Climate Change and Global Warming Encyclopedia: Sweeping Coverage of All Aspects of Carbon Dioxide and Greenhouse Gases, Sea Levels, Ecosystems, Computer Models, Extreme Weather, Energy and Carbon by Progressive Management - Read Online
Climate Change and Global Warming Encyclopedia
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Investigate all aspects of climate change and global warming in this massive, authoritative compilation of up-to-date official documents from dozens of federal sources, with details about carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, methane, rising sea levels, coastal threats, effects on plants, animals, birds, and other wildlife, potential damage to ecosystems, impacts on human health, the use of computer models to forecast future trends, the possible increase of extreme weather events, the role of energy sources in the carbon footprint, federal research and response efforts, satellite information, extensive glossaries, and much more.

There are fifteen parts: Part 1: NASA Material * Part 2: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Material * Part 3: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Material * Part 4: Department of the Interior (DOI) Material * Part 5: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Material * Part 6: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Material * Part 7: U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service Material * Part 8: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Material * Part 9: NASA Energy Innovations Material * Part 10: Glossary of Climate Change Terms * Part 11: Energy Efficiency Glossary * Part 12: Federal Actions for a Climate Resilient Nation: Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force * Part 13: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Climate Change Adaptation Plan * Part 14: Our Changing Planet - The U.S. Global Change Research Program for Fiscal Year 2013 * Part 15: The National Global Change Research Plan 2012-2021 - A Strategic Plan for the U.S. Global Change Research Program

The Earth's climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives. The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years. Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. Studying these climate data collected over many years reveal the signals of a changing climate. Certain facts about Earth's climate are not in dispute: The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response. Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in solar output, in the Earth’s orbit, and in greenhouse gas levels. They also show that in the past, large changes in climate have happened very quickly, geologically-speaking: in tens of years, not in millions or even thousands.

The consequences of changing the natural atmospheric greenhouse are difficult to predict, but certain effects seem likely: On average, Earth will become warmer. Some regions may welcome warmer temperatures, but others may not. Warmer conditions will probably lead to more evaporation and precipitation overall, but individual regions will vary, some becoming wetter and others dryer. A stronger greenhouse effect will warm the oceans and partially melt glaciers and other ice, increasing sea level. Ocean water also will expand if it warms, contributing further to sea level rise.

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Part 1: NASA Material

Climate change: How do we know?

The Earth's climate has changed throughout history. Just in the last 650,000 years there have been seven cycles of glacial advance and retreat, with the abrupt end of the last ice age about 7,000 years ago marking the beginning of the modern climate era — and of human civilization. Most of these climate changes are attributed to very small variations in Earth’s orbit that change the amount of solar energy our planet receives.

Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal. - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The current warming trend is of particular significance because most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years.

Earth-orbiting satellites and other technological advances have enabled scientists to see the big picture, collecting many different types of information about our planet and its climate on a global scale. Studying these climate data collected over many years reveal the signals of a changing climate.

Certain facts about Earth's climate are not in dispute:

The heat-trapping nature of carbon dioxide and other gases was demonstrated in the mid-19th century. Their ability to affect the transfer of infrared energy through the atmosphere is the scientific basis of many JPL-designed instruments, such as AIRS. Increased levels of greenhouse gases must cause the Earth to warm in response.

Ice cores drawn from Greenland, Antarctica, and tropical mountain glaciers show that the Earth’s climate responds to changes in solar output, in the Earth’s orbit, and in greenhouse gas levels. They also show that in the past, large changes in climate have happened very quickly, geologically-speaking: in tens of years, not in millions or even thousands.

The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling:

Sea level rise

Global sea level rose about 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) in the last century. The rate in the last decade, however, is nearly double that of the last century.

Global temperature rise

All three major global surface temperature reconstructions show that Earth has warmed since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years having occurred since 1981 and with all 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12 years. Even though the 2000s witnessed a solar output decline resulting in an unusually deep solar minimum in 2007-2009, surface temperatures continue to increase.

Warming oceans

The oceans have absorbed much of this increased heat, with the top 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) of ocean showing warming of 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969.

Shrinking ice sheets

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Data from NASA's Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment show Greenland lost 150 to 250 cubic kilometers (36 to 60 cubic miles) of ice per year between 2002 and 2006, while Antarctica lost about 152 cubic kilometers (36 cubic miles) of ice between 2002 and 2005.

Declining Arctic sea ice

Both the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice has declined rapidly over the last several decades.

Glacial retreat

Glaciers are retreating almost everywhere around the world — including in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa.

Extreme events

The number of record high temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events.

Ocean acidification

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent. This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans is increasing by about 2 billion tons per year.

In the 1860s, physicist John Tyndall recognized the Earth's natural greenhouse effect and suggested that slight changes in the atmospheric composition could bring about climatic variations. In 1896, a seminal paper by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first speculated that changes in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could substantially alter the surface temperature through the greenhouse effect.

Scientific Consensus

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

A layer of greenhouse gases – primarily water vapor, and including much smaller amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide – act as a thermal blanket for the Earth, absorbing heat and warming the surface to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).

Most climate scientists agree the main cause of the current global warming trend is human expansion of the greenhouse effect -- warming that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space.

Certain gases in the atmosphere block heat from escaping. Long-lived gases, remaining semi-permanently in the atmosphere, which do not respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature are described as forcing climate change whereas gases, such as water, which respond physically or chemically to changes in temperature are seen as feedbacks.

Gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect include:

Water vapor. The most abundant greenhouse gas, but importantly, it acts as a feedback to the climate. Water vapor increases as the Earth's atmosphere warms, but so does the possibility of clouds and precipitation, making these some of the most important feedback mechanisms to the greenhouse effect.

Carbon dioxide (CO2). A minor but very important component of the atmosphere, carbon dioxide is released through natural processes such as respiration and volcano eruptions and through human activities such as deforestation, land use changes, and burning fossil fuels. Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentration by a third since the Industrial Revolution began. This is the most important long-lived forcing of climate change.

Methane. A hydrocarbon gas produced both through natural sources and human activities, including the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture, and especially rice cultivation, as well as ruminant digestion and manure management associated with domestic livestock. On a molecule-for-molecule basis, methane is a far more active greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but also one which is much less abundant in the atmosphere.

Nitrous oxide. A powerful greenhouse gas produced by soil cultivation practices, especially the use of commercial and organic fertilizers, fossil fuel combustion, nitric acid production, and biomass burning.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Synthetic compounds of entirely of industrial origin used in a number of applications, but now largely regulated in production and release to the atmosphere by international agreement for their ability to contribute to destruction of the ozone layer. They are also greenhouse gases.

Not enough greenhouse effect: The planet Mars has a very thin atmosphere, nearly all carbon dioxide. Because of the low atmospheric pressure, and with little to no methane or water vapor to reinforce the weak greenhouse effect, Mars has a largely frozen surface that shows no evidence of life.

Too much greenhouse effect: The atmosphere of Venus, like Mars, is nearly all carbon dioxide. But Venus has about 300 times as much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere as Earth and Mars do, producing a runaway greenhouse effect and a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead.

On Earth, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon with oxygen in the air to make CO2. To a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities have increased concentrations of greenhouse gases.

The consequences of changing the natural atmospheric greenhouse are difficult to predict, but certain effects seem likely:

On average, Earth will become warmer. Some regions may welcome warmer temperatures, but others may not.

Warmer conditions will probably lead to more evaporation and precipitation overall, but individual regions will vary, some becoming wetter and others dryer.

A stronger greenhouse effect will warm the oceans and partially melt glaciers and other ice, increasing sea level. Ocean water also will expand if it warms, contributing further to sea level rise.

Meanwhile, some crops and other plants may respond favorably to increased atmospheric CO2, growing more vigorously and using water more efficiently. At the same time, higher temperatures and shifting climate patterns may change the areas where crops grow best and affect the makeup of natural plant communities.

The role of human activity

In its recently released Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world under the auspices of the United Nations, concluded there's a more than 90 percent probability that human activities over the past 250 years have warmed our planet.

The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from 280 parts per million to 379 parts per million in the last 150 years. The panel also concluded there's a better than 90 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have caused much of the observed increase in Earth's temperatures over the past 50 years.

They said the rate of increase in global warming due to these gases is very likely to be unprecedented within the past 10,000 years or more.

Solar irradiance

It's reasonable to assume that changes in the sun's energy output would cause the climate to change, since the sun is the fundamental source of energy that drives our climate system.

Indeed, studies show that solar variability has played a role in past climate changes. For example, a decrease in solar activity is thought to have triggered the Little Ice Age between approximately 1650 and 1850, when Greenland was largely cut off by ice from 1410 to the 1720s and glaciers advanced in the Alps.

But several lines of evidence show that current global warming cannot be explained by changes in energy from the sun:

Since 1750, the average amount of energy coming from the Sun either remained constant or increased slightly.

If the warming were caused by a more active sun, then scientists would expect to see warmer temperatures in all layers of the atmosphere. Instead, they have observed a cooling in the upper atmosphere, and a warming at the surface and in the lower parts of the atmosphere. That's because greenhouse gasses are trapping heat in the lower atmosphere.

Climate models that include solar irradiance changes can’t reproduce the observed temperature trend over the past century or more without including a rise in greenhouse gases.

We live in a greenhouse

Life on Earth depends on energy coming from the sun. About half the light reaching Earth's atmosphere passes through the air and clouds to the surface, where it is absorbed and then radiated upward in the form of infrared heat. About 90 percent of this heat is then absorbed by the greenhouse gases and radiated back toward the surface, which is warmed to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius).

Is the Sun to Blame?

How do we know that changes in the sun aren’t to blame for current global warming trends?

Since 1978, a series of satellite instruments have measured the energy output of the sun directly. The satellite data show a very slight drop in solar irradiance (which is a measure of the amount of energy the sun gives off) over this time period. So the sun doesn't appear to be responsible for the warming trend observed over the past 30 years.

Longer-term estimates of solar irradiance have been made using sunspot records and other so-called proxy indicators, such as the amount of carbon in tree rings. The most recent analyses of these proxies indicate that solar irradiance changes cannot plausibly account for more than 10 percent of the 20th century’s warming.

The current and future consequences of global change

The potential future effects of global climate change include more frequent wildfires, longer periods of drought in some regions and an increase in the number, duration and intensity of tropical storms.

Global climate change has already had observable effects on the environment. Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner.

Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves.

Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time. - Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gasses produced by human activities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

According to the IPCC, the extent of climate change effects on individual regions will vary over time and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to mitigate or adapt to change.

The IPCC predicts that increases in global mean temperature of less than 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 3 degrees Celsius) above 1990 levels will produce beneficial impacts in some regions and harmful ones in others. Net annual costs will increase over time as global temperatures increase.

Taken as a whole, the IPCC states, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.

Below are some of the regional impacts of global change forecast by the IPCC:

North America: Decreasing snowpack in the western mountains; 5-20 percent increase in yields of rain-fed agriculture in some regions; increased frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves in cities that currently experience them.

Latin America: Gradual replacement of tropical forest by savannah in eastern Amazonia; risk of significant biodiversity loss through species extinction in many tropical areas; significant changes in water availability for human consumption, agriculture and energy generation.

Europe: Increased risk of inland flash floods; more frequent coastal flooding and increased erosion from storms and sea level rise; glacial retreat in mountainous areas; reduced snow cover and winter tourism; extensive species losses; reductions of crop productivity in southern Europe.

Africa: By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress; yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50 percent in some regions by 2020; agricultural production, including access to food, may be severely compromised.

Asia: Freshwater availability projected to decrease in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia by the 2050s; coastal areas will be at risk due to increased flooding; death rate from disease associated with floods and droughts expected to rise in some regions.

Global Climate Change: Recent Impacts

Phenomena * Likelihood that trend occurred in late 20th century

Cold days, cold nights and frost less frequent over land areas * Very likely

More frequent hot days and nights * Very likely

Heat waves more frequent over most land areas * Likely

Increased incidence of extreme high sea level * Likely

Global area affected by drought has increased (since 1970s) * Likely in some regions

Increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in North Atlantic (since 1970) * Likely in some regions

* Excluding tsunamis, which are not due to climate change.

A Degree of Difference

So, the Earth's average temperature has increased about 1 degree Fahrenheit during the 20th century. What's the big deal?

One degree may sound like a small amount, but it's an unusual event in our planet's recent history. Earth's climate record, preserved in tree rings, ice cores, and coral reefs, shows that the global average temperature is stable over long periods of time. Furthermore, small changes in temperature correspond to enormous changes in the environment.

For example, at the end of the last ice age, when the Northeast United States was covered by more than 3,000 feet of ice, average temperatures were only 5 to 9 degrees cooler than today.

Global Climate Change: Future Trends

Phenomena * Likelihood of trend

Contraction of snow cover areas, increased thaw in permafrost regions, decrease in sea ice extent * Virtually certain

Increased frequency of hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation * Very likely to occur

Increase in tropical cyclone intensity * Likely to occur

Precipitation increases in high latitudes * Very likely to occur

Precipitation decreases in subtropical land regions * Very likely to occur

Decreased water resources in many semi-arid areas, including western U.S. and Mediterranean basin * High confidence

Definitions of likelihood ranges used to express the assessed probability of occurrence: virtually certain >99%, very likely >90%, likely >66%.

Source: Summary for Policymakers, IPCC Synthesis report, November 2007

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The following is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.


Statement on climate change from 18 scientific associations

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. (2009)

American Association for the Advancement of Science

The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. (2006)

American Chemical Society

Comprehensive scientific assessments of our current and potential future climates clearly indicate that climate change is real, largely attributable to emissions from human activities, and potentially a very serious problem. (2004)

American Geophysical Union

The Earth's climate is now clearly out of balance and is warming. Many components of the climate system — including the temperatures of the atmosphere, land and ocean, the extent of sea ice and mountain glaciers, the sea level, the distribution of precipitation, and the length of seasons — are now changing at rates and in patterns that are not natural and are best explained by the increased atmospheric abundances of greenhouse gases and aerosols generated by human activity during the 20th century. (Adopted 2003, revised and reaffirmed 2007)

American Medical Association

Our AMA ... supports the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report and concurs with the scientific consensus that the Earth is undergoing adverse global climate change and that anthropogenic contributions are significant. (2013)

American Meteorological Society

It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide. (2012)

American Physical Society

The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now. (2007)

The Geological Society of America

The Geological Society of America (GSA) concurs with assessments by the National Academies of Science (2005), the National Research Council (2006), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007) that global climate has warmed and that human activities (mainly greenhouse‐gas emissions) account for most of the warming since the middle 1900s. (2006; revised 2010)


International academies: Joint statement

Climate change is real. There will always be uncertainty in understanding a system as complex as the world’s climate. However there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring. The evidence comes from direct measurements of rising surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and from phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating glaciers, and changes to many physical and biological systems. It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities (IPCC 2001). (2005, 11 international science academies)

U.S. National Academy of Sciences

The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. (2005)


U.S. Global Change Research Program

The global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases. Human 'fingerprints' also have been identified in many other aspects of the climate system, including changes in ocean heat content, precipitation, atmospheric moisture, and Arctic sea ice. (2009, 13 U.S. government departments and agencies)12


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.

Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely* due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

*IPCC defines ‘very likely’ as greater than 90 percent probability of occurrence.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image of the sun with a huge, handle-shaped prominence, taken in 1999. While there is no evidence of a change trend in solar output over the past half century, long-term changes in solar output are not well-understood.

Unresolved questions about Earth's climate

Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image of a huge, handle-shaped prominence.

There's a great deal that we don't know about the future of Earth's climate and how climate change will affect humans.

For convenience and clarity, climate scientists separate things that affect climate change into two categories: forcings and feedbacks.

Also, climate scientists often discuss abrupt climate change, which includes the possibility of tipping points in the Earth's climate. Climate appears to have several states in which it is relatively stable over long periods of time. But when climate moves between those states, it can do so quickly (geologically speaking), in hundreds of years and even, in a handful of cases, in only a few decades. These rapid 'state changes' are what scientists mean by abrupt climate change. They are much more common at regional scales than at the global scale, but can be global. State changes have triggers, or tipping points, that are related to feedback processes. In what's probably the single largest uncertainty in climate science, scientists don't have much confidence that they know what those triggers are.

Below is an explanation of just a few other important uncertainties about climate change, organized according to the categories forcing and feedback. This list isn't exhaustive. It is intended to illustrate the kinds of questions that scientists still ask about climate.


Solar Irradiance. The sun has a well-known 11-year irradiance cycle that produces about .1% variation in output.1 Solar irradiance has been measured by satellite daily since the late 1970s, and this known solar cycle is incorporated into climate models. There is some evidence from proxy measurements-sunspot counts going back centuries, measurements from ancient trees, and others-that solar output varies over longer periods of time, too. While there is currently no evidence of a trend in solar output over the past half century, because there are no direct observations of solar output prior to the 1970s, climate scientists do not have much confidence that they understand longer-term solar changes. A number of U.S. and international spacecraft study the sun.

Aerosols, dust, smoke, and soot. These come from both human and natural sources. They also have very different effects on climate. Sulfate aerosols, which result from burning coal, biomass, and volcanic eruptions, tend to cool the Earth. Increasing industrial emissions of sulfates is believed to have caused a cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere from the 1940s to the 1970s. But other kinds of particles have the opposite effect. The global distribution of aerosols has only been tracked for about a decade from the ground and from satellites, but those measurements cannot yet reliably distinguish between types of particulates. So aerosol forcing is another substantial uncertainty in predictions of future climate.


Clouds. Clouds have an enormous impact on Earth's climate, reflecting back into space about one third of the total amount of sunlight that hits the Earth's atmosphere. As the atmosphere warms, cloud patterns may change, altering the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth. Because clouds are such powerful climate actors, even small changes in average cloud amounts, locations, and type could speed warming, slow it, or even reverse it. Current climate models do not represent cloud physics well, so the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has consistently rated clouds among its highest research priorities. NASA and its research partners in industry, academia, and other nations have a small flotilla of spacecraft and aircraft studying clouds and the closely related phenomenon of aerosols.

Carbon cycle. Currently, natural processes remove about half of each year's human carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere, although this varies a bit year to year. It isn't well understood where this carbon dioxide goes, with some evidence that the oceans are the major repository and other evidence that land biota absorbs the majority. There is also some evidence that the ability of the Earth system to continue absorbing it may decline as the world warms, leading to faster accumulation in the atmosphere. But this possibility isn't well understood either. The planned Orbiting Carbon Observatory mission will mark NASA's first attempt to answer some of these questions via space observations.

Ocean circulation. One very popular hypothesis about climate change is that as the Earth as a whole warms, ocean circulation in the Atlantic will change to produce cooling in Western Europe. In its most extreme form, this hypothesis has advancing European ice sheets triggering a new ice age. A global-warming induced ice age is not considered very likely among climate scientists. But the idea highlights the importance of ocean circulation in maintaining regional climates. Global ocean data sets only extend back to the early 1990s, so there are large uncertainties in predictions of future ocean changes.

Precipitation. Human civilization is dependent upon where and when rain and snow fall. We need it for drinking water and for growing our food. Global climate models show that precipitation will generally increase, but not in all regions. Some regions will dry instead. Scientists and policymakers would like to use climate models to assess regional changes, but the models currently show wide variation in their results. For just one example, some models forecast less precipitation in the American southwest, where JPL is, while others foresee more precipitation. This lack of agreement on even the direction of change makes planning very difficult. There's much research to be done on this question.

Sea level rise. In its 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change used new satellite data to conclude that shrinkage of ice sheets may contribute more to sea level rise than it had thought as recently as 2001. The panel concluded that it could not provide a best estimate or an upper bound for sea level rise over the next century due to their lack of knowledge about Earth's ice.2 There are 5-6 meters worth of sea level in the Greenland ice sheet, and 6-7 meters in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, while the much larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet is probably not vulnerable to widespread melting in the next century. Many hundreds of millions of people live within that range of sea level increase, so our inability to predict what sea level rise is likely over the next century has substantial human and economic ramifications.

Forcings and Feedbacks

Climate forcings are the initial drivers of a climate shift. Solar irradiance is one example of a forcing. If the sun generates more light, the Earth will warm.

Climate feedbacks are processes that change as a result of a change in forcing, and cause additional climate change. An example of this is the ice-albedo feedback. As the atmosphere warms, sea ice will melt. Ice is highly reflective, while the underlying ocean surface is far less reflective. The darker ocean will absorb more heat, getting warmer and making the Earth warmer overall. A feedback that increases an initial warming is called a positive feedback. A feedback that reduces an initial warming is a negative feedback. The ice-albedo feedback is a very strong positive feedback that has been included in climate models since the 1970s.

If climate changes naturally over time, why isn't the current warming just another natural cycle?

The industrial activities that our modern civilization depends upon have raised atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane to higher levels than at any point during the last 650,000 years. Scientists agree it is very likely that most of the global average warming since the mid-20th century is due to the human-induced increases in greenhouse gases, rather than to natural causes.

While natural variations have altered the climate significantly in the past, it is very unlikely that the changes in climate observed since the mid-20th century can be explained by natural processes alone.

What's the difference between global change and climate change?

While global change and climate change are often used interchangeably, global change encompasses broader changes to all aspects of our world including areas such as the availability of water resources, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and biodiversity. Climate change is used to emphasize the specific changes most commonly associated with the atmosphere and the average weather, including temperature, humidity, cloudiness, or precipitation changes.

What does ozone layer depletion have to do with climate change?

Ozone depletion, which has produced ozone holes above Earth's poles, is caused by human-produced compounds that release chlorine and bromine gases in the stratosphere.

Ozone depletion does not contribute to global warming. Because ozone in the upper atmosphere absorbs heat radiating from below, stratospheric ozone depletion actually allows additional heat to escape into space. While this occurs worldwide, the depth of the springtime ozone hole over Antarctica results in Antarctica cooling while the rest of the Earth warms.

Greenhouse gases tend to cool the upper region of the atmosphere, where the ozone layer is located. Because the chemical reactions that cause ozone depletion happen more quickly in the presence of ice crystals, a colder upper atmosphere with more ice will probably cause the ozone hole to expand slightly.

Why does the temperature record shown on your climate key indicators begin at 1880?

That happens to be when most of the land areas of the northern hemisphere started to report surface temperatures measured by thermometer to government weather authorities, who recorded and archived them. Scientists call this the instrumental record of climate. Prior to 1880, there are not enough of these instrumental records from enough of the world to produce estimates of global temperatures. Instead, temperatures from further back in the past are reconstructed from proxy records like tree rings, pollen counts, boreholes and ice cores. They’re less accurate, and because they’re fundamentally different kinds of data, scientists don’t generally put these proxy-based temperatures on the same chart as the instrument-derived temperatures.

What is the greenhouse effect?

This refers to the retention of the sun's warmth in Earth's lower atmosphere by greenhouse gases, which behave somewhat like the glass in a greenhouse.

These gases - primarily carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide - act as a thermal blanket for the planet, warming the surface to a life-supporting average of 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius). The recently observed climate change is attributed to an accelerated greenhouse effect, caused by a boost in the levels of these gases in the atmosphere.

What is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?

The IPCC is a scientific intergovernmental body set up by the World Meteorological Organization and by the United Nations Environment Program to provide the decision-makers and others with an objective source of information about climate change.

The IPCC brings together the world's top scientists in all relevant fields to provide reports based on scientific evidence and reflecting existing viewpoints within the scientific community.

How do we know what pre-industrial greenhouse gases and temperatures were?

Scientists have reconstructed past climate conditions through evidence preserved in tree rings, coral reefs and ice cores. For example, ice cores removed from 2 miles deep in the Antarctic contain atmospheric samples trapped in tiny air bubbles that date as far back as 650,000 years. These samples have allowed scientists to construct a historical record of greenhouse gas concentration and temperature stretching back hundreds of thousands of years.

If we stop all greenhouse gas emissions, will global climate change stop?

Industrial activity has already pumped billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we have yet to see the full effect of warming from those gases. A great deal of excess energy imbalance is stored in the ocean and will be released gradually over time, continuing to warm the planet.

In other words, some degree of climate change is irreversible. Scientists call this the committed warming, and estimate that the Earth would continue to warm about 1 degree Fahrenheit (.6 degrees Celsius) even if greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere stopped growing immediately. That is, if all human greenhouse gas emissions stopped tomorrow, the Earth would still warm for at least a half-century.

What is the role of the sun and solar cycles in climate change and global warming?

Since 1750, the average amount of energy coming from the sun either remained constant or increased slightly. Estimates of the amount of energy the sun has sent to Earth are based on sunspot records dating back more than two centuries, and other proxy indicators, such as the amount of carbon in tree rings.

More recently, satellite observation of solar activity from space suggest a slight increase in solar activity, but the change can't account for more than 10 percent of the warming trend seen during the past century.

What does NASA have to do with global climate change?

The agency's mission is to provide the scientific data needed to understand climate change and to evaluate the impact of efforts to control it.

NASA instruments, data, analysis and modeling contributed significantly the scientific reports on climate change issued by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - work that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

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NASA currently has more than a dozen Earth science spacecraft/instruments in orbit studying all aspects of the Earth system (oceans, land, atmosphere, biosphere, cyrosphere), with several more planned for launch in the next few years.

Taking a global perspective on Earth's climate

NASA conducts a program of breakthrough research on climate science, enhancing the ability of the international scientific community to advance global integrated Earth system science using space-based observations.

The agency's research encompasses solar activity, sea level rise, the temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans, the state of the ozone layer, air pollution, and changes in sea ice and land ice. NASA scientists regularly appear in the mainstream press as climate experts. So how did the space agency end up taking such a big role in climate science?

When NASA was first created by the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, it was given the role of developing technology for space observations, but it wasn’t given a role in Earth science. The agency’s leaders embedded the technology effort in an Earth Observations program centered at the new Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in the U.S.. It was an Applications program, in NASA-speak. Other agencies of the federal government were responsible for carrying out Earth science research: the Weather Bureau (now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Applications program signed cooperative agreements with these other agencies that obligated NASA to develop observational technology while NOAA and the USGS carried out the scientific research. The Nimbus series of experimental weather satellites and the Landsat series of land resources satellites were the result of the Applications program.

This Applications model of cross-agency research failed during the 1970s, though, due to the bad economy and an extended period of high inflation. Congress responded by cutting the budgets of all three agencies, leaving NOAA and the USGS unable to fund their part of the arrangement and putting pressure on NASA, too. At the same time, congressional leaders wanted to see NASA doing more research towards National needs. These needs were things like energy efficiency, pollution, ozone depletion and climate change. In 1976, Congress revised the Space Act to give NASA authority to carry out stratospheric ozone research, formalizing the agency’s movement into the Earth sciences.

NASA’s planetary program had a lot to do with scientific and congressional interest in expanding the agency’s role in Earth science. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA's lead center for planetary science, sent Mariner series probes to Venus and Mars. Astronomers considered these to be the Earth-like planets in the solar system, most likely to have surface conditions able to support life.

But that's not what they found. Venus had been roasted by a super-charged greenhouse effect. In contrast to Earth, Venus had about 300 times more carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, no significant water vapor and a surface temperature hotter than molten lead. Mars, on the other hand, had an atmospheric pressure about 1 percent of that of planet Earth and temperatures far below freezing. Pictures showed no surface water - it would have been frozen anyway - but they also seemed to show that it once had liquid water.

These discoveries left planetary scientists with unanswered questions. How did Earth, Venus and Mars wind up so radically different from similar origins? How could Mars have once been warm enough to be wet, but be frozen solid now? These questions revolve around climate and the intersection of climate, atmospheric chemistry and, on Earth, life.

Moving back to Earth

But just as planetary scientists began confronting these questions, Congress lost interest in planetary exploration. NASA's planetary exploration budget sank dramatically starting in 1977, and the Reagan administration threatened to terminate planetary exploration entirely. This was partly due to high inflation in the U.S., and partly due to the agency's focus on the space shuttle, which could only reach low Earth orbit. The shuttle focused agency leaders’ attention on studying the Earth from orbit, not on the other planets.

The same decade had witnessed a revolution in scientists' understanding of Earth's climate. Prior to the mid 1960s, geoscientists believed that our climate could only change relatively slowly, on timescales of thousands of years or longer. But evidence from ice and sediment cores showed that belief was wrong. Earth's climate had changed rapidly in the past—in some cases, within mere decades. Recognition that climate could change on human timescales made climate processes much more interesting research topics. It also spurred political interest.

It had been known since 1960 that humans were increasing the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Would this warm the climate noticeably? Scientists also knew that human emissions of aerosols could cool the Earth. Which effect would dominate? A 1975 study by the U.S. National Academy of Science said, in effect, We don't know. Give us money for research. A 1979 study of carbon dioxide's role in the climate put it slightly differently. They had found no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.

Declining planetary funding and growing scientific interest in the Earth's climate caused planetary scientists to start studying the Earth. It was closer, and much less expensive, to do research on. And NASA followed suit, starting to plan for an Earth observing system aimed at questions of global change. This phrase included climate change as well as changes in land use, ocean productivity and pollution. But the Earth science program that it established was modeled on NASA’s space and planetary science programs, not the old Applications program. NASA developed the technology and funded the science. In 1984, Congress again revised the Space Act, broadening NASA’s Earth science authority from the stratosphere to the expansion of human knowledge of the Earth.

In the early 1980s, NASA began working on an expansive Earth science program plan called Global Habitability, and that eventually became the Mission to Planet Earth. At the same time, a multi-agency effort called the Global Change Research Program was also taking form. NASA's role in that larger U.S. program was the provision of global data from space. Approved in the fiscal year 1991 budget, the resulting Earth Observing System would be the agency's primary contribution to American climate science.

The Earth Observing System era

Grace, one of NASA's more recent Earth-observing missions, has revealed unexpectedly rapid changes in the Earth's great ice sheets.

Fast forward to 2007, and NASA had 17 space missions collecting climate data. In recent years its Earth science budget has ranged from $1.2 to $1.4 billion per year. Today, it runs programs to obtain and convert data from Defense Department and NOAA satellites as well as from certain European, Japanese and Russian satellites. NASA also sponsors field experiments to provide ground truth data to check space instrument performance and to develop new measurement techniques.

Instruments on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites have provided the first global measurements of aerosols in our atmosphere, which come from natural sources such as volcanoes, dust storms and man-made sources such as the burning of fossil fuels. Other instruments onboard the Aura satellite study the processes that regulate the abundance of ozone in the atmosphere. Data from the GRACE and ICESat missions and from spaceborne radar show unexpectedly rapid changes in the Earth's great ice sheets, while the OSTM/Jason-2 and Jason-1 missions are recording sea level rise at an increasing rate. NASA’s Earth Observing System's weather instruments have enabled the first improvement in weather forecasting skill in more than a decade.

These capabilities -- nearly 30 years of satellite-based solar and atmospheric temperature data -- helped the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come to the conclusion in 2007 that Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. But there's still a lot to learn about what the consequences will be. How much warmer will it get? How will sea level rise progress? What will happen to soil moisture, and therefore agricultural production, in a warmer world? NASA scientists and engineers will help answer these and other critical questions in the future.

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Earth Science Missions

The following is an alphabetical list of NASA Earth science satellites and instruments.


Launched in 1999, AcrimSat studies the sun's energy output with uniform sensitivity from the far-ultraviolet to the far-infrared wavelength range. Its data are used to improve knowledge of the sun's role in global change.


Aqua carries six state-of-the-art instruments to observe the Earth's oceans, atmosphere, land, ice and snow covers, and vegetation, providing high measurement accuracy, spatial detail, and temporal frequency. This comprehensive approach to data collection enables scientists to study the interactions among the four spheres of the Earth system -- the oceans, land, atmosphere, and biosphere.

Instruments: AIRS * AMSU-A * AMSR-E * CERES * HSB * MODIS


Launched in 2011, the Aquarius instrument is providing the first-ever global maps of salt concentration in the ocean surface. These maps will help us understand how heat is carried and stored in the ocean, and will give us insights into how climate change is affecting the planet's water cycle. The mission is a collaboration between NASA and the Space Agency of Argentina.


The Aura mission studies the Earth's ozone, air quality, and climate. It is designed exclusively to conduct research on the composition, chemistry, and dynamics of the Earth's atmosphere.

Instruments: HIRDLS * MLS * OMI * TES


This cloud-watching spacecraft probes the thickness of clouds and aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere. This information, which the spacecraft has been collecting since its launch in April 2006, is important to the understanding of how the climate works, how much air pollution is present, and what’s changing in the atmosphere.


Launched in April 2006, CloudSat monitors the state of the Earth’s atmosphere and weather with a sophisticated radar system. The instrument, jointly developed with the Canadian Space Agency, can predict which clouds produce rain, observe snowfall, and monitor the moisture content of clouds.


Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) is an advanced land-imaging mission that will demonstrate new instruments and spacecraft systems. EO-1 will validate technologies contributing to the significant reduction in cost of follow-on Landsat missions.


The twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) spacecraft observe and measure the gravitational field of the Earth. The findings from this mission shed light on the shape and composition of the planet and the distributions of water and ice. The mission was launched in March 2002.


Launched in December 2001, the Jason-1 spacecraft uses microwaves to monitor the height of the water of the Earth’s oceans. This information helps scientists understand weather patterns like El Niño, predict the formation of hurricanes, and observe the mean height of the oceans as they rise due to climate change.


LAGEOS, or Laser Geodynamics Satellites, are a series of satellites designed to provide an orbiting benchmark for geodynamical studies of the Earth.


Landsat 7 systematically provides well-calibrated, multispectral, moderate resolution, substantially cloud-free, Sun-lit digital images of the Earth's continental and coastal areas with global coverage on a seasonal basis. It covers the United States every 16 days.


Put into orbit in 2008, the Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM) is a follow-on to the Jason-1 mission. It will monitor the height of the water of the Earth’s oceans to help scientists understand weather patterns like El Niño, predict the formation of hurricanes, and observe the mean height of the oceans as they rise due to climate change.


QuikSCAT is primarily known as a powerful weather-monitoring tool that bounces bursts of microwaves off of the Earth’s surface to measure wind speeds. This information is important to scientists who study the impact climate change has on weather patterns and severity. QuikSCAT was launched in June 1997.


The Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment, launched in January 2003, is designed to monitor the total output of energy from the sun, giving scientists context that helps them understand the Earth’s absorption and radiation of energy.


Terra (formerly EOS AM-1) is the flagship satellite of NASA's Earth observing systems. Terra is the first EOS (Earth Observing System) platform and provides global data on the state of the atmosphere, land, and oceans, as well as their interactions with solar radiation and with one another.



The Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, launched in November 1997, uses radar and sensors of visible and infrared light to closely monitor precipitation and weather in the tropical region of the globe. This information provides important indicators of new trends in weather and global climate.

Instruments: PR * TMI * VIRS * CERES * LIS



The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) is the 2nd-generation of the laser altimeter ICESat mission. It will measure ice sheet height changes for climate change diagnoses.


Scheduled for launch in 2013, the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission is one of the next generation of satellite-based Earth science missions that will study global precipitation (rain, snow, ice).


After the launch failure of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) on February 2009, NASA was ordered to rebuild the original instrument and fly the follow-on mission as OCO-2. The mission will use spectroscopy to measure the amount of carbon dioxide—one of the most important greenhouse gases—in the Earth’s atmosphere. By looking for the radiation fingerprint of carbon dioxide, scientists will be able to use OCO-2 to study the global distribution of carbon dioxide and its rate of increase in the atmosphere. The launch date for OCO-2 is TBD.


Soil Moisture Active & Passive (SMAP) will provide global measurements of soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state. These measurements will be used to enhance understanding of processes that link the water, energy and carbon cycles, and to extend the capabilities of weather and climate prediction models. SMAP data will also be used to quantify net carbon flux in boreal landscapes and to develop improved flood prediction and drought monitoring capabilities.


The National Research Council completed its first decadal survey for Earth science in January 2007. The survey identified 15 new space missions for NASA (including one joint mission with NOAA) that could renew U.S. investment in Earth-observing systems and restore its leadership in Earth science and applications. The list below includes some of these missions.


Will measure solar radiation, spectrally resolved forcing and response of the climate system.


Will measure surface and ice sheet deformation for understanding natural hazards and climate; vegetation structure for ecosystem health.


Will monitor land surface composition for agriculture and mineral characterization and vegetation types for ecosystem health.


Will measure the number density of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the column of air beneath the aircraft. Will also measure ambient air pressure and temperature.


Will track ocean, lake, and river water levels for ocean and inland water dynamics.


Will monitor atmospheric gas columns for air-quality forecasts and ocean color for coastal ecosystem health and climate emissions.


Using lidar, ACE will create aerosol and cloud profiles for climate and water cycles.


Will measure land surface topography to look for landslide hazards and water runoff.


Will perform high frequency, all-weather temperature and humidity soundings for weather forecasting and sea surface temperature.


Will measure Earth's gravity field in order to track large-scale water movement.


Will measure snow accumulation for fresh water availability.


Will monitor ozone and related gases for intercontinental air quality and stratospheric ozone layer prediction.

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U.S. Department of Transportation, Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting

Climate Tipping Points: Current Perspectives and State of Knowledge


With respect to climate, tipping points are delicate thresholds where a relatively slight rise in Earth's temperature can cause a more dramatic change in climate systems. Tipping points represent one issue in the larger discussion of global climate change where the effects of the changes are better understood than the points in time at which they occur.

During the development of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (CAFE) proposed rulemaking in 2008, many commenters requested that NHTSA consider the issue of tipping points in its analysis of global warming.1 The issue of tipping points was also specifically pointed out by the courts in Center for Biological Diversity v. NHTSA2 as one that NHTSA had failed to address in analyzing environmental impacts. This paper is derived from the research3 NHTSA conducted in response to these comments and direction from the 9th Circuit Court to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on a tipping point, or multiple tipping points, in the climate system and associated global processes as well as new research since this EIS was drafted. It is provided as a consolidation of reliable and current research on the issue of tipping points to facilitate discussions of how to approach the issue of tipping points in future analysis. The description of NHTSA's experience incorporating tipping points into its environmental impact statement for the proposed CAFE rule in 2008 may have limited utility to other cases.

This paper first discusses the uses of the term tipping point, since it is used in various ways in describing climate systems, then explores the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) views on tipping points in the 4th Assessment Report, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) approach to the issue, current research from the paleoclimatic4 record, and a paper published by Lenton, et al5 that explores tipping points in multiple systems. It concludes with a brief discussion of the relevance of tipping points to decision makers in the NEPA process, highlighting NHTSA's Final EIS (FEIS) on the CAFE Standards rulemaking.

This paper is based on IPCC and CCSP research, along with recent, peer-reviewed published papers (Hansen et al. 2007a, 2007b: Lenton et al. 2008) and is not intended to establish general policy as to how the issue of tipping points should be assessed within the NEPA process or within the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Defining and Using the Term Tipping Point

The phrase tipping point is most typically used in the context of climate change and its consequences to describe situations where the climate system-encompassing the atmosphere, oceans, land, cryosphere6, and biosphere-reaches a point at which there is a disproportionately large, singular response (e.g., a phase transition) as a result of only a moderate additional change in the inputs to the system (e.g., an increase in the CO2 concentration). Exceeding one or more tipping points could potentially result in abrupt changes in the climate or any component of the climate system. A tipping point is defined in Alley et al. (2002)7 to occur when the climate system is forced to cross some threshold, triggering a translation to a new state at a rate determined by the climate system itself and faster than the cause. These changes would produce impacts at a rate and intensity far greater than slow and steady changes currently being observed (and in some cases, planned for) in the climate system.

The phrase tipping point has also been used more broadly outside of the climate modeling community. In addition to climate scientists, many others-including biologists, marine chemists, engineers, and policymakers-are concerned about tipping points and the potential for abrupt change as the same type of non-linear responses exist in the resource areas and domains affect by the Earth's climate. For example, ocean acidity resulting from an elevated atmospheric concentration of CO2 might reach a point that causes a dramatic decline in coral ecosystems. Consideration of possible tipping points often is not restricted to just physical climate changes, but also encompasses discussion of sharp changes in other parts of Earth's systems affected by climate.

In the CCSP Synthesis and Assessment Product 3.4 Report Abrupt Climate Change8 the CCSP forgoes the term 'tipping point' and defines abrupt climate change as:

A large scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems.

This definition defines the process and the end result rather than the actual transitional tipping point in a system. Using the broad definition of the term tipping point to include both climate change and its consequences across climate-affected physical, environmental and societal systems, the scale of spatial responses can range across the spectrum. These changes can be global, continental or subcontinental changes in a major component (e.g., dramatically altering the Asian monsoon, the melting of summer Arctic sea ice, or the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet), or regional (e.g., drying of the southwestern United States leading to increased fire frequency), or local (e.g., loss of the Sierra Nevada snowpack). The definition of tipping point used by Lenton et al. (as discussed in a later subsection) specifically applies only to large-scale-that is, subcontinental or larger-features of the system, whereas public interest and discussion are likely to encompass a wider range of scales, as IPCC's analysis, discussed below, suggests. Lenton et al. offer a formal definition, introducing the term 'tipping element' to describe subsystems of the Earth system that are at least subcontinental in scale and can be switched-under certain circumstances-into a qualitatively different state by small perturbations. The tipping point is the corresponding critical point-in forcing and a feature of the system-at which the future state of the system is qualitatively altered.

The temporal scales considered are also important in understanding tipping points. On crossing a tipping point, the changes in the climate-affected system are no longer controlled by the time scale of the heat absorption by greenhouse gases (GHG) (often referred to as climate forcing), but rather are determined by its internal dynamics, which can either be much faster than the forcing, or significantly slower. The much faster case-abrupt climate change-might be said to occur when:

the rate of change is sharply greater than what has prevailed over previous decades;

the state of the system exceeds the range of variations experienced in the past; and/or,

the rate has accelerated to a pace that significantly exceeds the resources and ability of nations to respond to it.

In recent years, the concept of a tipping point-or a set of tipping points-in the planet's climate system has been attracting increased attention among climate scientists and resource managers. The following subsections present perspectives from key analyses of the issue as well as other relevant research- the IPCC, the CCSP, paleoclimatic evidence, and Lenton et al. (2008). The section concludes with a brief comparative evaluation of the different perspectives and available research.

IPCC Perspectives on Tipping Points

In the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC addresses the issue of tipping points in the discussion of major or abrupt climate changes and highlights three large systems: the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) system that drives Atlantic Ocean circulation, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and the loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet (Meehl et al. p. 818). The IPCC also mentions additional systems, as noted below, that may have tipping points but does not include estimates for these additional systems.

Various climate and climate-affected systems that might undergo abrupt change, contribute to climate surprises, or experience irreversible impacts are described in the IPCC Working Group I report (see Chapter 10, Box 10-1). The systems that the IPCC described include:

Atlantic MOC (AMOC) and other ocean circulation changes;

Arctic sea ice;

Glaciers and ice caps;

Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets;

Vegetation cover; and

Atmospheric and ocean-atmosphere regimes.

The coverage of the tipping point issue in the IPCC Working Group II report provides insight into the uncertainties surrounding tipping points, their systemic and impact thresholds, and the value judgments required to select critical levels, for example of global warming (see IPCC WGII section 2.3.1). The presence of these thresholds can also present their own physical and ecological limits as well as informational and cognitive barriers to adaptation (see IPCC WGII section 17.4.2).

Certain thresholds have been used in analyses of emission scenarios and analyses of stabilization targets to assess scenarios under which certain impacts might be avoided (see IPCC WGII section 19.4.2). For example, several authors hypothesize that a large-scale climatic event or other impacts such as widespread coral-reef bleaching, deglaciation of West Antarctica, and the collapse of the MOC would be likely if atmospheric CO2 concentrations stabilize at levels exceeding 450 parts per million (ppm).

Instead of using a CO2 concentration level, tipping points for various effects are often expressed in terms of temperature increases with respect to either present or pre-industrial levels. Research indicates upward trends in temperatures over the last 100 years and global warming is a major component of all climate change discussion (IPCC 2007b). In an example where the research provided by the IPCC has been used in trying to determine a tipping point threshold in policy research by targeting a specific temperature increase,