Thursday, June 02, 2011


This blog presents a data-rich view of climate and a discussion of how that data fits together into the scientists' current picture of our changing climate. But there's a great deal that we don't know about the future of Earth's climate and how climate change will affect humans.

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. 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. This list isn't exhaustive. It is intended to illustrate the kinds of questions that scientists still ask about climate.

1. 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.

2. 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.