Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Radiative forcing


We propose a simple real-time index of global human-induced warming and assess its robustness to uncertainties in climate forcing and short-term climate fluctuations. This index provides improved scientific context for temperature stabilisation targets and has the potential to decrease the volatility of climate policy. We quantify uncertainties arising from temperature observations, climate radiative forcings, internal variability and the model response. Our index and the associated rate of human-induced warming is compatible with a range of other more sophisticated methods to estimate the human contribution to observed global temperature change.

Concepts: Philosophy of science, Scientific method, Radiative forcing, Climate change, Global warming


During ice-age cycles, continental ice volume kept pace with slow, multi-millennial scale, changes in climate forcing. Today, rapid greenhouse gas (GHG) increases have outpaced ice-volume responses, likely committing us to > 9 m of long-term sea-level rise (SLR). We portray a context of naturally precedented SLR from geological evidence, for comparison with historical observations and future projections. This context supports SLR of up to 0.9 (1.8) m by 2100 and 2.7 (5.0) m by 2200, relative to 2000, at 68% (95%) probability. Historical SLR observations and glaciological assessments track the upper 68% limit. Hence, modern change is rapid by past interglacial standards but within the range of ‘normal’ processes. The upper 95% limit offers a useful low probability/high risk value. Exceedance would require conditions without natural interglacial precedents, such as catastrophic ice-sheet collapse, or activation of major East Antarctic mass loss at sustained CO2 levels above 1000 ppmv.

Concepts: Radiative forcing, Oceanography, Interglacial, Sea level, Climate change, Natural gas, Greenhouse gas, Ice age


Globally, large-bodied wild mammals are in peril. Because “megamammals” have a disproportionate influence on vegetation, trophic interactions, and ecosystem function, declining populations are of considerable conservation concern. However, this is not new; trophic downgrading occurred in the past, including the African rinderpest epizootic of the 1890s, the massive Great Plains bison kill-off in the 1860s, and the terminal Pleistocene extinction of megafauna. Examining the consequences of these earlier events yields insights into contemporary ecosystem function. Here, we focus on changes in methane emissions, produced as a byproduct of enteric fermentation by herbivores. Although methane is ∼200 times less abundant than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the greater efficiency of methane in trapping radiation leads to a significant role in radiative forcing of climate. Using global datasets of late Quaternary mammals, domestic livestock, and human population from the United Nations as well as literature sources, we develop a series of allometric regressions relating mammal body mass to population density and CH4 production, which allows estimation of methane production by wild and domestic herbivores for each historic or ancient time period. We find the extirpation of megaherbivores reduced global enteric emissions between 2.2-69.6 Tg CH4 y(-1) during the various time periods, representing a decrease of 0.8-34.8% of the overall inputs to tropospheric input. Our analyses suggest that large-bodied mammals have a greater influence on methane emissions than previously appreciated and, further, that changes in the source pool from herbivores can influence global biogeochemical cycles and, potentially, climate.

Concepts: Radiative forcing, Enteric fermentation, Megafauna, Population, Extinction, Pleistocene, Carbon dioxide, Methane


Most present-generation climate models simulate an increase in global-mean surface temperature (GMST) since 1998, whereas observations suggest a warming hiatus. It is unclear to what extent this mismatch is caused by incorrect model forcing, by incorrect model response to forcing or by random factors. Here we analyse simulations and observations of GMST from 1900 to 2012, and show that the distribution of simulated 15-year trends shows no systematic bias against the observations. Using a multiple regression approach that is physically motivated by surface energy balance, we isolate the impact of radiative forcing, climate feedback and ocean heat uptake on GMST–with the regression residual interpreted as internal variability–and assess all possible 15- and 62-year trends. The differences between simulated and observed trends are dominated by random internal variability over the shorter timescale and by variations in the radiative forcings used to drive models over the longer timescale. For either trend length, spread in simulated climate feedback leaves no traceable imprint on GMST trends or, consequently, on the difference between simulations and observations. The claim that climate models systematically overestimate the response to radiative forcing from increasing greenhouse gas concentrations therefore seems to be unfounded.

Concepts: Mathematical model, Regression analysis, Monte Carlo method, Simulation, Heat, Climate, Radiative forcing, Climate change


Projections of future climate depend critically on refined estimates of climate sensitivity. Recent progress in temperature proxies dramatically increases the magnitude of warming reconstructed from early Paleogene greenhouse climates and demands a close examination of the forcing and feedback mechanisms that maintained this warmth and the broad dynamic range that these paleoclimate records attest to. Here, we show that several complementary resolutions to these questions are possible in the context of model simulations using modern and early Paleogene configurations. We find that (i) changes in boundary conditions representative of slow “Earth system” feedbacks play an important role in maintaining elevated early Paleogene temperatures, (ii) radiative forcing by carbon dioxide deviates significantly from pure logarithmic behavior at concentrations relevant for simulation of the early Paleogene, and (iii) fast or “Charney” climate sensitivity in this model increases sharply as the climate warms. Thus, increased forcing and increased slow and fast sensitivity can all play a substantial role in maintaining early Paleogene warmth. This poses an equifinality problem: The same climate can be maintained by a different mix of these ingredients; however, at present, the mix cannot be constrained directly from climate proxy data. The implications of strongly state-dependent fast sensitivity reach far beyond the early Paleogene. The study of past warm climates may not narrow uncertainty in future climate projections in coming centuries because fast climate sensitivity may itself be state-dependent, but proxies and models are both consistent with significant increases in fast sensitivity with increasing temperature.

Concepts: Climate, Feedback, Entropy, Climate change, Temperature, Thermodynamics, Radiative forcing, Paleoclimatology


Knowledge of the contribution that individual countries have made to global radiative forcing is important to the implementation of the agreement on “common but differentiated responsibilities” reached by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Over the past three decades, China has experienced rapid economic development, accompanied by increased emission of greenhouse gases, ozone precursors and aerosols, but the magnitude of the associated radiative forcing has remained unclear. Here we use a global coupled biogeochemistry-climate model and a chemistry and transport model to quantify China’s present-day contribution to global radiative forcing due to well-mixed greenhouse gases, short-lived atmospheric climate forcers and land-use-induced regional surface albedo changes. We find that China contributes 10% ± 4% of the current global radiative forcing. China’s relative contribution to the positive (warming) component of global radiative forcing, mainly induced by well-mixed greenhouse gases and black carbon aerosols, is 12% ± 2%. Its relative contribution to the negative (cooling) component is 15% ± 6%, dominated by the effect of sulfate and nitrate aerosols. China’s strongest contributions are 0.16 ± 0.02 watts per square metre for CO2 from fossil fuel burning, 0.13 ± 0.05 watts per square metre for CH4, -0.11 ± 0.05 watts per square metre for sulfate aerosols, and 0.09 ± 0.06 watts per square metre for black carbon aerosols. China’s eventual goal of improving air quality will result in changes in radiative forcing in the coming years: a reduction of sulfur dioxide emissions would drive a faster future warming, unless offset by larger reductions of radiative forcing from well-mixed greenhouse gases and black carbon.

Concepts: Global warming potential, Oxygen, Fossil fuel, Radiative forcing, Global warming, Methane, Greenhouse gas, Carbon dioxide


We examine a series of betting strategies on the transient response of greenhouse warming, expressed by changes in 15-year mean global surface temperature from one 15-year period to the next. Over the last century, these bets are increasingly dominated by positive changes (warming), reflecting increasing greenhouse forcing and its rising contribution to temperature changes on this time scale. The greenhouse contribution to 15-year trends is now of a similar magnitude to typical naturally occurring 15-year trends. Negative 15-year changes (decreases) have not occurred since about 1970, and are still possible, but now rely on large, and therefore infrequent, natural variations. Model projections for even intermediate warming scenarios show very low likelihoods of obtaining negative 15-year changes over the coming century. Betting against greenhouse warming, even on these short time scales, is no longer a rational proposition.

Concepts: Radiative forcing, Black body


Carbonaceous aerosols influence the climate via direct and indirect effects on radiative balance. However, the factors controlling the emissions, transport and role of carbonaceous aerosols in the climate system are highly uncertain. Here we investigate organic tracers in ice cores from Greenland and Kamchatka and find that, throughout the period covered by the records (1550 to 2000 CE), the concentrations and composition of biomass burning-, soil bacterial- and plant wax- tracers correspond to Arctic and regional temperatures as well as the warm season Arctic Oscillation (AO) over multi-decadal time-scales. Specifically, order of magnitude decreases (increases) in abundances of ice-core organic tracers, likely representing significant decreases (increases) in the atmospheric loading of carbonaceous aerosols, occur during colder (warmer) phases in the high latitudinal Northern Hemisphere. This raises questions about causality and possible carbonaceous aerosol feedback mechanisms. Our work opens new avenues for ice core research. Translating concentrations of organic tracers (μg/kg-ice or TOC) from ice-cores, into estimates of the atmospheric loading of carbonaceous aerosols (μg/m(3)) combined with new model constraints on the strength and sign of climate forcing by carbonaceous aerosols should be a priority for future research.

Concepts: Oxygen, Core sample, Greenland, Radiative forcing, Feedback, Northern Hemisphere, Ice core, Climate


Climate sensitivity represents the global mean temperature change caused by changes in the radiative balance of climate; it is studied for both present/future (actuo) and past (paleo) climate variations, with the former based on instrumental records and/or various types of model simulations. Paleo-estimates are often considered informative for assessments of actuo-climate change caused by anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, but this utility remains debated because of concerns about the impacts of uncertainties, assumptions, and incomplete knowledge about controlling mechanisms in the dynamic climate system, with its multiple interacting feedbacks and their potential dependence on the climate background state. This is exacerbated by the need to assess actuo- and paleoclimate sensitivity over different timescales, with different drivers, and with different (data and/or model) limitations. Here, we visualize these impacts with idealized representations that graphically illustrate the nature of time-dependent actuo- and paleoclimate sensitivity estimates, evaluating the strengths, weaknesses, agreements, and differences of the two approaches. We also highlight priorities for future research to improve the use of paleo-estimates in evaluations of current climate change. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Marine Science Volume 10 is January 3, 2018. Please see for revised estimates.

Concepts: Solar variation, Paleoclimatology, Weather, Global warming, Radiative forcing, Climate, Evaluation, Climate change


Aircraft black carbon (BC) emissions contribute to climate forcing, but few estimates of BC emitted by aircraft at cruise exist. For the majority of aircraft engines the only BC-related measurement available is smoke number (SN) - a filter based optical method designed to measure near-ground plume visibility, not mass. While the First Order Approximation (FOA3) technique has been developed to estimate BC mass emissions normalized by fuel burn [EI(BC)] from SN, it is shown that it underestimates EI(BC) by >90% in 35% of directly measured cases (R2=-0.10). As there are no plans to measure BC emissions from all existing certified engines - which will be in service for several decades - it is necessary to estimate EI(BC) for existing aircraft on the ground and at cruise. An alternative method, called FOX that is independent of the SN is developed to estimate BC emissions. Estimates of EI(BC) at ground level are significantly improved (R2=0.68), while estimates at cruise are within 30% of measurements. Implementing this approach for global civil aviation estimated aircraft BC emissions are revised upwards by a factor of ~3. Direct radiative forcing (RF) due to aviation BC emissions is estimated to be 9.5 mW/m2, equivalent to ~1/3 of the current RF due to aviation CO2 emissions.

Concepts: Systems of measurement, Radiative forcing, Estimation, Global warming potential, Carbon dioxide, Approximation, Methane, Measurement