Earth's energy imbalance and implications
1NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, NY 10025, USA
2Columbia University Earth Institute, New York, NY 10027, USA
3Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, LOCEAN Paris, hosted by Ifremer, Brest, France
Abstract. Improving observations of ocean heat content show that Earth is absorbing more energy from the sun than it is radiating to space as heat, even during the recent solar minimum. The inferred planetary energy imbalance, 0.59 ± 0.15 W m−2 during the 6-year period 2005–2010, confirms the dominant role of the human-made greenhouse effect in driving global climate change. Observed surface temperature change and ocean heat gain together constrain the net climate forcing and ocean mixing rates. We conclude that most climate models mix heat too efficiently into the deep ocean and as a result underestimate the negative forcing by human-made aerosols. Aerosol climate forcing today is inferred to be −1.6 ± 0.3 W m−2, implying substantial aerosol indirect climate forcing via cloud changes. Continued failure to quantify the specific origins of this large forcing is untenable, as knowledge of changing aerosol effects is needed to understand future climate change. We conclude that recent slowdown of ocean heat uptake was caused by a delayed rebound effect from Mount Pinatubo aerosols and a deep prolonged solar minimum. Observed sea level rise during the Argo float era is readily accounted for by ice melt and ocean thermal expansion, but the ascendency of ice melt leads us to anticipate acceleration of the rate of sea level rise this decade.
Humanity is potentially vulnerable to global temperature change, as discussed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2001, 2007) reports and by innumerable authors. Although climate change is driven by many climate forcing agents and the climate system also exhibits unforced (chaotic) variability, it is now widely agreed that the strong global warming trend of recent decades is caused predominantly by human-made changes of atmospheric composition (IPCC, 2007).
The basic physics underlying this global warming, the greenhouse effect, is simple. An increase of gases such as CO2 makes the atmosphere more opaque at infrared wavelengths. This added opacity causes the planet's heat radiation to space to arise from higher, colder levels in the atmosphere, thus reducing emission of heat energy to space. The temporary imbalance between the energy absorbed from the sun and heat emission to space, causes the planet to warm until planetary energy balance is restored.
The planetary energy imbalance caused by a change of atmospheric composition defines a climate forcing. Climate sensitivity, the eventual global temperature change per unit forcing, is known with good accuracy from Earth's paleoclimate history. However, two fundamental uncertainties limit our ability to predict global temperature change on decadal time scales.
First, although climate forcing by human-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) is known accurately, climate forcing caused by changing human-made aerosols is practically unmeasured. Aerosols are fine particles suspended in the air, such as dust, sulfates, and black soot (Ramanathan et al., 2001). Aerosol climate forcing is complex, because aerosols both reflect solar radiation to space (a cooling effect) and absorb solar radiation (a warming effect). In addition, atmospheric aerosols can alter cloud cover and cloud properties. Therefore, precise composition-specific measurements of aerosols and their effects on clouds are needed to assess the aerosol role in climate change.
Second, the rate at which Earth's surface temperature approaches a new equilibrium in response to a climate forcing depends on how efficiently heat perturbations are mixed into the deeper ocean. Ocean mixing is complex and not necessarily simulated well by climate models. Empirical data on ocean heat uptake are improving rapidly, but still suffer limitations.
We summarize current understanding of this basic physics of global warming and note observations needed to narrow uncertainties. Appropriate measurements can quantify the major factors driving climate change, reveal how much additional global warming is already in the pipeline, and help define the reduction of climate forcing needed to stabilize climate.