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Climate Change: 50 Years Past and Possible Futures

A new NASA-funded study used a computer climate model to simulate the last 50 years of climate changes, projects warming over the next 50 years regardless of whether or not nations curb their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions soon. If no emission reductions are made and they continue to increase at the current rate, global temperatures may increase by 1-2º Celsius (1.8º-3.6º Fahrenheit). But if the growth rate of carbon dioxide does not exceed its current rate and if the growth of true air pollutants (things that are harmful to human health) is reversed, temperatures may rise by only 0.75C (1.35F).

"Some continued global warming will occur, probably about 0.5C (0.9F) even if the greenhouse gases in the air do not increase further, but the warming could be much less than the worst case scenarios," said Jim Hansen, lead researcher on the study from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), N.Y. This research was a collaborative effort of 19 institutions, including 7 universities, federal agencies, private industry and other NASA centers.

The GISS "SI2000" climate model provided a convincing demonstration that global temperature change of the past half-century is mainly a response to climate forcing agents, or imposed perturbations of the Earth's energy balance. This is especially true of human-made forcings, such as carbon dioxide and methane, which trap the Earth's heat radiation as a blanket traps body heat; thus they cause warming.

The computer model's ability to simulate the past 50 years of global temperature change provided confidence in understanding the causes behind climate changes that have occurred over that time period. The sensitivity of the "SI2000" model to a climate forcing is comparable to that of other climate computer models. Model results from 1951-2000 are in close agreement with observed changes; the surface has warmed by about .5ºC (0.9ºF) while the upper atmosphere (10-15 mile altitudes) has cooled by about 1ºC (1.8ºF).

The climate model was then used to simulate global temperature change during the next 50 years, under two contrasting assumptions for future growth of human-made forcings.

The first assumption for the emissions of GHGs is the "business-as-usual" scenario where GHGs continue to increase rapidly. This scenario leads to an accelerating rate of global warming, raising global temperature to levels that have not existed during the past several hundred thousand years.

In the "alternative" scenario, in which air pollution is decreased and fossil fuel CO2 emissions are stabilized, further global warming is limited to 0.75ºC (1.35ºF) in the next 50 years. Hansen cautioned that the 'alternative' scenario will not be easy to achieve. It requires that the world begin to reverse the growth of true air pollution (especially 'soot' and the gases that control surface ozone, including methane) and also that we flatten out and eventually begin to decrease CO2 emissions.

The climate forcing agents that Hansen and his co-authors include in their climate simulations are: (1) long-lived greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and the chlorofluorocarbons; (2) stratospheric aerosols (fine particles) from volcanic eruptions; (3) variations in the Sun's energy indicated by sunspots; (4) ozone changes - both at the surface (a pollutant) and upper atmosphere (protects from the Sun's ultraviolet rays); (5) stratospheric water vapor and; (6) tropospheric air pollution aerosols, including black and organic carbon (soot) and sulfates.

Achievement of stable CO2 emissions, as required in the alternative scenario that yields minimal climate change, it is likely to require some combination of increased energy efficiencies, a growing role for renewable energies, capture and sequestration of CO2 emissions, and/or increased use of nuclear power. All of these possibilities are being addressed by the National Climate Change Technology Initiative.

"Decision-makers, including the public, may need to consider all of these options as climate change becomes more apparent and as our understanding of the climate forcing agents improves," Hansen said. "Halting and reversing the growth of air pollution is possible with existing and developing technologies. It would have other benefits, especially for human health and agricultural productivity."

This research was funded by NASA, and appears in the next issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research (Atmospheres).


Hansen, J., Mki. Sato, L. Nazarenko, R. Ruedy, A. Lacis, D. Koch, I. Tegen, T. Hall, D. Shindell, P. Stone, T. Novakov, L. Thomason, R. Wang, Y. Wang, D.J. Jacob, S. Hollandsworth-Frith, L. Bishop, J. Logan, A. Thompson, R. Stolarski, J. Lean, R. Willson, S. Levitus, J. Antonov, N. Rayner, D. Parker, and J. Christy 2002. Climate forcings in Goddard Institute for Space Studies SI2000 simulations. J. Geophys. Res. 107, no. D18, 4347, doi:10.1029/2001JD001143.

Media Contacts

Robert J. Gutro, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. Phone: 301/286-4044.

Harvey Leifert, American Geophysical Union. Phone: 202/777-7507.

This article was derived from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Top Story.

Climate Forcing Agents
A climate forcing is an imposed perturbation of the Earth's energy balance. For example, if the Sun brightens, that is a positive forcing that would cause warming. A volcanic eruption that injects small particles into the stratosphere, where they reflect sunlight to space, is a negative forcing that causes cooling. Human-made greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, trap the Earth's heat radiation as a blanket traps body heat; thus they cause warming.

Graph of growth rates of greenhouse gas forcings

Growth Rates of Greenhouse Gas Forcing
The graph above depicts different "climate forcing" agents and the effect they have on the world's energy balance. CFC's are chlorofluorocarbons; CH4 is methane, CO2 is carbon dioxide and N20 is nitrous oxide. This graph shows the amounts of energy in watts per meter squared (W/m2) they are trapping in the Earth's atmosphere. Note that during the 1990s, when CFCs were banned, the graph line decreased, however CO2 continues to increase. To the right of the dotted line at the year 2000, data for the "Alternative Scenario" is depicted, where global C02 emission reductions would be in place, and the amount of energy trapped in the atmosphere would start to decrease annually.

Bar graph showing how much heat different greenhouse gases trap

How Each Greenhouse Gas Contributes to Warming the Earth
The bar graph indicates how much heat in terms of Watts per meter squared that each greenhouse gas traps in the Earth's lower atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) (light gray) is clearly the largest contributor. From the 1970s to the late 1980s, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) (red) were the second largest contributor until the Montreal Protocol banned them. Their effects, now dropping off are now much less of a contributor. The other two main greenhouse gases are Nitrous oxide (N20) (yellow) and Methane (CH4) (blue).