Our Globally Changing Climate: Excerpts from the Draft 2017 Climate Science Special Report

A summary report from the USGCRCP on the state of climate science.

(GlobalChange.gov) – Since the Third U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA3) was published in May 2014, new observations along multiple lines of evidence have strengthened the conclusion that Earth’s climate is changing at a pace and in a pattern not explainable by natural influences. While this report focuses especially on observed and projected future changes for the United States, it is important to understand those changes in the global context.

The world has warmed over the last 150 years, especially over the last six decades, and that warming has triggered many other changes to Earth’s climate. Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. Thousands of studies conducted by tens of thousands of scientists around the world have documented changes in surface, atmospheric, and oceanic temperatures; melting glaciers; disappearing snow cover; shrinking sea ice; rising sea level; and an increase in atmospheric water vapor. Rainfall patterns and storms are changing and the occurrence of droughts is shifting.

Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are primarily responsible for the observed climate changes in the industrial era, especially over the last six decades (see attribution analysis in Ch. 3: Detection and Attribution). Formal detection and attribution studies for the period 1951 to 2010 find that the observed global mean surface temperature warming lies in the middle of the range of likely human contributions to warming over that same period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century (IPCC 2013). Over the last century, there are no alternative explanations supported by the evidence that are either credible or that can contribute more than marginally to the observed patterns. We find no convincing evidence that natural variability can account for the amount of global warming observed over the industrial era. Solar flux variations over the last six decades have been too small to explain the observed changes in climate (Bindoff et al. 2013). There are no apparent natural cycles in the observational record that can explain the recent changes in climate (e.g., PAGES 2K Consortium 2013; Marcott et al. 2013). In addition, natural cycles within the Earth’s climate system can only redistribute heat; they cannot be responsible for the observed increase in the overall heat content of the climate system (Church et al. 2011). Any explanations for the observed changes in climate must be grounded in understood physical mechanisms, appropriate in scale, and consistent in timing and direction with the long-term observed trends. Known human activities quite reasonably explain what has happened without the need for other factors. Internal variability and forcing factors other than human activities cannot explain what is happening and there are no suggested factors, even speculative ones, that can explain the timing or magnitude and that would somehow cancel out the role of human factors (Anderson et al. 2012). The science underlying this evidence, along with the observed and projected changes in climate, is discussed in later chapters, starting with the basis for a human influence on climate in Chapter 2: Physical Drivers of Climate Change.

Throughout this report, we also analyze projections of future changes in climate. Predicting how climate will change in future decades is a different scientific issue from predicting weather a few weeks from now. Local weather is short term, with limited predictability, and is determined by the complicated movement and interaction of high pressure and low pressure systems in the atmosphere; thus, it is difficult to forecast day-to-day changes beyond about two weeks into the future. Climate, on the other hand, is the statistics of weather—meaning not just average values but also the prevalence and intensity of extremes—as observed over a period of decades. Climate emerges from the interaction, over time, of rapidly changing local weather and more slowly changing regional and global influences, such as the distribution of heat in the oceans, the amount of energy reaching Earth from the sun, and the composition of the atmosphere. See Chapter 4: Projections and later chapters for more on climate projections.

Throughout this report, we include many findings that further strengthen or add to the understanding of climate change relative to those found in NCA3 and other assessments of the science. Several of these are highlighted in an “Advances Since NCA3” box at the end of this chapter.

Indicators of a Globally Changing Climate

Highly diverse types of direct measurements made on land, sea, and in the atmosphere over many decades have allowed scientists to conclude with high confidence that global mean temperature is increasing. Observational datasets for many other climate variables support the conclusion with high confidence that the global climate is changing (Blunden and Arndt 2016; Meehl et al. 2016a; also see EPA 2016). Temperatures in the lower atmosphere and ocean have increased, as have near-surface humidity and sea level. Not only has ocean heat content increased dramatically, but more than 90% of the energy gained in the combined ocean-atmosphere system over recent decades has gone into the ocean (Rhein et al. 2013, Johnson et al. 2015).

Basic physics tells us that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor; this is exactly what is measured from satellite data. At the same time, a warmer world means higher evaporation rates and major changes to the hydrological cycle, including increases in the prevalence of torrential downpours. In addition, Arctic sea ice, mountain glaciers, and Northern Hemisphere spring snow cover have all decreased. The relatively small increase in Antarctic sea ice in the 15-year period from 2000 through early 2016 appears to be best explained as being due to localized natural variability (see e.g., Meehl et al. 2016a; Ramsayer 2014); while possibly also related to natural variability, the 2017 Antarctic sea ice minimum reached in early March was the lowest measured since reliable records began in 1979. The vast majority of the glaciers in the world are losing mass at significant rates. The two largest ice sheets on our planet – on the land masses of Greenland and Antarctica – are shrinking. Five different observational datasets show the heat content of the oceans is increasing.

Many other indicators of the changing climate have been determined from other observations – for example, changes in the growing season and the allergy season (see e.g. EPA 2016; USGCRP 2017). In general, the indicators demonstrate continuing changes in climate since the publication of NCA3. As with temperature, independent researchers have analyzed each of these indicators and come to the same conclusion all of these changes paint a consistent and compelling picture of a warming planet.

KEY FINDINGS

  1. The global climate continues to change rapidly compared to the pace of the natural variations in climate that have occurred throughout Earth’s history. Trends in globally averaged temperature, sea level rise, upper-ocean heat content, land-based ice melt, Arctic sea ice, depth of seasonal permafrost thaw, and other climate variables provide consistent evidence of a warming planet. These observed trends are robust and have been confirmed by multiple independent research groups around the world. (Very high confidence)
  2. The frequency and intensity of extreme heat and heavy precipitation events are increasing in most continental regions of the world (very high confidence). These trends are consistent with expected physical responses to a warming climate. Climate model studies are also consistent with these trends, although models tend to underestimate the observed trends, especially for the increase in extreme precipitation events (very high confidence for temperature, high confidence for extreme precipitation). The frequency and intensity of extreme temperature events are virtually certain to increase in the future as global temperature increases (high confidence). Extreme precipitation events will very likely continue to increase in frequency and intensity throughout most of the world (high confidence). Observed and projected trends for some other types of extreme events, such as floods, droughts, and severe storms, have more variable regional characteristics.
  3. Many lines of evidence demonstrate that it is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. Formal detection and attribution studies for the period 1951 to 2010 find that the observed global mean surface temperature warming lies in the middle of the range of likely human contributions to warming over that same period. We find no convincing evidence that natural variability can account for the amount of global warming observed over the industrial era. For the period extending over the last century, there are no convincing alternative explanations supported by the extent of the observational evidence. Solar output changes and internal variability can only contribute marginally to the observed changes in climate over the last century, and we find no convincing evidence for natural cycles in the observational record that could explain the observed changes in climate. (Very high confidence)
  4. Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond. The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases emitted globally and on the remaining uncertainty in the sensitivity of Earth’s climate to those emissions (very high confidence). With significant reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases, the global annually averaged temperature rise could be limited to 3.6°F (2°C) or less. Without major reductions in these emissions, the increase in annual average global temperatures relative to preindustrial times could reach 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century (high confidence).
  5. Natural variability, including El Niño events and other recurring patterns of ocean– atmosphere interactions, impact temperature and precipitation, especially regionally, over months to years. The global influence of natural variability, however, is limited to a small fraction of observed climate trends over decades. (Very high confidence)
  6. Longer-term climate records over past centuries and millennia indicate that average temperatures in recent decades over much of the world have been much higher, and have risen faster during this time period, than at any time in the past 1,700 years or more, the time period for which the global distribution of surface temperatures can be reconstructed. (High confidence)

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Coordinating Lead Authors

The full report and a complete list of authors can be found here (large pdf file).

The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) is made up of 13 Federal departments and agencies that carry out research and support the Nation’s response to global change.

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