According to the National Academy of Sciences, the Earth's surface temperature has risen by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the past century, with accelerated warming during the past two decades. There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. Human activities have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere through the buildup of greenhouse gases primarily carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. The heat-trapping property of these gases is undisputed although uncertainties exist about exactly how earth's climate responds to them. Go to the Emissions section for much more on greenhouse gases.
Our Changing Atmosphere
Energy from the sun drives the earth's weather and climate, and heats the earth's surface; in turn, the earth radiates energy back into space. Atmospheric greenhouse gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases) trap some of the outgoing energy, retaining heat somewhat like the glass panels of a greenhouse.
Without this natural "greenhouse effect," temperatures would be much lower than they are now, and life as known today would not be possible. Instead, thanks to greenhouse gases, the earth's average temperature is a more hospitable 60°F. However, problems may arise when the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases increases.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased nearly 30%, methane concentrations have more than doubled, and nitrous oxide concentrations have risen by about 15%. These increases have enhanced the heat-trapping capability of the earth's atmosphere. Sulfate aerosols, a common air pollutant, cool the atmosphere by reflecting light back into space; however, sulfates are short-lived in the atmosphere and vary regionally.
Why are greenhouse gas concentrations increasing? Scientists generally believe that the combustion of fossil fuels and other human activities are the primary reason for the increased concentration of carbon dioxide. Plant respiration and the decomposition of organic matter release more than 10 times the CO2 released by human activities; but these releases have generally been in balance during the centuries leading up to the industrial revolution with carbon dioxide absorbed by terrestrial vegetation and the oceans.
What has changed in the last few hundred years is the additional release of carbon dioxide by human activities. Fossil fuels burned to run cars and trucks, heat homes and businesses, and power factories are responsible for about 98% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, 24% of methane emissions, and 18% of nitrous oxide emissions. Increased agriculture, deforestation, landfills, industrial production, and mining also contribute a significant share of emissions. In 1997, the United States emitted about one-fifth of total global greenhouse gases.
Estimating future emissions is difficult, because it depends on demographic, economic, technological, policy, and institutional developments. Several emissions scenarios have been developed based on differing projections of these underlying factors. For example, by 2100, in the absence of emissions control policies, carbon dioxide concentrations are projected to be 30-150% higher than today's levels.
Global mean surface temperatures have increased 0.5-1.0°F since the late 19th century. The 20th century's 10 warmest years all occurred in the last 15 years of the century. Of these, 1998 was the warmest year on record. The snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and floating ice in the Arctic Ocean have decreased. Globally, sea level has risen 4-8 inches over the past century. Worldwide precipitation over land has increased by about one percent. The frequency of extreme rainfall events has increased throughout much of the United States.
Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to accelerate the rate of climate change. Scientists expect that the average global surface temperature could rise 1-4.5°F (0.6-2.5°C) in the next fifty years, and 2.2-10°F (1.4-5.8°C) in the next century, with significant regional variation. Evaporation will increase as the climate warms, which will increase average global precipitation. Soil moisture is likely to decline in many regions, and intense rainstorms are likely to become more frequent. Sea level is likely to rise two feet along most of the U.S. coast.
Calculations of climate change for specific areas are much less reliable than global ones, and it is unclear whether regional climate will become more variable.
Like many fields of scientific study, there are uncertainties associated with the science of global warming. This does not imply that all things are equally uncertain. Some aspects of the science are based on well-known physical laws and documented trends, while other aspects range from 'near certainty' to 'big unknowns.'What's Known for Certain?Scientists know for certain that human activities are changing the composition of Earth's atmosphere. Increasing levels of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide (CO2 ), in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times have been well documented. There is no doubt this atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is largely the result of human activities.It's well accepted by scientists that greenhouse gases trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere and tend to warm the planet. By increasing the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, human activities are strengthening Earth's natural greenhouse effect. The key greenhouse gases emitted by human activities remain in the atmosphere for periods ranging from decades to centuries.
A warming trend of about 1°F has been recorded since the late 19th century. Warming has occurred in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and over the oceans. Confirmation of 20th-century global warming is further substantiated by melting glaciers, decreased snow cover in the northern hemisphere and even warming below ground.
What's Likely but not Certain?Figuring out to what extent the human-induced accumulation of greenhouse gases since pre-industrial times is responsible for the global warming trend is not easy. This is because other factors, both natural and human, affect our planet's temperature. Scientific understanding of these other factors most notably natural climatic variations, changes in the sun's energy, and the cooling effects of pollutant aerosols remains incomplete.
Nevertheless, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated there was a "discernible" human influence on climate; and that the observed warming trend is "unlikely to be entirely natural in origin." In the most recent Third Assessment Report (2001), IPCC wrote "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities."
In short, scientists think rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are contributing to global warming, as would be expected; but to what extent is difficult to determine at the present time.
As atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases continue to rise, scientists estimate average global temperatures will continue to rise as a result. By how much and how fast remain uncertain. IPCC projects further global warming of 2.2-10°F (1.4-5.8°C) by the year 2100. This range results from uncertainties in greenhouse gas emissions, the possible cooling effects of atmospheric particles such as sulfates, and the climate's response to changes in the atmosphere.
The IPCC states that even the low end of this warming projection "would probably be greater than any seen in the last 10,000 years, but the actual annual to decadal changes would include considerable natural variability."
What are the Big Unknowns?Scientists have identified that our health, agriculture, water resources, forests, wildlife and coastal areas are vulnerable to the changes that global warming may bring. But projecting what the exact impacts will be over the 21st century remains very difficult. This is especially true when one asks how a local region will be affected.
Scientists are more confident about their projections for large-scale areas (e.g., global temperature and precipitation change, average sea level rise) and less confident about the ones for small-scale areas (e.g., local temperature and precipitation changes, altered weather patterns, soil moisture changes). This is largely because the computer models used to forecast global climate change are still ill-equipped to simulate how things may change at smaller scales. [See the U.S. Climate section for more detail on climate models.]
Some of the largest uncertainties are associated with events that pose the greatest risk to human societies. IPCC cautions, "Complex systems, such as the climate system, can respond in non-linear ways and produce surprises." There is the possibility that a warmer world could lead to more frequent and intense storms, including hurricanes. Preliminary evidence suggests that, once hurricanes do form, they will be stronger if the oceans are warmer due to global warming. However, the jury is still out whether or not hurricanes and other storms will become more frequent.
More and more attention is being aimed at the possible link between El Niño events the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean and global warming. Scientists are concerned that the accumulation of greenhouse gases could inject enough heat into Pacific waters such that El Niño events become more frequent and fierce. Here too, research has not advanced far enough to provide conclusive statements about how global warming will affect El Niño.Living with UncertaintyLike many pioneer fields of research, the current state of global warming science can't always provide definitive answers to our questions. There is certainty that human activities are rapidly adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, and that these gases tend to warm our planet. This is the basis for concern about global warming.
The fundamental scientific uncertainties are these: How much more warming will occur? How fast will this warming occur? And what are the potential adverse and beneficial effects? These uncertainties will be with us for some time, perhaps decades.
Global warming poses real risks. The exact nature of these risks remains uncertain. Ultimately, this is why we have to use our best judgement guided by the current state of science to determine what the most appropriate response to global warming should be.
read more: http://yosemite.epa.gov/oar/globalwarming.nsf/content/index.html