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The rise of air temperatures near Earth's surface over the past century is known as global

warming. Earth has experienced periods of gradual warming and cooling throughout its
existence due to natural causes, such as volcanic eruptions and variations in the Sun's output.
However, scientists have attributed the current increase in global temperatures to human
causesprimarily the release of certain gases into the atmosphere as a result of industrial
activity. These gasescollectively termed greenhouse gasesabsorb and trap heat emitted
from Earth's surface through a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect.
In addition to the rise in near-surface air temperatures, global warming encompasses other
climatic changes caused by this warming, such as variations in precipitation patterns, winds,
and ocean currents. For this reason, the terms global warming and climate change are
sometimes used interchangeably.

Causes of Global Warming

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide remained


relatively stable

The greenhouse effect is a natural process that helps maintain temperatures suitable for life.
Without it, Earth would be a frozen and likely uninhabitable planet. However, scientists who
study climate have determined that increased concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting
from human activity have amplified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming.
The main greenhouse gases with human sources are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide,
and halocarbons.
Carbon dioxide is produced naturally by animals through respiration. The primary humanproduced source of carbon dioxide is the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas.
These fuels are widely used in electricity generation, transportation, and industry. Another
source of carbon dioxide from human activity is the clearing of forests for agriculture and
other purposes.
Atmospheric methane concentrations are much lower than those of carbon dioxide, but they
are more potent. By weight, methane is 25 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon
dioxide over a 100-year time period. Methane is produced naturally by, for example, the
decay of vegetation in low-oxygen environments such as wetlands. The major humaninduced sources of methane include rice cultivation, livestock raising, the use of fossil fuels,
and the decomposition of organic matter in landfills.
Nitrous oxide is produced naturally by biological reactions in both soil and water. Humaninduced sources include fertilizer use and fossil fuel burning. By weight, its heat-trapping
potential is about 300 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year time horizon.

In nature, the sources of greenhouse gases are balanced, on average, by physical, chemical,
and biological processes called sinks that remove the gases from the atmosphere. For
example, carbon dioxide sinks include photosynthesis, the process by which green plants use
carbon dioxide to make food. However, human activities have produced carbon dioxide in
quantities that far exceed the offsetting capacity of natural sinks, leading to its accumulation
in the atmosphere. The same is true of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous
oxide.

Studying Global Warming

Data collected since the mid-1800s show increases in global average temperature and
sea level.

Scientists use a variety of methods and evidence to study global warming. They analyze data
collected by thermometers and other instruments from roughly 1850 to the present. To study
climate changes prior to that time, scientists use paleoclimatic data from such natural
sources as ocean and lake sediments, ice core samples, and tree rings. Finally, they use
computers to produce models of Earth's climate that can be used to understand past changes
and predict future changes and effects of global warming.
Although some records are available from the 1600s and 1700s, systematic measurements of
climate began in the mid-1800s. The data include measurements of surface temperature over
land and the oceans, precipitation amounts, sea-ice extents, and global sea levels. Since the
1970s, satellite studies have provided additional data on temperature trends at Earth's surface
and through the layers of the atmosphere. In addition, data-collection platforms in the oceans
measure temperature and other properties of seawater.
Paleoclimatic data allow scientists to reconstruct climate changes over many thousands of
years. Some sources, such as most sediment samples and pollen records, are only detailed
enough to describe climate changes on long time scales. Other sources, such as growth
measurements from tree rings and gases extracted from ice core samples, can provide a
record of yearly or seasonal climate changes. Gas bubbles trapped in ice samples from 10,000
feet (3,000 meters) beneath Antarctica contain gases that were in the atmosphere 900,000
years ago.
Computerized climate models can be used to investigate the climate's natural variability as
well as its response to greenhouse gas emissions. Models vary considerably in their degree of
complexity. Even the most detailed models cannot account for all of the processes that affect
the atmosphere and oceans. Nevertheless, many models perform very well in reproducing the
basic factors that influence climate.

The leading international organization in the study of global warming is the


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was established in 1988 by the
World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. The
IPCC assesses and summarizes the latest scientific, technical, and socioeconomic data on
climate change and publishes its findings in reports that are presented to international
organizations and policy makers throughout the world. Thousands of the world's leading
climate change experts have worked under the IPCC.
The IPCC's reports have documented the progress of global warming and shown a growing
consensus on the role of human activity in the phenomenon. The 2007 report stated that the
20th century saw an increase in global average surface temperature of 1.3 F (0.74 C), and it
forecasted an additional increase of 3.2 to 7.2 F (1.8 to 4.0 C) by 2100 if measures are not
put in place to reduce human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases. The authors of the 2007
report also stated with at least 90 percent certainty that most of the warming since about 1950
had been caused by human activity. The findings of the IPCC were endorsed by many
scientific organizations, including the national science academies of the United States and all
the other G-8 (industrialized) countries as well as those of China, India, and Brazil.
Global warming is already affecting ecosystems and thus the biodiversity of
plants, animals, and other forms of life. Living things establish their geographic
ranges by adapting to their environment, including long-term climate patterns.
Relatively sudden climate changes caused by global warming could shrink
species habitats, challenging the adaptive abilities of many species, especially
those with already restricted ranges. Some plants and animals, both on land and
in the sea, have already shifted their ranges in response to warming
temperatures. For example, biologists have found that certain species of
butterflies and birds in the Northern Hemisphere have moved their ranges
northward.