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Old Monday, March 17, 2008
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Default Global Warming

Global Warming

global warming, the gradual increase of the temperature of the earth's lower atmosphere as a result of the increase in greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution.

The temperature of the atmosphere near the earth's surface is warmed through a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Visible, shortwave light comes from the sun to the earth, passing unimpeded through a blanket of thermal, or greenhouse, gases composed largely of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Infrared radiation reflects off the planet's surface toward space but does not easily pass through the thermal blanket. Some of it is trapped and reflected downward, keeping the planet at an average temperature suitable to life, about 60°F (16°C).

Growth in industry, agriculture, and transportation since the Industrial Revolution has produced additional quantities of the natural greenhouse gases plus chlorofluorocarbons and other gases, augmenting the thermal blanket. It is generally accepted that this increase in the quantity of greenhouse gases is trapping more heat and increasing global temperatures, making a process that has been beneficial to life potentially disruptive and harmful. During the 20th cent., the atmospheric temperature rose 1.1°F (0.6°C), and sea level rose several inches. Some projected, longer-term results of global warming include melting of polar ice, with a resulting rise in sea level and coastal flooding; disruption of drinking water supplies dependent on snow melts; profound changes in agriculture due to climate change; extinction of species as ecological niches disappear; more frequent tropical storms; and an increased incidence of tropical diseases.

Among factors that may be contributing to global warming are the burning of coal and petroleum products (sources of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone); deforestation, which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; methane gas released in animal waste; and increased cattle production, which contributes to deforestation, methane production, and use of fossil fuels.

Much of the debate surrounding global warming has centered on the accuracy of scientific predictions concerning future warming. To predict global climatic trends, climatologists accumulate large historical databases and use them to create computerized models that simulate the earth's climate. The validity of these models has been a subject of controversy. Skeptics say that the climate is too complicated to be accurately modeled, and that there are too many unknowns. Some also question whether the observed climate changes might simply represent normal fluctuations in global temperature. Nonetheless, for some time there has been general agreement that at least part of the observed warming is the result of human activity, and that the problem needs to be addressed. In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, over 150 nations signed a binding declaration on the need to reduce global warming.

In 1994, however, a UN scientific advisory panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that reductions beyond those envisioned by the treaty would be needed to avoid global warming. The following year, the advisory panel forecast a rise in global temperature of from 1.44 to 6.3°F (0.8–3.5°C) by 2100 if no action is taken to cut down on the production of greenhouse gases, and a rise of from 1 to 3.6°F (0.5–2°C) even if action is taken (because of already released gases that will persist in the atmosphere). A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, based on a three-year study, termed global warming “unequivocal” and said that most of the change was most likely due to human activities.

A UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 resulted in an international agreement to fight global warming, which called for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations. Not all industrial countries, however, immediately signed or ratified the accord. In 2001 the G. W. Bush administration announced it would abandon the Kyoto Protocol; because the United States produces about one quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, this was regarded as a severe blow to the effort to slow global warming. Despite the American move, most other nations agreed later in the year (in Bonn, Germany, and in Marrakech, Morocco) on the details necessary to convert the agreement into a binding international treaty, which came into force in 2005 after ratification by more than 125 nations.

Improved automobile mileage, reforestation projects, energy efficiency in construction, and national support for mass transit are among relatively simpler adjustments that could significantly lower U.S. production of greenhouse gases. More aggressive adjustments include a gradual worldwide shift away from the use of fossil fuels, the elimination of chlorofluorocarbons, and the slowing of deforestation by restructuring the economies of developing nations. In 2002 the Bush administration proposed several voluntary measures for slowing the increase in, instead of reducing, emissions of greenhouses gases. The United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea established (2005) an agreement outside the Kyoto Protocal that proposed to reduce emissions through the development and implementation of new technologies. The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, as it is called, involves no commitments on the part of its members; it held its first meeting in 2006. Also in 2006, California enacted legislation that called for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 25% by 2020; the state is responsible for nearly 7% of all such emissions in the United States. In 2007 President George W. Bush called for the world's major polluting nations to set global and national goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but the nonbinding nature of the proposed goals provoked skepticism from other nations that favored stronger measures.

See P. Brown, Global Warming: Can Civilization Survive? (1997); T. G. Moore, Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry about Global Warming (1998); S. G. Philander, Is the Temperature Rising?: The Uncertain Science of Global Warming (1998); K. E. Ready, GAIA Weeps: The Crisis of Global Warming (1998); G. E. Christianson, Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming (1999); T. Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (2006); E. Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006); E. Linden, The Winds of Change (2006).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2007, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved


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What is the greenhouse effect, and is it affecting our climate?

The greenhouse effect is unquestionably real and helps to regulate the temperature of our planet. It is essential for life on Earth and is one of Earth's natural processes. It is the result of heat absorption by certain gases in the atmosphere (called greenhouse gases because they effectively 'trap' heat in the lower atmosphere) and re-radiation downward of some of that heat. Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas, followed by carbon dioxide and other trace gases. Without a natural greenhouse effect, the temperature of the Earth would be about zero degrees F (-18°C) instead of its present 57°F (14°C). So, the concern is not with the fact that we have a greenhouse effect, but whether human activities are leading to an enhancement of the greenhouse effect.

Are greenhouse gases increasing?
Human activity has been increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide from combustion of coal, oil, and gas; plus a few other trace gases). There is no scientific debate on this point. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution) were about 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv), and current levels are about 370 ppmv. The concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere today, has not been exceeded in the last 420,000 years, and likely not in the last 20 million years. According to the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES), by the end of the 21st century, we could expect to see carbon dioxide concentrations of anywhere from 490 to 1260 ppm (75-350% above the pre-industrial concentration).

Is the climate warming?
Yes. Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.6°C (plus or minus 0.2°C) since the late-19th century, and about 0.4°F (0.2 to 0.3°C) over the past 25 years (the period with the most credible data). The warming has not been globally uniform. Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S.) have, in fact, cooled over the last century. The recent warmth has been greatest over North America and Eurasia between 40 and 70°N. Warming, assisted by the record El Niño of 1997-1998, has continued right up to the present, with 2001 being the second warmest year on record after 1998.

Linear trends can vary greatly depending on the period over which they are computed. Temperature trends in the lower troposphere (between about 2,500 and 26,000 ft.) from 1979 to the present, the period for which Satellite Microwave Sounding Unit data exist, are small and may be unrepresentative of longer term trends and trends closer to the surface. Furthermore, there are small unresolved differences between radiosonde and satellite observations of tropospheric temperatures, though both data sources show slight warming trends. If one calculates trends beginning with the commencement of radiosonde data in the 1950s, there is a slight greater warming in the record due to increases in the 1970s. There are statistical and physical reasons (e.g., short record lengths, the transient differential effects of volcanic activity and El Niño, and boundary layer effects) for expecting differences between recent trends in surface and lower tropospheric temperatures, but the exact causes for the differences are still under investigation (see National Research Council report "Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change").

An enhanced greenhouse effect is expected to cause cooling in higher parts of the atmosphere because the increased "blanketing" effect in the lower atmosphere holds in more heat, allowing less to reach the upper atmosphere. Cooling of the lower stratosphere (about 49,000-79,500ft.) since 1979 is shown by both satellite Microwave Sounding Unit and radiosonde data, but is larger in the radiosonde data.

Relatively cool surface and tropospheric temperatures, and a relatively warmer lower stratosphere, were observed in 1992 and 1993, following the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. The warming reappeared in 1994. A dramatic global warming, at least partly associated with the record El Niño, took place in 1998. This warming episode is reflected from the surface to the top of the troposphere.

There has been a general, but not global, tendency toward reduced diurnal temperature range (DTR), (the difference between high and low daily temperatures) over about 50% of the global land mass since the middle of the 20th century. Cloud cover has increased in many of the areas with reduced diurnal temperature range. The overall positive trend for maximum daily temperature over the period of study (1950-93) is 0.1°C/decade, whereas the trend for daily minimum temperatures is 0.2°C/decade. This results in a negative trend in the DTR of -0.1°C/decade.

Indirect indicators of warming such as borehole temperatures, snow cover, and glacier recession data, are in substantial agreement with the more direct indicators of recent warmth. Evidence such as changes in glacier length is useful since it not only provides qualitative support for existing meteorological data, but glaciers often exist in places too remote to support meteorological stations, the records of glacial advance and retreat often extend back further than weather station records, and glaciers are usually at much higher alititudes that weather stations allowing us more insight into temperature changes higher in the atmosphere.

Large-scale measurements of sea-ice have only been possible since the satellite era, but through looking at a number of different satellite estimates, it has been determined that Arctic sea ice has decreased between 1973 and 1996 at a rate of -2.8 +/- 0.3%/decade. Although this seems to correspond to a general increase in temperature over the same period, there are lots of quasi-cyclic atmospheric dynamics (for example the Arctic Oscillation) which may also influence the extent and thickness of sea-ice in the Arctic. Sea-ice in the Antarctic has shown very little trend over the same period, or even a slight increase since 1979. Though extending the Antarctic sea-ice record back in time is more difficult due to the lack of direct observations in this part of the world.

Are El Niños related to Global Warming?

El Niños are not caused by global warming. Clear evidence exists from a variety of sources (including archaeological studies) that El Niños have been present for hundreds, and some indicators suggest maybe millions, of years. However, it has been hypothesized that warmer global sea surface temperatures can enhance the El Niño phenomenon, and it is also true that El Niños have been more frequent and intense in recent decades. Recent climate model results that simulate the 21st century with increased greenhouse gases suggest that El Niño-like sea surface temperature patterns in the tropical Pacific are likely to be more persistent.

Is the hydrological cycle (evaporation and precipitation) changing?
Overall, land precipitation for the globe has increased by ~2% since 1900, however, precipitation changes have been spatially variable over the last century. Instrumental records show that there has been a general increase in precipitation of about 0.5-1.0%/decade over land in northern mid-high latitudes, except in parts of eastern Russia. However, a decrease of about -0.3%/decade in precipitation has occurred during the 20th century over land in sub-tropical latitudes, though this trend has weakened in recent decades. Due to the difficulty in measuring precipitation, it has been important to constrain these observations by analyzing other related variables. The measured changes in precipitation are consistent with observed changes in streamflow, lake levels, and soil moisture (where data are available and have been analyzed).

Northern Hemisphere annual snow cover extent has consistently remained below average since 1987, and has decreased by about 10% since 1966. This is mostly due to a decrease in spring and summer snowfall over both the Eurasian and North American continents since the mid-1980s. However, winter and autumn snow cover extent has shown no significant trend for the northern hemisphere over the same period.

Improved satellite data shows that a general trend of increasing cloud amount over both land and ocean since the early 1980s, seems to have reversed in the early 1990s, and total cloud amount of land and ocean now appears to be decreasing. However, there are several studies that suggest regional cloudiness, perhaps especially in the thick precipitating clouds has increased over the 20th century.

Is the atmospheric/oceanic circulation changing?

A rather abrupt change in the El Niño - Southern Oscillation behavior occurred around 1976/77 and the new regime has persisted. There have been relatively more frequent and presistent El Niño episodes rather than the cool La Niñas. This behavior is highly unusual in the last 120 years (the period of instrumental record). Changes in precipitation over the tropical Pacific are related to this change in the El Niño - Southern Oscillation, which has also affected the pattern and magnitude of surface temperatures. However, it is unclear as to whether this apparent change in the ENSO cycle is caused by global warming.

Is the climate becoming more variable or extreme?
On a global scale there is little evidence of sustained trends in climate variability or extremes. This perhaps reflects inadequate data and a dearth of analyses. However, on regional scales, there is clear evidence of changes in variability or extremes.

In areas where a drought or excessive wetness usually accompanies an El Niño, these dry or wet spells have been more intense in recent years. Other than these areas, little evidence is available of changes in drought frequency or intensity.

In some areas where overall precipitation has increased (ie. the mid-high northern latitudes), there is evidence of increases in the heavy and extreme precipitation events. Even in areas such as eastern Asia, it has been found that extreme precipitation events have increased despite total precipitation remaining constant or even decreasing somewhat. This is related to a decrease in the frequency of precipitation in this region.

Many individual studies of various regions show that extra-tropical cyclone activity seems to have generally increased over the last half of the 20th century in the northern hemisphere, but decreased in the southern hemisphere. It is not clear whether these trends are multi-decadal fluctuations or part of a longer-term trend.

Where reliable data are available, tropical storm frequency and intensity show no significant long-term trend in any basin. There are apparent decadal-interdecadal fluctuations, but nothing which is conlusive in suggesting a longer-term component.

Global temperature extremes have been found to exhibit no significant trend in interannual variability, but several studies suggest a significant decrease in intra-annual variability. There has been a clear trend to fewer extremely low minimum temperatures in several widely-separated areas in recent decades. Widespread significant changes in extreme high temperature events have not been observed.

There is some indication of a decrease in day-to-day temperature variability in recent decades.

How important are these changes in a longer-term context?
Paleoclimatic data are critical for enabling us to extend our knowledge of climatic variability beyond what is measured by modern instruments. Many natural phenomena are climate dependent (such as the growth rate of a tree for example), and as such, provide natural 'archives' of climate information. Some useful paleoclimate data can be found in sources as diverse as tree rings, ice cores, corals, lake sediments (including fossil insects and pollen data), speleothems (stalactites etc), and ocean sediments. Some of these, including ice cores and tree rings provide us also with a chronology due the nature of how they are formed, and so high resolution climate reconstruction is possible in these cases. However, there is not a comprehensive 'network' of paleoclimate data as there is with instrumental coverage, so global climate reconstructions are often difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, combining different types of paleoclimate records enables us to gain a near-global picture of climate changes in the past.

For the Northern Hemisphere summer temperature, recent decades appear to be the warmest since at least about 1000AD, and the warming since the late 19th century is unprecedented over the last 1000 years. Older data are insufficient to provide reliable hemispheric temperature estimates. Ice core data suggest that the 20th century has been warm in many parts of the globe, but also that the significance of the warming varies geographically, when viewed in the context of climate variations of the last millennium.

Large and rapid climatic changes affecting the atmospheric and oceanic circulation and temperature, and the hydrological cycle, occurred during the last ice age and during the transition towards the present Holocene period (which began about 10,000 years ago). Based on the incomplete evidence available, the projected change of 3 to 7°F (1.5 - 4°C) over the next century would be unprecedented in comparison with the best available records from the last several thousand years.

Is sea level rising?
Global mean sea level has been rising at an average rate of 1 to 2 mm/year over the past 100 years, which is significantly larger than the rate averaged over the last several thousand years. Projected increase from 1990-2100 is anywhere from 0.09-0.88 meters, depending on which greenhouse gas scenario is used and many physical uncertainties in contributions to sea-level rise from a variety of frozen and unfrozen water sources.

Can the observed changes be explained by natural variability, including changes in solar output?

Since our entire climate system is fundamentally driven by energy from the sun, it stands to reason that if the sun's energy output were to change, then so would the climate. Since the advent of space-borne measurements in the late 1970s, solar output has indeed been shown to vary. There appears to be confirmation of earlier suggestions of an 11 (and 22) year cycle of irradiance. With only 20 years of reliable measurements however, it is difficult to deduce a trend. But, from the short record we have so far, the trend in solar irradiance is estimated at ~0.09 W/m2 compared to 0.4 W/m2 from well-mixed greenhouse gases. There are many indications that the sun also has a longer-term variation which has potentially contributed to the century-scale forcing to a greater degree. There is though, a great deal of uncertainty in estimates of solar irradiance beyond what can be measured by satellites, and still the contribution of direct solar irradiance forcing is small compared to the greenhouse gas component. However, our understanding of the indirect effects of changes in solar output and feedbacks in the climate system is minimal. There is much need to refine our understanding of key natural forcing mechanisms of the climate, including solar irradiance changes, in order to reduce uncertainty in our projections of future climate change.

In addition to changes in energy from the sun itself, the Earth's position and orientation relative to the sun (our orbit) also varies slightly, thereby bringing us closer and further away from the sun in predictable cycles (called Milankovitch cycles). Variations in these cycles are believed to be the cause of Earth's ice-ages (glacials). Particularly important for the development of glacials is the radiation receipt at high northern latitudes. Diminishing radiation at these latitudes during the summer months would have enabled winter snow and ice cover to persist throughout the year, eventually leading to a permanent snow- or icepack. While Milankovitch cycles have tremendous value as a theory to explain ice-ages and long-term changes in the climate, they are unlikely to have very much impact on the decade-century timescale. Over several centuries, it may be possible to observe the effect of these orbital parameters, however for the prediction of climate change in the 21st century, these changes will be far less important than radiative forcing from greenhouse gases.

What about the future?
Due to the enormous complexity of the atmosphere, the most useful tools for gauging future changes are 'climate models'. These are computer-based mathematical models which simulate, in three dimensions, the climate's behavior, its components and their interactions. Climate models are constantly improving based on both our understanding and the increase in computer power, though by definition, a computer model is a simplification and simulation of reality, meaning that it is an approximation of the climate system. The first step in any modeled projection of climate change is to first simulate the present climate and compare it to observations. If the model is considered to do a good job at representing modern climate, then certain parameters can be changed, such as the concentration of greenhouse gases, which helps us understand how the climate would change in response. Projections of future climate change therefore depend on how well the computer climate model simulates the climate and on our understanding of how forcing functions will change in the future.

The IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios determines the range of future possible greenhouse gas concentrations (and other forcings) based on considerations such as population growth, economic growth, energy efficiency and a host of other factors. This leads a wide range of possible forcing scenarios, and consequently a wide range of possible future climates.

According to the range of possible forcing scenarios, and taking into account uncertainty in climate model performance, the IPCC projects a global temperature increase of anywhere from 1.4 - 5.8°C from 1990-2100. However, this global average will integrate widely varying regional responses, such as the likelihood that land areas will warm much faster than ocean temperatures, particularly those land areas in northern high latitudes (and mostly in the cold season).

Precipitation is also expected to increase over the 21st century, particularly at northern mid-high latitudes, though the trends may be more variable in the tropics.

Snow extent and sea-ice are also projected to decrease further in the northern hemisphere, and glaciers and ice-caps are expected to continue to retreat.


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Global Warming Basics

What it is, how it's caused, and what needs to be done to stop it

What causes global warming?
Carbon dioxide and other air pollution that is collecting in the atmosphere like a thickening blanket, trapping the sun's heat and causing the planet to warm up. Coal-burning power plants are the largest U.S. source of carbon dioxide pollution -- they produce 2.5 billion tons every year. Automobiles, the second largest source, create nearly 1.5 billion tons of CO2 annually.

Here's the good news: technologies exist today to make cars that run cleaner and burn less gas, modernize power plants and generate electricity from nonpolluting sources, and cut our electricity use through energy efficiency. The challenge is to be sure these solutions are put to use.

Is the earth really getting hotter?
Yes. Although local temperatures fluctuate naturally, over the past 50 years the average global temperature has increased at the fastest rate in recorded history. And experts think the trend is accelerating: the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1990. Scientists say that unless we curb global warming emissions, average U.S. temperatures could be 3 to 9 degrees higher by the end of the century.

Are warmer temperatures causing bad things to happen?
Global warming is already causing damage in many parts of the United States. In 2002, Colorado, Arizona and Oregon endured their worst wildfire seasons ever. The same year, drought created severe dust storms in Montana, Colorado and Kansas, and floods caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in Texas, Montana and North Dakota. Since the early 1950s, snow accumulation has declined 60 percent and winter seasons have shortened in some areas of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington.

Of course, the impacts of global warming are not limited to the United States. In 2003, extreme heat waves caused more than 20,000 deaths in Europe and more than 1,500 deaths in India. And in what scientists regard as an alarming sign of events to come, the area of the Arctic's perennial polar ice cap is declining at the rate of 9 percent per decade.

Is global warming making hurricanes worse?
Global warming doesn't create hurricanes, but it does make them stronger and more dangerous. Because the ocean is getting warmer, tropical storms can pick up more energy and become more powerful. So global warming could turn, say, a category 3 storm into a much more dangerous category 4 storm. In fact, scientists have found that the destructive potential of hurricanes has greatly increased along with ocean temperature over the past 35 years.

Is there really cause for serious concern?
Yes. Global warming is a complex phenomenon, and its full-scale impacts are hard to predict far in advance. But each year scientists learn more about how global warming is affecting the planet, and many agree that certain consequences are likely to occur if current trends continue. Among these:

Melting glaciers, early snowmelt and severe droughts will cause more dramatic water shortages in the American West.

Rising sea levels will lead to coastal flooding on the Eastern seaboard, in Florida, and in other areas, such as the Gulf of Mexico.

Warmer sea surface temperatures will fuel more intense hurricanes in the southeastern Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Forests, farms and cities will face troublesome new pests and more mosquito-borne diseases.

Disruption of habitats such as coral reefs and alpine meadows could drive many plant and animal species to extinction.

Could global warming trigger a sudden catastrophe?
Recently, researchers -- and even the U.S. Defense Department -- have investigated the possibility of abrupt climate change, in which gradual global warming triggers a sudden shift in the earth's climate, causing parts of the world to dramatically heat up or cool down in the span of a few years.

In February 2004, consultants to the Pentagon released a report laying out the possible impacts of abrupt climate change on national security. In a worst-case scenario, the study concluded, global warming could make large areas of the world uninhabitable and cause massive food and water shortages, sparking widespread migrations and war.

While this prospect remains highly speculative, many of global warming's effects are already being observed -- and felt. And the idea that such extreme change is possible underscores the urgent need to start cutting global warming pollution.

What country is the largest source of global warming pollution?
The United States. Though Americans make up just 4 percent of the world's population, we produce 25 percent of the carbon dioxide pollution from fossil-fuel burning -- by far the largest share of any country. In fact, the United States emits more carbon dioxide than China, India and Japan, combined. Clearly America ought to take a leadership role in solving the problem. And as the world's top developer of new technologies, we are well positioned to do so -- we already have the know-how.

How can we cut global warming pollution?
It's simple: By reducing pollution from vehicles and power plants. Right away, we should put existing technologies for building cleaner cars and more modern electricity generators into widespread use. We can increase our reliance on renewable energy sources such as wind, sun and geothermal. And we can manufacture more efficient appliances and conserve energy.

Why aren't these technologies more commonplace now?
Because, while the technologies exist, the corporate and political will to put them into widespread use does not. Many companies in the automobile and energy industries put pressure on the White House and Congress to halt or delay new laws or regulations -- or even to stop enforcing existing rules -- that would drive such changes. From requiring catalytic converters to improving gas mileage, car companies have fought even the smallest measure to protect public health and the environment. If progress is to be made, the American people will have to demand it.

Do we need new laws requiring industry to cut emissions of global warming pollution?
Yes. The Bush administration has supported only voluntary reduction programs, but these have failed to stop the growth of emissions. Even leaders of major corporations, including companies such as DuPont, Alcoa and General Electric, agree that it's time for the federal government to create strong laws to cut global warming pollution. Public and political support for solutions has never been stronger. Congress is now considering fresh proposals to cap emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from America's largest sources -- power plants, industrial facilities and transportation fuels.

Stricter efficiency requirements for electric appliances will also help reduce pollution. One example is the 30 percent tighter standard now in place for home central air conditioners and heat pumps, a Clinton-era achievement that will prevent the emission of 51 million metric tons of carbon -- the equivalent of taking 34 million cars off the road for one year. The new rule survived a Bush administration effort to weaken it when, in January 2004, a federal court sided with an NRDC-led coalition and reversed the administration's rollback.

Is it possible to cut power plant pollution and still have enough electricity?
Yes. First, we must use more efficient appliances and equipment in our homes and offices to reduce our electricity needs. We can also phase out the decades-old, coal-burning power plants that generate most of our electricity and replace them with cleaner plants. And we can increase our use of renewable energy sources such as wind and sun. Some states are moving in this direction: California has required its largest utilities to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2017, and New York has pledged to compel power companies to provide 25 percent of the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2013.

How can we cut car pollution?
Cost-effective technologies to reduce global warming pollution from cars and light trucks of all sizes are available now. There is no reason to wait and hope that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will solve the problem in the future. Hybrid gas-electric engines can cut global warming pollution by one-third or more today; hybrid sedans, SUVs and trucks from several automakers are already on the market.

But automakers should be doing a lot more: They've used a legal loophole to make SUVs far less fuel efficient than they could be; the popularity of these vehicles has generated a 20 percent increase in transportation-related carbon dioxide pollution since the early 1990s. Closing this loophole and requiring SUVs, minivans and pick-up trucks to be as efficient as cars would cut 120 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution a year by 2010. If automakers used the technology they have right now to raise fuel economy standards for new cars and light trucks to a combined 40 m.p.g., carbon dioxide pollution would eventually drop by more than 650 million tons per year as these vehicles replaced older models.

What can I do to help fight global warming?
There are many simple steps you can take right now to cut global warming pollution. Make conserving energy a part of your daily routine. Each time you choose a compact fluorescent light bulb over an incandescent bulb, for example, you'll lower your energy bill and keep nearly 700 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air over the bulb's lifetime. By opting for a refrigerator with the Energy Star label -- indicating it uses at least 15 percent less energy than the federal requirement -- over a less energy-efficient model, you can reduce carbon dioxide pollution by nearly a ton in total. Join NRDC in our campaign against global warming.


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Global warming is an increase in the average temperature of Earth's surface. Since the late 1800's, the global average temperature has increased about 0.7 to 1.4 degrees F (0.4 to 0.8 degrees C). Many experts estimate that the average temperature will rise an additional 2.5 to 10.4 degrees F (1.4 to 5.8 degrees C) by 2100. That rate of increase would be much larger than most past rates of increase.

Scientists worry that human societies and natural ecosystems might not adapt to rapid climate changes. An ecosystem consists of the living organisms and physical environment in a particular area. Global warming could cause much harm, so countries throughout the world drafted an agreement called the Kyoto Protocol to help limit it.

Causes of global warming

Climatologists (scientists who study climate) have analyzed the global warming that has occurred since the late 1800's. A majority of climatologists have concluded that human activities are responsible for most of the warming. Human activities contribute to global warming by enhancing Earth's natural greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect warms Earth's surface through a complex process involving sunlight, gases, and particles in the atmosphere. Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are known as greenhouse gases.

The main human activities that contribute to global warming are the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and the clearing of land. Most of the burning occurs in automobiles, in factories, and in electric power plants that provide energy for houses and office buildings. The burning of fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide, whose chemical formula is CO2. CO2 is a greenhouse gas that slows the escape of heat into space. Trees and other plants remove CO2 from the air during photosynthesis, the process they use to produce food. The clearing of land contributes to the buildup of CO2 by reducing the rate at which the gas is removed from the atmosphere or by the decomposition of dead vegetation.

A small number of scientists argue that the increase in greenhouse gases has not made a measurable difference in the temperature. They say that natural processes could have caused global warming. Those processes include increases in the energy emitted (given off) by the sun. But the vast majority of climatologists believe that increases in the sun's energy have contributed only slightly to recent warming.

The impact of global warming
Continued global warming could have many damaging effects. It might harm plants and animals that live in the sea. It could also force animals and plants on land to move to new habitats. Weather patterns could change, causing flooding, drought, and an increase in damaging storms. Global warming could melt enough polar ice to raise the sea level. In certain parts of the world, human disease could spread, and crop yields could decline.

Harm to ocean life

Through global warming, the surface waters of the oceans could become warmer, increasing the stress on ocean ecosystems, such as coral reefs. High water temperatures can cause a damaging process called coral bleaching. When corals bleach, they expel the algae that give them their color and nourishment. The corals turn white and, unless the water temperature cools, they die. Added warmth also helps spread diseases that affect sea creatures.

Changes of habitat

Widespread shifts might occur in the natural habitats of animals and plants. Many species would have difficulty surviving in the regions they now inhabit. For example, many flowering plants will not bloom without a sufficient period of winter cold. And human occupation has altered the landscape in ways that would make new habitats hard to reach or unavailable altogether.

Weather damage

Extreme weather conditions might become more frequent and therefore more damaging. Changes in rainfall patterns could increase both flooding and drought in some areas. More hurricanes and other tropical storms might occur, and they could become more powerful.

Rising sea level

Continued global warming might, over centuries, melt large amounts of ice from a vast sheet that covers most of West Antarctica. As a result, the sea level would rise throughout the world. Many coastal areas would experience flooding, erosion, a loss of wetlands, and an entry of seawater into freshwater areas. High sea levels would submerge some coastal cities, small island nations, and other inhabited regions.

Threats to human health

Tropical diseases, such as malaria and dengue, might spread to larger regions. Longer-lasting and more intense heat waves could cause more deaths and illnesses. Floods and droughts could increase hunger and malnutrition.

Changes in crop yields

Canada and parts of Russia might benefit from an increase in crop yields. But any increases in yields could be more than offset by decreases caused by drought and higher temperatures -- particularly if the amount of warming were more than a few degrees Celsius. Yields in the tropics might fall disastrously because temperatures there are already almost as high as many crop plants can tolerate.

Limited global warming

Climatologists are studying ways to limit global warming. Two key methods would be (1) limiting CO2 emissions and (2) carbon sequestration -- either preventing carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere or removing CO2 already there.

Limiting CO2 emissions

Two effective techniques for limiting CO2 emissions would be (1) to replace fossil fuels with energy sources that do not emit CO2, and (2) to use fossil fuels more efficiently.

Alternative energy sources that do not emit CO2 include the wind, sunlight, nuclear energy, and underground steam. Devices known as wind turbines can convert wind energy to electric energy. Solar cells can convert sunlight to electric energy, and various devices can convert solar energy to useful heat. Geothermal power plants convert energy in underground steam to electric energy.

Alternative sources of energy are more expensive to use than fossil fuels. However, increased research into their use would almost certainly reduce their cost.

Carbon sequestration could take two forms: (1) underground or underwater storage and (2) storage in living plants.

Underground or underwater storage would involve injecting industrial emissions of CO2 into underground geologic formations or the ocean. Suitable underground formations include natural reservoirs of oil and gas from which most of the oil or gas has been removed. Pumping CO2 into a reservoir would have the added benefit of making it easier to remove the remaining oil or gas. The value of that product could offset the cost of sequestration. Deep deposits of salt or coal could also be suitable.

The oceans could store much CO2. However, scientists have not yet determined the environmental impacts of using the ocean for carbon sequestration.

Storage in living plants

Green plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. They combine carbon from CO2 with hydrogen to make simple sugars, which they store in their tissues. After plants die, their bodies decay and release CO2. Ecosystems with abundant plant life, such as forests and even cropland, could tie up much carbon. However, future generations of people would have to keep the ecosystems intact. Otherwise, the sequestered carbon would re-enter the atmosphere as CO2.

Agreement on global warming

Delegates from more than 160 countries met in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 to draft the agreement that became known as the Kyoto Protocol. That agreement calls for decreases in the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Emissions targets

Thirty-eight industrialized nations would have to restrict their emissions of CO2 and five other greenhouse gases. The restrictions would occur from 2008 through 2012. Different countries would have different emissions targets. As a whole, the 38 countries would restrict their emissions to a yearly average of about 95 percent of their 1990 emissions. The agreement does not place restrictions on developing countries. But it encourages the industrialized nations to cooperate in helping developing countries limit emissions voluntarily.

Industrialized nations could also buy or sell emission reduction units. Suppose an industrialized nation cut its emissions more than was required by the agreement. That country could sell other industrialized nations emission reduction units allowing those nations to emit the amount equal to the excess it had cut.

Several other programs could also help an industrialized nation earn credit toward its target. For example, the nation might help a developing country reduce emissions by replacing fossil fuels in some applications.

Approving the agreement

The protocol would take effect as a treaty if (1) at least 55 countries ratified (formally approved) it, and (2) the industrialized countries ratifying the protocol had CO2 emissions in 1990 that equaled at least 55 percent of the emissions of all 38 industrialized countries in 1990.

In 2001, the United States rejected the Kyoto Protocol. President George W. Bush said that the agreement could harm the U.S. economy. But he declared that the United States would work with other countries to limit global warming. Other countries, most notably the members of the European Union, agreed to continue with the agreement without United States participation.

By 2004, more than 100 countries, including nearly all the countries classified as industrialized under the protocol, had ratified the agreement. However, the agreement required ratification by Russia or the United States to go into effect. Russia ratified the protocol in November 2004. The treaty was to come into force in February 2005.

Analyzing global warming

Scientists use information from several sources to analyze global warming that occurred before people began to use thermometers. Those sources include tree rings, cores (cylindrical samples) of ice drilled from Antarctica and Greenland, and cores drilled out of sediments in oceans. Information from these sources indicates that the temperature increase of the 1900's was probably the largest in the last 1,000 years.

Computers help climatologists analyze past climate changes and predict future changes. First, a scientist programs a computer with a set of mathematical equations known as a climate model. The equations describe how various factors, such as the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, affect the temperature of Earth's surface. Next, the scientist enters data representing the values of those factors at a certain time. He or she then runs the program, and the computer describes how the temperature would vary. A computer's representation of changing climatic conditions is known as a climate simulation.

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group sponsored by the United Nations (UN), published results of climate simulations in a report on global warming. Climatologists used three simulations to determine whether natural variations in climate produced the warming of the past 100 years. The first simulation took into account both natural processes and human activities that affect the climate. The second simulation took into account only the natural processes, and the third only the human activities.

The climatologists then compared the temperatures predicted by the three simulations with the actual temperatures recorded by thermometers. Only the first simulation, which took into account both natural processes and human activities, produced results that corresponded closely to the recorded temperatures.

The IPCC also published results of simulations that predicted temperatures until 2100. The different simulations took into account the same natural processes but different patterns of human activity. For example, scenarios differed in the amounts of CO2 that would enter the atmosphere due to human activities.

The simulations showed that there can be no "quick fix" to the problem of global warming. Even if all emissions of greenhouse gases were to cease immediately, the temperature would continue to increase after 2100 because of the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

Contributors: Michael D. Mastrandrea, B.S., Graduate Fellow, School of Earth Sciences, Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University. Stephen H. Schneider, Ph.D., Professor of Biological Sciences, Stanford University.

How to cite this article: To cite this article, World Book recommends the following format: Mastrandrea, Michael D., and Stephen H. Schneider. "Global warming." World Book Online Reference Center. 2005. World Book, Inc.

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Global Warming Fast Facts

National Geographic News

Global warming, or climate change, is a subject that shows no sign of cooling down.

Here's the lowdown on why it's happening, what's causing it, and how it might change the planet.

Is It Happening?

Yes. Earth is already showing many signs of worldwide climate change.

• Average temperatures have climbed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degree Celsius) around the world since 1880, much of this in recent decades, according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

• The rate of warming is increasing. The 20th century's last two decades were the hottest in 400 years and possibly the warmest for several millennia, according to a number of climate studies. And the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that 11 of the past 12 years are among the dozen warmest since 1850.

• The Arctic is feeling the effects the most. Average temperatures in Alaska, western Canada, and eastern Russia have risen at twice the global average, according to the multinational Arctic Climate Impact Assessment report compiled between 2000 and 2004.

• Arctic ice is rapidly disappearing, and the region may have its first completely ice-free summer by 2040 or earlier. Polar bears and indigenous cultures are already suffering from the sea-ice loss.

• Glaciers and mountain snows are rapidly melting—for example, Montana's Glacier National Park now has only 27 glaciers, versus 150 in 1910. In the Northern Hemisphere, thaws also come a week earlier in spring and freezes begin a week later.

• Coral reefs, which are highly sensitive to small changes in water temperature, suffered the worst bleaching—or die-off in response to stress—ever recorded in 1998, with some areas seeing bleach rates of 70 percent. Experts expect these sorts of events to increase in frequency and intensity in the next 50 years as sea temperatures rise.

• An upsurge in the amount of extreme weather events, such as wildfires, heat waves, and strong tropical storms, is also attributed in part to climate change by some experts.

Are Humans Causing It?

• "Very likely," the IPCC said in a February 2007 report.

The report, based on the work of some 2,500 scientists in more than 130 countries, concluded that humans have caused all or most of the current planetary warming. Human-caused global warming is often called anthropogenic climate change.

• Industrialization, deforestation, and pollution have greatly increased atmospheric concentrations of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, all greenhouse gases that help trap heat near Earth's surface. (See an interactive feature on how global warming works.)

• Humans are pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere much faster than plants and oceans can absorb it.

• These gases persist in the atmosphere for years, meaning that even if such emissions were eliminated today, it would not immediately stop global warming.

• Some experts point out that natural cycles in Earth's orbit can alter the planet's exposure to sunlight, which may explain the current trend. Earth has indeed experienced warming and cooling cycles roughly every hundred thousand years due to these orbital shifts, but such changes have occurred over the span of several centuries. Today's changes have taken place over the past hundred years or less.

• Other recent research has suggested that the effects of variations in the sun's output are "negligible" as a factor in warming, but other, more complicated solar mechanisms could possibly play a role.

What's Going to Happen?

A follow-up report by the IPCC released in April 2007 warned that global warming could lead to large-scale food and water shortages and have catastrophic effects on wildlife.

• Sea level could rise between 7 and 23 inches (18 to 59 centimeters) by century's end, the IPCC's February 2007 report projects. Rises of just 4 inches (10 centimeters) could flood many South Seas islands and swamp large parts of Southeast Asia.

• Some hundred million people live within 3 feet (1 meter) of mean sea level, and much of the world's population is concentrated in vulnerable coastal cities. In the U.S., Louisiana and Florida are especially at risk.

• Glaciers around the world could melt, causing sea levels to rise while creating water shortages in regions dependent on runoff for fresh water.

• Strong hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other natural disasters may become commonplace in many parts of the world. The growth of deserts may also cause food shortages in many places.

• More than a million species face extinction from disappearing habitat, changing ecosystems, and acidifying oceans.

• The ocean's circulation system, known as the ocean conveyor belt, could be permanently altered, causing a mini-ice age in Western Europe and other rapid changes.

• At some point in the future, warming could become uncontrollable by creating a so-called positive feedback effect. Rising temperatures could release additional greenhouse gases by unlocking methane in permafrost and undersea deposits, freeing carbon trapped in sea ice, and causing increased evaporation of water.


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