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Global Warming
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
What is Causing the Increased Warmth?
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Is there a natural greenhouse effect?
Is water vapour the most important greenhouse gas?
Are greenhouse gases increasing?
What is causing the increase in CO
and other greenhouse gases?
Is the Earth absorbing more radiation than it emits?
Is the recent warming caused by changes in solar activity?
Is the recent warming caused by changes in volcanic activity?
What caused the global temperature changes of the 20th century?

Is there a natural greenhouse effect? TOP
Yes. The average temperature at the surface of the earth is 15ºC. Without the natural greenhouse effect, it
would be around 33ºC cooler (-18ºC). This natural greenhouse effect is caused by naturally-occurring
greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapour. Most climate scientists think that,
over the next century, mankind's emissions of greenhouse gases will increase the greenhouse effect by 5-
15%, causing a warming of 1.8-5.4ºC.
A good introduction to natural greenhouse effect, as well as the enhanced greenhouse effect that will
occur from mankind's emissions of greenhouse gases, is provided by the University of California's Virtual

Is water vapour the most important greenhouse gas? TOP
It depends what is meant by 'important'. Greenhouse gases act by absorbing radiation that is emitted from
the earth's surface, and water vapour, because it is so abundant, absorbs more radiation than any other.
However, the amount of water vapour is governed by the air temperature, among other things (warmer air
can hold more water vapour). So it is the amount of these other greenhouse gases that determines, to a
degree, the amount of water vapour. Water vapour, therefore, is important because it acts to amplify the
warming due to other greenhouse gases. For a fairly simple explanation of the role of water vapour in the
greenhouse effect, see this page.
Working out the proportion of the natural greenhouse effect that is due to water vapour is not easy.
Greenhouse gases act by trapping a range of frequencies of infrared radiation. Different greenhouse gases
absorb some unique frequencies, but some shared frequencies. This means that if you were to remove one
greenhouse gas, much of the effect would remain. For a more detailed explanation, see The Earth's
Annual Global Mean Radiation Budget. As shown in Table 3 of that document, in cloudless skies, water
vapour contributes around 60% of the greenhouse effect, and carbon dioxide around 26%. Most of the
rest is caused by ozone and methane.
The degree to which water vapour will amplify the effects of increases in other greenhouse gases is a
crucial issue, but one that is currently far from resolved. Most climate models show that doubling the
concentration of CO
in the atmosphere will increase temperatures by 1.1ºC, and that water vapour
feedback will increase this to 1.8ºC (further amplification comes as snow and ice is melted, thereby
reducing albedo). However, it is not currently known with certainty how much water vapour increases for
a given increase in temperature, and the changes in cloud cover are also uncertain (see also Are climate
models accurate?). What evidence there is suggests that water vapour in the stratosphere has increased
by more than predicted, but water vapour in the lower troposphere by less than predicted (Minschwaner
et al., 2004). For a selection of scientific papers on this topic, see The Climate Sensitivity Publication
Exchange. See The Earth Observatory for a discussion of recent results in context.

Are greenhouse gases increasing? TOP
At the end of the last ice age, the concentration of CO
increased by around 100 ppm (parts per million)
over around 8,000 years, or around 1.25 ppm per century. Since the start of the industrial revolution, the
rate of increase has accelerated markedly: since 1860, the concentration of CO
has increased by around
80 ppm, just over 50 ppm per century. The rate of CO
accumulation has continued to increase, and it
currently stands at around 150 ppm/century – over 200 times faster than the background rate for the past
15,000 years. The result can be clearly seen in the Law Dome Ice Core, which shows the increase in
that has occurred over the last 1000 years. Other greenhouse gases have also increased markedly,
according to the US Govt. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center.

What is causing the increase in CO
and other greenhouse gases? TOP
Some greenhouse gases, such as CFCs, are synthetic, and so we know that their source is anthropogenic
(man made). However, other greenhouse gases, such as CO
and methane, have natural sources as well
as anthropogenic ones. In fact, natural sources of these greenhouse gases are far greater than
anthopogenic ones. We know, also, that levels of these natural greenhouse gases have fluctuated in the
past entirely naturally. How, then, do we know that anthropogenic sources are the cause of the current
increase? There are several reasons for attributing the rise in greenhouse gases to anthropogenic, rather
than natural, emissions.
The first clue comes from comparing the current increase with changes that have occurred in the past (see
Paleoclimate FAQ). Records from ice cores show that the current increase in CO
and other greenhouse
gases is much more rapid than has occurred naturally in the past. In addition, the current concentration of
GHG is far greater than at any time over the past 400,000 years, and is still rising rapidly. This strongly
suggests that the cause is different to that which has caused greenhouse gases to increase in the past.
The second line of evidence comes from changes in the isotopic concentration of atmospheric carbon.
Carbon consists of three main isotopes, C
(the most common), C
and C
. Fossil fuel is depleted in
both C
and C
. The main natural sources of carbon in the atmosphere are the ocean and the biosphere
(plants and animals). However, carbon from the ocean is depleted in C
but not C
, whereas carbon
from plants and animals is depleted in C
but not C
. By tracking changes in these isotopes, it can be
shown that fossil fuels are the major source of the modern increase. For more information on this, see
Robert Grumbine's carbon dioxide FAQ.
The third reason for thinking that anthropogenic sources are the main cause of the increase is to look at
the full picture – absorption as well as emission. Greenhouse gases are cycled naturally - they are emitted,
and then they are either absorbed or broken down (here are illustrations showing the global carbon cycle
and the methane cycle). If the amount of gas emitted is equal to the amount absorbed, then the cycle is
balanced, and there will no accumulation in the atmosphere. Taking the carbon cycle as an example, it's
possible to add up all the sources of carbon emissions to the, and add up all the sources of absorption
from the atmosphere, as follows:
Emission to the atmosphere: 191 GtC/yr natural + 8 GtC/yr manmade
Absorption from the atmosphere: 194 GtC/yr natural +0 Gt/yr manmade.
Resultant imbalance: CO2 currently increasing by ~5 GtC/yr
It can be seen that, if there were no manmade sources, absorption would be greater than emission, and so
atmospheric levels of carbon would actually decrease. This is a surprising result, and it is caused by the
fact that increasing temperatures have resulted in increased plant growth (see A Greener Greenhouse).
The increase absorption, however, is not great enough to offset the increased emissions from human
activity, and so CO
continues to accumulate (see also Will increased plant growth absorb the excess
Fossil fuel, however, is not the only source of the increase in CO
and methane. Changes in land use also
have made a significant proportion of the increase in atmospheric CO
- around a quarter of the total in
1990, for example. Major sources of methane include rice paddies, livestock, and landfill sites (see
methane cycle and Robert Grumbine's methane FAQ).

Is the Earth absorbing more radiation than it emits? TOP
Greenhouse gases cause the greenhouse effect because radiation from the sun can penetrate the
atmosphere and be absorbed by the earth, but radiation from the earth cannot escape as easily. This
trapped radiation causes the earth to heat. A recent analysis of satellite data (detailed in this press release,
this news report, and this technical summary) and this have shown that this is, indeed, occurring. The
analysis of the spectrum of radiation emitted from the earth shows that those frequencies which are
predicted to be absorbed by greenhouse gases really are being absorbed.
An increased greenhouse effect at the earth's surface has also been demonstrated experimentally
(Philipona et al, 2004)

Is the recent warming caused by changes in solar radiation? TOP
Much solar radiation is trapped high in the atmosphere, and so it is not possible to directly measure solar
activity without the use of satellites. These satellites have only been available since 1979 (a graph of solar
activity, as measured by a series of satellites, is provided in this article from NASA's Earth Observatory).
It is clear that there has been no recent rise in solar activity that could explain the recent rise in
temperature. As with satellite measurements of tropospheric temperatures, it has proved to be very
difficult to remove the errors caused when one satellite is replaced by the next. As a result, there is some
controversy over whether these satellites show that the sun has remained constant over the past 20 years,
or increased by 0.1% over that time. An increase of 0.1% would not, in itself, account for the warming
that has been observed in the 20th century over that time.
There is no doubt that solar variability plays an important role in global climate change. In the 1400s to
1700, decreased solar activity (the 'Maunder Minimum) led to a period of global cooling, known as the
'Little Ice Age' that was particularly acute in Europe (discussed here). Looking further back, it is possible
that 1,500-year cycles in solar activity have caused periodic changes in the earth's climate (Bond et al
2000. Abstract, full paper). A cold snap that occurred 10,300 years ago also appears to be linked to a
decrease in solar radiation.
The amount of solar radiation that hits the earth is closely related to the sunspot number, as well as to
other parameters that can be recorded from ground level. Since some of these provide records stretching
back several hundred years, it is possible to reconstruct solar activity with quite high resolution over these
time spans. An overview of some of these is shown on this page. Solar activity further back in time can be
estimated from the amount of beryllium isotopes trapped in ice cores and elsewhere. Using these isotope
data, it can be shown that solar brightness increased in the early part of the 20th century, to its highest
level for the past 1000 years.
These reconstructions of solar activity have allowed scientists to investigate the relative impact of solar
activity and greenhouse gases on current climate change. Several studies have investigated the relationship
between changes in solar activity, volcanoes and temperatures over the past 1000 years and have
concluded that, although changes in solar activity can explain much of the temperature changes, there is a
'residual' unexplained temperature increase in the 20th century. For example, Mann et al concludes that
"While the natural (solar and volcanic) forcings appear to be important factors governing the natural
variations of temperatures in past centuries, only human greenhouse gas forcing alone ... can statistically
explain the unusual warmth of the past few decades". A similar analysis by Crowley et al concludes that
there is "a very large late 20th century warming that closely agrees with the response predicted from
greenhouse gas forcing.”
The temperature changes in this century have been studied using sophisticated statistical methods. Such an
analysis is presented by Thomas et al (1997), who show that changes CO
over the last century have had
around three times the impact on temperature as have changes in solar irradiance, and that there is no
evidence in the statistics of any major

unidentified source of natural variation. Another, more recent,
analysis (Kaufmann & Stern, 2002) found that temperature changes could only be explained by taking
into account changes in solar activity, sulphate aerosols and greenhouse gases.
However, the only way to fully understand this complex relationship is by using climate models (see also
Are climate models accurate?). The detailed causes of the recent warming trend have been investigated
by the UK Meteorological Office, and are presented here (see also Stott et al, 2000). They found that
about half of the warming is caused by solar variability but that, in the second half of the century, these
effects have been countered by sulphate emissions from dirty fuel and from volcanoes (which contributed
to a global cooling observed in the 1960s and 1970s). The overall effect of all the natural causes (sun and
volcanoes combined) has been quite small. They conclude that there is "very large late 20th century
warming that closely agrees with the response predicted from greenhouse gas forcing.” Similarly, two
recent studies of ocean temperatures have found that the observed increase is best explained by the effect
of greenhouse gases.

Is the recent warming caused by volcanic activity? TOP
In the short term, volcanoes exert a net cooling effect at the surface due to their emissions of sulphur
dioxide, because particles in the stratosphere absorb the sun's energy before it can reach the surface. The
cooling effect depends on the composition of the volcanic emissions (particularly sulphur content) and on
the location of the volcanoes (high latitude volcanoes - nearer to the poles - tend to have a greater effect
because more of their emissions reach the stratosphere). The cooling effect of some of the most important
recent volcanoes is provided by Volcano World.
In the atmosphere, the effect is more complicated. In the short term (for a few years) the stratosphere is
warmed by the energy that is blocked from reaching the surface. However, volcanic dust also provides a
surface for ozone depletion. Ozone normally absorbs sunlight in the stratosphere. In the long term, the
effect of this ozone depletion is to cool the stratosphere somewhat. These complicated effects partly
explain the discrepancy between surface and satellite measurements of the earth's temperature (see
Volcanoes do also emit CO
, and massive eruptions in the past may emitted enough CO
to cause long-
term climate change. However, in the recent climatic record, volcanic emissions have been much lower.
Gerlach (1991) estimated a total global release of 3-4 x 10
mol/yr from volcanoes. Man-made
(anthropogenic) CO
emissions overwhelm this estimate by at least 150 times. Analyses of temperature
changes over the past 1000 years also show that the rise in temperature this century can't be explained by
solar or volcanic activity (see below).

What caused the global temperature changes of the 20th century? TOP
In addition to greenhouse
gases (GHG), changes in
solar activity and volcanoes
(i.e. stratospheric aerosols),
numerous other factors are
believed to have affected
global temperatures over the
past century. For example,
black carbon (soot) has
increased the amount of
sunlight absorbed, and so
caused increased warmth.
Ozone and stratospheric
water, in part a product of
the breakdown of methane,
have acted as greenhouse
gases. On the other hand
changes in land use (mainly
deforestation) and sulphate
pollution (tropospheric
aerosols) are believed to
have had a significant cooling
The effect of these individual
factors (radiative forcings)
can be calculated using
climate models. The results
of one such model (GISS SI
2002) are shown in the figure
on the right. A positive
forcing indicates a warming
effect, whereas a negative
forcing indicates a cooling effect.
The effects of volcanic activity are represented as 'stratospheric aerosols). It can be seen that the major
positive effect is due to GHGs, whereas the major negative effect is due to sulphate pollution (reflective
tropospheric aerosols and indirect aerosol effect). When all these effects are added together, the result is
that shown in the bottom graph. From this, it can be seen that there was negative forcing before 1900 (i.e.
cooling), followed by warming up until 1950. Then there was a marked increased in tropospheric and
stratospheric aerosols, resulting in a slight cooling until the warming trend resumed in around 1980. These
effects explain the trend in 20th century temperatures (see Have surface temperatures risen?).
It should be remembered that although this is an explanation, it is not the only possible one. Different
models, for example, provide different results for the effects of the different forcings. One of the most
important unknown factors is the effects of tropospheric aerosols. It is believed that they have masked a
great deal of the 20th century warming, but it is not known exactly how much. If they did not have much
effect, then that means that the warming due to other factors must also have been quite small, and this
means that future effects of GHG are also likely to be relatively small. On the other hand, if they have had
larger effects, then that means that the effects of GHG must also be larger than usually thought. This means
that the amount of warming in the future is likely to be larger (especially as fuels around the world become
cleaner, and so emit fewer sulphates). This complex subject is explained in more detail on the homepage
of Stephen Schwartz, a leading expert in the effects o aerosols on climate.

Other Global Warming FAQ Topics Return to main FAQ
Is the Earth getting warmer?
Have surface temperatures risen?
Is the observed temperature rise due to urban heat islands?
Is the observed temperature rise a artefact of changes in coverage?
Do satellite data show that the earth is not warming?
Are the mountain glaciers melting?
Is the Antarctic warming?
Is the Arctic warming?
Is Arctic ice melting?
Is the permafrost thawing?
Are the oceans warming?
Are the corals dying?
Is the sea level rising?
Is the rise in sea level normal?
Is the North Atlantic (Arctic) Oscillation behaving normally?
Are precipitation patterns changing?
How does the current climate compare with that of the past
How does the current temperature compare with the past 1000 years?
How has temperature and CO
changed since the last ice age?
How does the current temperature compare with the past 400,000 years?
How does the current temperature compare with the past 600,000,000 years?
Have rapid increases in CO
caused climate change in the past?
What are the predictions for the future?
Are climate models accurate?
Will increased plant growth absorb the excess CO
Unique visitors: since 7 July 2001 Last updated 29/07/05. By Tom Rees. Contact the author