imply more runoff and smaller mountain snowpacks in places such as the northwestern United States. In other words, both winter floods and summer water shortages are expected to become more frequent and intense. More surface reservoirs will be needed to handle both pressures, yet the building or even the maintenance of dams is facing increasing opposition, often from environmental groups.
  • Higher rainfall intensities imply more frequent floods, and require more expensive flood-control measures.
  • An increase in rainfall intensity also may be detrimental to agriculture, because it causes more soil erosion and implies relatively less soil infiltration.
  • More inclement storms, mainly in winter, increases the risk of hazards along shorelines, especially as more people live near the coast.

see also Coastal Waters Management; Floodplain Management; Glaciers, Ice Sheets, and Climate Change; Global Warming and Glaciers; Global Warming and the Ocean; Hydrologic Cycle; Ice at Sea; Sea LEvel.

Bart Geerts

Bibliography

Bates, J. J., X. Wu, and D. L. Jackson. "Interannual Variability of Upper-Tropospheric Water Vapor Band Brightness Temperature." Journal of Climate 9 (1996): 427438.

Fowler, A. M., and K. T. Hennessy. "Potential Impacts of Global Warming on the Frequency and Magnitude of Heavy Precipitation." Natural Hazards 11 (1995): 283303.

Groisman, P. et al. "Changes in the Probability of Heavy Precipitation: Important Indicators of Climatic Change." Climatic Change 42 (1999):243283.

Huang, J., and H. M. van den Dool. "Monthly Precipitation-Temperature Relations and Temperature Prediction over the United States." Journal of Climate 6 (1993): 11111132.

Hulme M. "Estimating Global Changes in Precipitation." Weather 50 (1995):3645.

Karl, T. et al. "A New Perspective on Recent Global Warming: Asymmetric Trends of Daily Maximum and Minimum Temperature." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 74 (1993):10071024.

Morrissey, M. L., and N. E. Graham. "Recent Trends in Rain Gage Measurements from the Tropical Pacific: Evidence for an Enhanced Hydrologic Cycle." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 77 (1996):12071219.

Yung, Y. L. et al. "Dust: A Diagnostic of the Hydrologic Cycle During the Last Glacial Maximum." Science 271 (1996):962963.

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Global Warming

Global warming is an example of global climatic change. To understand the concept of global warming and make decisions about how to respond to the seemingly contradictory information received from various sources, it is important to distinguish between climate and weather. Weather applies to short-term changes in properties of the lower atmosphere such as temperature, relative humidity, precipitation, cloud cover, barometric pressure, and wind speed. Climate is the general pattern of weather conditions, seasonal variation, and weather extremes over a long timeat least thirty years. A summer with record high temperatures is not a signal that global warming is occurring. A winter with record cold is not proof that global warming is not occurring. Climate change, especially global climate change, must be determined from global averages of weather conditions collected, averaged, and compared over decades.

Climate Change

Earth's climate has changed dramatically many times in the past and will almost certainly change many times in the future. Twenty thousand years ago, the places where Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit now stand were covered with ice. Scientists do not know what caused the ice to spread or what caused it to retreat. Once the ice began to retreat, it did so very rapidly, completely disappearing in a few thousand years. Only a few remnants, such as the Greenland ice sheet, still exist. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, global sea levels would rise by 8 to 10 meters (26 to 33 feet), and many major seaports and coastlines would be flooded. If the Antarctic ice sheet melted, Earth's oceans would rise by 100 meters (330 feet).

Humans would survive climate changes of this magnitude, but social and political organizations probably would not. Scientists know this because past civilizations have not survived similar climate changes. Around 1000 C. E. , a well-established Norse colony thrived in what is now southern Greenland. The colony had been established during a relatively warm period when the temperatures in the area were 2 to 4°C (4 to 7°F) above average. It vanished almost without trace as the climate returned to normal, an ice sheet moved back over pastures, and the advancing sea ice cut off communications. That small temperature change made the difference between a thriving colony and disaster.

Earth's climate is still changing. Research strongly indicates that Earth is gradually warming up. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the best estimates are that Earth's temperature has increased by 0.5°C (1.0°F) in the last century, precipitation has increased by 1 percent, and sea level has risen by 2 to 5 centimeters (1.0 to 2.0 inches). This is strong evidence for a small but significant increase in global average temperature. Almost all scientists agree with these facts. However, scientists cannot agree on what causes global warming. Many researchers are convinced the data show unequivocally that global warming is directly related to the increase in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Others feel the data simply indicate a short-term climatic phenomenon.

The "greenhouse" effect is somewhat misnamed. A greenhouse gets warm on a sunny winter day because the sunlight passes through the glass, warming the plants and other surfaces in the greenhouse. The plants warm the air, but the warm air cannot escape, so the temperature in the greenhouse rises. The planetary greenhouse effect operates a little differently. Infrared radiation from the sun passes through the atmosphere and warms the surface of Earth. As the surface warms, it also radiates infrared. However, since the temperature of Earth is much lower than the temperature of the surface of the sun, the infrared radiation emitted by the ground, building, rocks, and plants has a much longer wavelength. Radiation of this longer wavelength cannot pass through the atmosphere, and is absorbed by the air or reflected back to the ground.

A little greenhouse effect is a good thing. If it were not for the greenhouse effect, Earth's average surface temperature would be well below the freezing point of water and life could not exist. The question is, can we have too much of a good thing? Is it possible that rising temperatures on Earth are due to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?

Greenhouse Gases

There are several greenhouse gases. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane (from plant decay and other sources), nitrous oxide (from volcanoes), and ozone. All these gases can also result from human activity. Carbon dioxide is released when fossil fuels are burned. Methane is emitted from livestock operations and the decomposition of organic waste. Nitrous oxide is emitted by internal combustion engines and by the burning of solid waste. Several synthetic materials are powerful greenhouse gases, including hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride.

Of all the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide causes the most concern and is therefore closely monitored. Scientists know that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased steadily since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Most scientists also agree that the average surface temperature of Earth has increased by about 0.5°C (1°F) over the last 100 years. In addition, most scientists now think there is a direct correlation between the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the increase in the global average temperature. What remains uncertain is what will happen in the future and what should be done about it. Although the consensus among scientists is that Earth's temperature will continue to increase over the next 100 years, there is no consensus on the size of the increase. Estimates range from 1°C (2°F) to over 5°C (9°F). A 10°C rise will have little effect and is no cause for alarm. However, a 5°C rise could have disastrous consequences. Sea level could rise by 100 meters (330 feet), deserts could expand dramatically, and precipitation patterns would change in unpredictable ways.

Controversy Over Global Warming

Discussions about global warming have become intensely political, with "conservatives" and "liberals" taking contradictory positions. Two questions related to global warming should be discussed and debated. The first question is whether global warming is occurring and whether humans are causing it. The second question is thisif global warming is occurring and humans are causing it, what should be done about it? This second question is clearly a matter of public policy and political process. Public media, Congress, and other public forums are the appropriate arenas for the debate about this question.

Many national governments and international organizations continue to raise concerns about global warming and the possible link to carbon dioxide emissions. Most countries are firmly committed to strengthening international response to risks of adverse climate change. Since gases emitted into the atmosphere do not recognize political boundaries, this is a legitimate question of international concern. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change currently provides a vehicle for discussion and continuing scientific research into this difficult problem.

see also Fossil Fuels.

Elliot Richmond

Bibliography

Barnes-Svarney, Patricia. New York Public Library Desk Reference. New York: Macmillan, 1995.

Berger, John J. Beating the Heat: Why & How We Must Combat Global Warming. Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Hills Books, 2000.

Gelbspan, Ross. The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing Company, Inc., 1998.

Goodstein, Eban. The Trade-Off Myth: Fact and Fiction About Jobs and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999.

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