Science & Environment

What is climate change?

Polar bear Image copyright Science Photo Library

BBC News looks at what we know and don't know about the Earth's changing climate.

What is climate change?

The planet's climate has constantly been changing over geological time. The global average temperature today is about 15C, though geological evidence suggests it has been much higher and lower in the past.

However, the current period of warming is occurring more rapidly than many past events. Scientists are concerned that the natural fluctuation, or variability, is being overtaken by a rapid human-induced warming that has serious implications for the stability of the planet's climate.

What is the "greenhouse effect"?

The greenhouse effect refers to the way the Earth's atmosphere traps some of the energy from the Sun. Solar energy radiating back out to space from the Earth's surface is absorbed by atmospheric greenhouse gases and re-emitted in all directions.

The energy that radiates back down to the planet heats both the lower atmosphere and the surface. Without this effect, the Earth would be about 30C colder, making our planet hostile to life.

Scientists believe we are adding to the natural greenhouse effect with gases released from industry and agriculture, trapping more energy and increasing the temperature.

The most important of these gases in the natural greenhouse effect is water vapour, but concentrations show little change. Other greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which are released by burning fossil fuels as well as through cutting down carbon-absorbing forests.

Since the industrial revolution began in 1750, CO2 levels have risen by more than 30% and methane levels have risen more than 140%. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in at least 800,000 years.

What is the evidence for warming?

Temperature records going back to the late 19th Century show that the average temperature of the Earth's surface has increased by about 0.8C (1.4F) in the last 100 years. About 0.6C (1.0F) of this warming occurred in the last three decades.

Satellite data shows an average increase in global sea levels of some 3mm per year in recent decades. A large proportion of the change in sea level is accounted for by the expansion of warming oceans. But the melting of mountain glaciers and the retreat of polar ice sheets are also important contributors.

Most glaciers in temperate regions of the world and along the Antarctic Peninsula are in retreat. Since 1979, satellite records show a dramatic decline in Arctic sea-ice extent, at an annual rate of 4% per decade. In 2012, the ice extent reached a record minimum that was 50% lower than the 1979-2000 average.

Image copyright NASA

The Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced record melting in recent years; if the entire 2.8 million cu km sheet were to melt, it would raise sea levels by 6m.

Satellite data shows the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is also losing mass, and a recent study indicated that East Antarctica, which had displayed no clear warming or cooling trend, may also have started to lose mass in the last few years. But scientists are not expecting dramatic changes. In some places, mass may actually increase as warming temperatures drive the production of more snows.

The effects of a changing climate can also be seen in vegetation and land animals. These include earlier flowering and fruiting times for plants and range-shifts for terrestrial animals.

Image copyright SPL
Image caption Climate change could cause more extremes of weather

What about the pause?

Some commentators have argued that since 1998, there has been no significant global warming despite ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted. Scientists have tried to explain this in a number of ways.

These include: variations in the Sun's energy output; a decline in atmospheric water vapour; and greater storage of heat by the oceans. But so far, there is no general consensus on the precise mechanism behind the pause.

Sceptics highlight the pause as an example of the fallibility of predictions based on computer climate models. On the other hand, climate scientists point out that the hiatus occurs in just one component of the climate system - the global mean surface temperature - and that other indicators, such as melting ice and changes to plant and animal life, demonstrate that the Earth has continued to warm.

How much will temperatures rise in future?

In its 2007 assessment, the IPCC forecast a global temperature increase of 1.8C to 4C by 2100.

Even if we cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically now, scientists say the effects will continue because parts of the climate system, particularly large bodies of water and ice, can take hundreds of years to respond to changes in temperature. It also takes greenhouse gases decades to be removed from the atmosphere.

What will the impacts be?

The scale of potential impacts is uncertain. The changes could drive freshwater shortages, bring sweeping changes in food production conditions, and increase the number of deaths from floods, storms, heat waves and droughts.

Scientists forecast more rainfall overall, but say the risk of drought in inland areas during hot summers will increase. More flooding is expected from storms and rising sea levels. There are, however, likely to be very strong regional variations in these patterns.

Poorer countries, which are least equipped to deal with rapid change, could suffer the most.

Plant and animal extinctions are predicted as habitats change faster than species can adapt, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the health of millions could be threatened by increases in malaria, water-borne disease and malnutrition.

The increased uptake of CO2 into the oceans will lead to them becoming more acidic. This ongoing process of acidification could pose major problems for the world's coral reefs, as the changes in chemistry prevent corals from forming a calcified skeleton, which is essential for their survival.

What don't we know?

Computer models are used to study the dynamics of the Earth's climate and make projections about future temperature change. But these climate models differ on "climate sensitivity" - the amount of warming or cooling that occurs as a particular factor, such as CO2. goes up or down.

Models also differ in the way that they express "climate feedbacks".

Global warming will cause some changes that look likely to create further heating, such as the release of large quantities of the greenhouse gas methane as permafrost melts. This is known as a positive climate feedback.

But negative feedbacks exist that could offset warming. For example, the oceans and land absorb CO2 as part of the carbon cycle.

The question is: how these will balance out.

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