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Chapter 2: The Evidence: Observing Climate Change


Chapter 2 extends the conversation about global warming by looking at the physical evidence for

climate change today. The chapter explains the concept of global temperature and explores

how the impact of rising sea level, melting of the cryosphere, and changes in atmospheric

temperature have a truly global impact.

Learning Outcomes

Explore the evidence for global climate change

Understand the meaning of global temperature and how it is determined

Distinguish between the main factors that control global sea level

Explain how sea level has changed continuously throughout geological time

Predict how the cryosphere will respond to further global warming

Discuss the global impact of retreating glaciers and ice sheets

Reflect on the impact of melting permafrost on the Arctic ecosystem

Discuss how the addition of more energy and water vapor to the atmosphere will affect

global weather patterns


Much of the discussion about climate change is focused on future risks, but there is plenty of

evidence pointing to the impact of changing climate today. Chapter 2 opens with a short section

that explains both how and why we measure global temperature and why anomalies are used to

evaluate changing temperature. Temperature anomalies are confusing for some students, so take

time to make sure they understand the concept. Different research groups use different baselines

to determine the extent of the anomaly so their numerical results are different. Encourage

students to visit some of the more prominent climate skeptic websites and spot some of the more

specious tricks used by climate skeptics to confuse the public and undermine the scientific

basis of climate change.

I chose rising sea level as a first example of the visible impact of climate change because

of its truly global impact. Most students will not be aware that global sea level changes naturally

over time and may need to be convinced that as little as 20,000 years ago, global sea level was

more than 100 meters (300 feet) lower than it is today.

I find it useful to review the different mechanisms that cause sea level to change both

globally and regionally and to illustrate this with examples. Skeptics who dismiss the impact of

rising sea level point out that the sea level around ocean atolls rises naturally as these volcanic

islands age and subside slowly due to isostasy. They also point out correctly that the regional

influence of winds and ocean currents such as El Nio can also affect sea level. But students

need to see through these arguments and understand that it is the rate at which global sea level is

rising today that poses a unique threat to island communities.

Take time to clarify the factors that control the rate of sea level rise today. Thermal

expansion is prevalent as the oceans absorb of as much as 90% of the additional energy trapped

by greenhouse gases, but the contribution from melting ice sheets is increasing rapidly. Despite

this, it is expected to take hundreds or maybe thousands of years before the Greenland or

Antarctic Ice Sheets are significantly degraded. The media highlight the threat of a 10-meter (30

feet) rise in sea level to coastal cities, but an increase in sea level of this magnitude is not likely

in our lifetimes. These reports divert public attention from the more immediate threat, illustrated

so vividly by hurricane Sandy, of the destructive power of a storm surge amplified by only a

modest rise in sea level of less than a meter (3 feet).

The current impact of climate change is most evident near the poles. The section of the

cryosphere draws attention to the rapid loss of polar ice from the Arctic and the breakup of ice

shelves in Antarctica. The loss of arctic ice is now so dramatic that it is possible to imagine an

ice-free summer at the North Pole within the lifetime of most students.

In Chapter 3 there is a discussion of the impact of obliquity on the advance and retreat of

the ice sheets. Students ask why climatologists choose to focus on the amount of sunlight

reaching 65 degrees north to determine the future path of climate change. The reason is well

illustrated by this section. The Arctic is particularly sensitive to the impact of changing

temperatures in the atmosphere and ocean because there are so many potential feedback

mechanisms that accelerate the rate of climate change. As sea ice melts, sea surface albedo falls

and the oceans are able to absorb energy from a summer Sun that never sets. As these oceans

warm they release more sensible and latent heat into the atmosphere that accelerates warming

even further.

On land, melting ice also reduces albedo and the warming land surface releases vast

quantities of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of warming

even further.

The combined effects of global warming and regional climate feedback in the Arctic

drive the most rapid temperature and climate change we see on the planet today. Recent satellite

measurements show that the loss of ice from Greenland is accelerating and adding to sea level.

An argument that a slight increase in ice mass observed in the central ice sheet could prove that

the region is not warming is entirely specious. Arctic snowfall (and thus accumulating ice mass)

increased significantly towards the end of the last ice advance precisely because the air was

warming and able to hold more moisture.

In the Southern Hemisphere the iconic breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf drew attention

to the important role that ice shelves play in buttressing the flow of ice from the continental

interior. As the ice shelves disappear the rate of flow of ice from the interior starts to increase

and will lead to a much more rapid breakup of the ice sheets that first anticipated. I think it is

important to stress to students that despite these historically dramatic changes, it is not likely that

the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets will disappear in the lifetime of our children or

grandchildren. Geological evidence suggests that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is so old and so

stable that global warming is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the loss of ice mass by the

end of the century.

Climate change is very visible in the Arctic tundra. The loss of coastal sea ice, melting

permafrost, and coastal erosion are major problems for Native Americans and a major hazard for

petroleum industry.

We think of tundra as barren and lifeless, but it is actually home to a rich and diverse

community of plants and animals. As climate changes, boreal forests rapidly replace the tundra

ecosystem and I use this point to introduce students to a discussion about the value of ecosystems

and biodiversity. Why do we want to preserve areas of tundra? Would it be better if evergreen

forest replaced this ecosystem? What is lost and what is gained if this happens, and what are the

cultural and economic consequences?

Glacier retreat is a good indicator of climate change, but not all glaciers retreat over the

short term. Changes in the pattern of winter storm tracks bring an increase in the amount of

frozen winter precipitation to some regions and less to others. Where more ice accumulates over

the winter, glaciers will advance, but in the end higher summer temperatures will eventually lead

to more ablation that accumulation and even these glaciers will start to retreat. The science of

glacier retreat was undermined when errors in an IPCC report overestimated of the rate of ice

loss. Climate skeptics heralded this error as an example of deceit by climate scientists, and

subsequent media coverage undermined the value of more credible research that highlighted the

impact of climate change on snow pack and water supplies. I use this unfortunate example to

highlight the importance of using primary sources for research and publication.

In more temperate regions the impact of climate change can be harder to discern and it

can be difficult to discriminate between regional climate change that is a consequence of natural

cycles and climate change that is solely attributable to global warming. In these regions the

impact of global warming is most readily discriminated by statistical data that record significant

changes in regional climate.

One way to test the students understanding of the impact of greenhouse gases is to refer

them to figure 2.30 and ask them to explain why there is a greater increase in the number of

warm nights compared to warm days? The answer is that the presence of increased levels of

carbon dioxide and water vapor in the atmosphere at night prevents the direct and rapid loss of

radiation to space during the hours of darkness and especially when skies are clear.

The final sections on the incidence of droughts, fires, and hurricanes present the least

convincing arguments for recent climate change due to global warming. An increase in the

number of hurricanes in the North Atlantic Basinthought by many to be the result of global

warmingmay be the natural consequence of changes in the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation,

although it seems increasingly likely that there is a relationship between ocean warming and

hurricane intensity.

On land, some research now suggests that the level of recent drought may have has been

overestimated, undermining the statistical relationship between drought and global temperature.

Droughts and fires occur in the absence of global climate change and it is still too early to

attribute all recent changes at mid and tropical latitudes to global warming. What we can say

with confidence is that such events will occur more frequently in the future if global warming

continues at the same rate as it has over recent decades.

Checkpoint Questions & Answers

1. If satellites can measure the energy imbalance at the top of the atmosphere, why do
you think we still measure global temperature by using surface thermometers?
The imbalance of energy at the top of the atmosphere is close to the limit of instrument
resolution. The analysis of global temperature from the temperature record of the oceans
and atmosphere allows scientists an alternative means to monitor how this energy
imbalance is changing over time.

2. Look at Figure 2.2 again. Note which parts of the world are best represented in the
data record and which are least well represented. Why is this so?
Some parts of the world are not represented in the temperature record because they are
remote or the weather so extreme that instruments do not survive long enough to provide
a continuous temperature record.

3. In your own words, describe why most scientists use temperature anomalies and not
physical temperature to track global climate change.
Scientists use temperature anomalies because a careful study of global temperature data
has shown that while surface temperatures vary significantly across a region, temperature
anomalies are remarkably uniform up to a distance of 1,200 kilometers (746 miles)
around each data point. Using temperature anomalies to measure global temperature
change allows data from remote locations, such as the deep Arctic, to be estimated from
data points over 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) away.

4. Why is it not good practice to choose a base period of less than 30 years when
calculating temperature anomalies?
It not good practice to choose a base period of less than 30 years because short-term
natural changes in climate can have a significant impact on climate over shorter

5. Why do climate scientists prefer to use sea surface temperature and not surface air
temperature to measure the temperature of the atmosphere above the oceans?
Climate scientists prefer to use sea surface temperature because this is easily measured
across the globe by satellite and is closely related to the temperature of the atmosphere
just above the ocean surface. Measurements for ships and buoys are less reliable and
provide limited geographic coverage.

6. What information do air balloons provide to help scientists understand how the
atmosphere is responding to Earths energy imbalance?
Air balloons collect temperature data from the middle and upper layers of the atmosphere
that are critical to our understanding of the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on global

7. Satellites are powerful tools for measuring the temperature of the atmosphere.
What corrections have to be made before satellite data can be used? How accurate
are these measurements?
Satellite data must be corrected for many factors, including orbital drift, sensor variation,
and time of day. These data are important but need careful interpretation. If there is a
large difference between one set of data and the data collected from other satellites, the
calibration of the satellite and the correct application of corrections should be called into
question before any physical interpretation is applied to the results.

8. In your own words, describe the important difference between the meanings of
accuracy and precision. Accuracy is a measure of how close the data are to the correct
answer; precision is a measure of the reproducibility and repeatability of data.

9. Why are the IPCCs conservative estimates of rising sea level not reassuring?
The IPCCs conservative estimates of rising sea level are not reassuring because they
appear to underestimate the rate at which polar ice sheets are melting.

10. What are the main factors that control sea level, and over what timescale do they
The main factors that control sea level are the swelling and subsidence of the mid-oceanic
ridges over periods of hundreds of thousands of years, the accumulation and melting of
ice sheets over periods of tens of thousands of years, and impact of local tectonics,
isostasy, sediment supply, and subsidence over periods of thousands of years.

11. Explain the contribution that thermal expansion has made to changing global sea
level over the past 100 years.
Thermal expansion due to the heating of the oceans is responsible for as much as 57% of
the rise in sea level since the 1950s.

12. If the ice sheets were not melting at the moment, why would sea level still continue
to rise?
If the ice sheets were not melting, sea level would continue to rise because the heat from
the atmosphere would continue to penetrate into the ocean and cause further thermal

13. What factors that control global climate determine that the world is not yet free
from the grip of an ice age.
The factors that determine that the world is still not free from the grip of an ice age are
the positioning of major continents on and around the poles, high rates of erosion
associated with major active mountain belts, and a high albedo generated by permanent
ice sheets.

14. Why is sea ice volume more indicative of warming in the Arctic than sea ice area?
Sea ice volume is more indicative of warming in the Arctic than sea ice area because it
indicates how much multiyear ice is disappearing as the Arctic warms.

15. If the Arctic warmed between 1925 and 1945, why are we worried about warming
We should be more worried about warming in the Arctic today because it is truly global
in extent and not the result of regional climate change.

16. Why is a small increase in ice volume in the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet
consistent with a warming atmosphere?
A small increase in ice volume in the interior of the Greenland Ice Sheet is consistent
with a warming atmosphere because warmer air holds more moisture that precipitates as
snow and ice at high altitudes towards the center of the ice sheet.

17. Describe how warming ocean currents can have a greater impact on sea ice than a
warming atmosphere.
Warming ocean currents have a greater impact on sea ice thickness than a warming
atmosphere because they store much more energy due to their high heat capacity and melt
the protected underside of an ice sheet.

18. How does melting permafrost contribute to global climate change?

Melting permafrost contributes to global climate change by releasing carbon dioxide and
methane into the atmosphere.

19. What factors control whether a glacier will advance or retreat?
The advance and retreat of a glacier is determined by the competing rates of ice
accumulation at its source and the rate of ablation (melting and sublimation) at its

20. Why is our knowledge of glacier retreat very limited prior to the 1970s?
Our knowledge of the rate of glacier retreat is limited prior to the 1970s due to the lack of
global satellite coverage.

21. What impact will an increase in the concentration of water vapor and carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere have on the nighttime ground temperature in the Nevada
An increase in water vapor and carbon dioxide in the desert atmosphere will increase
nighttime temperatures by reducing the flow of infrared radiation to space.

22. If climate scientists believe that temperate areas of the world may not see a large
increase in the total amount of rainfall, why is there still reason to be concerned
about flooding?
There is still reason to be concerned because the intensity of rainfall is likely to increase,
and this is one of the main causes of flooding.

23. What are the different factors that control the severity of drought, and how is an
increase in the frequency of drought likely to affect the Amazon forests?
The severity of drought depends on many factors, including the global pattern of
atmospheric and oceanic circulation and regional patterns of temperature, precipitation,
evaporation, soil moisture, and wind speed. A further increase in the frequency and
severity of drought in the Amazon will reduce the area of healthy forest and degrade one
of the worlds most vital ecosystems.

24. Was Hurricane Katrina related to global climate change? Explain your answer.
Hurricane Katrina was not a direct result of global climate change. It is probable that
warming oceans will contribute to the intensity of future storms, but the formation of
hurricanes depend on many factors, and the impact of warming over the coming decades
is uncertain.

Suggested Reading

Dessler, Andrew Emory. Introduction to Modern Climate Change. New York: Cambridge

UP, 2012.

Fagan, Brian M. The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization. New York: Basic,


Flannery, Tim Fridtjof. The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It

Means for Life on Earth. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2006.

Harvey, Leslie Daryl Danny. Global Warming: The Hard Science. Harlow: Prentice Hall,


Mann, Michael E., and Lee Kump Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. New

York: DK, 2008.

McGuffie, K., and A. Henderson-Sellers. A Climate Modelling Primer. Chichester: Wiley,


Weart, Spencer R. The Discovery of Global Warming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2008.