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The Present Warming: Twentieth-Century through Today

Observed Temperature Changes Since 1850

We will now take a look at the global average surface temperature record since 1850. This record is constructed from measurements made with thermometers and thus can be considered more accurate than the proxy reconstructions we previously studied. However, there are issues with the measured temperature record, which introduces uncertainty in the global average temperature estimates. You will sometimes see spirited debates about the details of the recent temperature record constructed from measurements. Several of these issues will be mentioned in the next couple of paragraphs, however, we will not go into the specific details of the arguments about possible errors in the recent temperature record.

Ideally, we would like to have accurate thermometers whose measurement characteristics do not change with time and which remain in the same location and surrounding environment for a long period of time. This would allow us to measure real changes in temperature without influence from changes in the instrument or the local environment. Unfortunately, this is not generally the case. At most observing locations, the instrumentation is changed over time and adjustments must be made to account for differences in how different thermometers measure temperature. For many observing locations, urbanization (city building) has happened around the measuring site. Urban areas are generally warmer than nearby rural areas because many of the building materials effectively retain heat better than the natural land surface and also due to the heat generated within cities. This urban heat island effect can look like a real warming (or increase in temperature over time) unless adjustments are made to remove the effect. In fact any change in the local environment around a thermometer location needs to be considered, even something as simple as putting up new buildings or installing an air conditioner near the thermometer. In many cases, the actual location of the thermometer was moved (say within the same city) and corrections for things like changes in the altitude of the location must be made.

Another set of issues have to do with the geography of the available thermometer locations. Ideally we would sample the entire globe evenly since we want to measure changes in global average temperature. In actuality, there is a dense network of measurements in a few developed areas on Earth and rather sparse coverage over unpopulated land areas and oceans. Thus, adjustments must also be made to properly represent the global average from this observing network. In places where there is only sparse coverage of observations, it can be difficult to determine the true average temperature over a large region from just a few observations.

The figure below shows one reconstruction of the changes in global average temperature based on physical measurements from the UK Met Office Hadley Center using the HadCRUT4 dataset (Image Source). According to the figure, the global average surface temperatures on Earth have risen by about 1.0°C (1.8°F) since 1850 and by about 0.7°C (1.25°F) since 1980. The black dots indicate the estimated global average temperature each year relative to the average temperature over the period 1961-1990. Thus, the plot shows the difference in temperature between each individual year and the 1961-1990 average. The vertical bars associated with each dot represents an estimate of the uncertainty in the global average temperature for that year. The blue line is a smoothed version of the plot drawn to highlight trends in temperature. Even though there is some uncertainty in determining global average temperatures from the available measurements due to instrumental errors, changes in instrumentation over the record, changes in the local environment surrounding the thermometers, and the fact that measurements are quite sparse over some areas of the world, even most conservative estimates from other sources indicate that the surface temperature has risen at least 0.75°C (1.35°F) since 1850. For the remainder of the discussion on this page, we will assume the graph below is our best estimate of global average surface temperature changes in the instrumental record. While there are arguments about how much global average temperature has increased over the period of the instrumental record, there is little doubt that the global average temperature has increased. According to the plot, the warmest 8 years in the measured record have been the last eight years (2015 - 2022).

One more point to make in this section. While we often talk in terms of global average temperature changes, keep in mind that there will be variation in the temperature changes at regional scales and over seasonal and yearly timescales at a particular location. It is important to understand this when considering the potential impacts of the temperature changes. As an example, the figure below shows the temperature differences for the month of May 2014 compared to the 1961-1990 average temperature. Even though the average global temperature for 2014 was about 0.57°C higher than the 1961-1990 average, note that some regions of the world showed much larger warm anomalies (greater than 5°C in some areas), while other regions actually had lower than aveage temperatures (by more than 3°C in some areas) for May 2014. This shows that when the global average temperature goes up, there is quite a bit of variability expected at regional spatial scales. Thus, it would be incorrect to argue that global warming is not happening because there are small regions that show cooling. Also notice that there are large areas of the surface where there were not sufficient observations to estimate the change in temperature (shown as white in the figure), which indicates one of the sampling problems with measuring and determining changes in global average temperature.

Implications of Temperature Changes Since 1850

We need to consider the question: Is the recently measured warming of global average surface temperature mostly caused by the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Or is the recently measured warming mostly part of a natural warming cycle? The current climate today is is dependent on both factors and it is basically impossible to separate the effects as they are interlinked. It would be very nice to know what Earth's climate would be today without anthropogenic greenhouse emissions, but we will never really know.

According to climate models the warming is largely due to the additional greenhouse gases. If greenhouse gas concentrations are left fixed at pre-industrial levels, the models show little if any warming during the twentieth century and beyond, while the same models do predict warming when they include the observed increases in greenhouse gases. Some of the fundamental problems with climate models have previously been discussed. There are also concerns about the ability of the models to properly simulate the observed temperature changes since 1900. In particular, climate models are unable to reconstruct the irregular pattern of the observed warming since 1860.

The irregular warming from 1850 though today has been used by opponents of athropogenic global warming (those who do not think the recent warming has much to do with human-added greenhouse gases) as evidence that natural climate fluctuations dominate over the effects caused by increased greenhouse gases. We will consider arguments based on the temperature changes for several specific time periods.

Warming period from 1910 to 1940

There was a rather sharp warming trend that occurred from 1910 to 1940. This warming is too rapid and too large to be explained by the rather small increases in greenhouse gas concentrations that occurred up until the year 1940. In other words, this warming period was most likely a natural change in global average temperature and not caused by increases in greenhouse gases. There just were not enough emissions of greenhouse gases during this period to explain the warming. Thus, the 1910 to 1940 warming actually argues against changes in greenhouse gases being the most important factor for changes in global average temperature.

Cooling priod from 1940 to late 1970s

The global average temperature cooled slightly during this period even though greenhouse gas concentrations continued to increase. This again argues against the assertation that changes in global average temperature are dominated by changes in greenhouse gas concentatration.

Proponents of global warming caused by greenhouse gas increases contend that even during the expected general warming trend due to greenhouse gases increases, there will be fluctuations (natural variability) along the way. They also claim that the cooling period from 1940-1970s can be explained by high aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere during this period related to "dirty" coal burning. Coal contains sulfur and when it is burned sulfur dioxide gas is released. The sulfur dioxide undergoes a gas to particle conversion to become a sulfate aerosol. Sulfate aerosols may cool the Earth's surface for several reasons. One reason is simply because they reflect some of the incoming radiation from the sun back toward outer space. Another potentially larger cooling impact is that these aerosols can act as cloud condensation nuclei, which can cause clouds to become more reflective of solar radiation and persist longer in the atmosphere before raining out or evaporating. However, the magnitude of this cloud-aerosol interaction is uncertain. As previously mentioned, the cooling influence from sulfate aerosols is quite large in some climate model simulations.

Sulfate aerosols also dissolve in raindrops forming a solution of sulfuric acid known as acid rain. Acid rain is quite damaging to natural lakes and forests and accelerates the decay of some building materials including culturally important statues. Prior to 1980 the US and Europe engaged in "dirty" coal burning, resulting in high amounts of sulfate aerosols, which may have acted as a cooling influence on global average temperature. After 1980 regulations were put in place to reduce acid rain and we started cleaning up our coal burning operations by reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide gas released. This reduced the amount of sulfate aerosols in the atmosphere after 1980 and according to this explanation, once the aerosols cleared, we started to again see global warming caused by increasing greenhouse gases.

While this explanation for the "unexpected" cooling that took place from about 1940 through 1980 seems plausible, it is difficult to believe that most of the recent changes in global average temperature are mainly due to increases in greenhouse gases and changes in sulfate aerosols. Similar cooling and warming periods are seen all throughout history regardless of human acitivity. Additionally, even though the western world cleaned up its coal burning after 1980, new coal fired power plants continue to be built throughout China and other parts of the developing world. The increase in sulfate aerosols produced by the developing world may more than make up for the reductions in the western world. For example, see China's new coal power plant capacity in 2020 more than three times rest of world's: study. By the way the cooling during the period 1940-1980 is "unexpected" only if you believe that recent changes in global average temperature are dominated by increases in greenhouse gases. If you believe that natural fluctuations in temperature are dominating over human factors, then a cooling period is not unexpected.

Finally, the acid rain issue provides another example of a large-scale environmental problem that was improved through regulation (at least in the western world), similar to the international agreements to eliminate production of ozone destroying CFCs. In the case of acid rain, cause and effect was easily established and it was relatively easy to reduce sulfur emissions by burning low sulfur coal or scrubbing the emissions. This is different from the global warming issue where we do not have a clear cause and effect relationship and we have no current substitute to using fossil fuels to meet the current energy demands of the world.

Warming period from about 1980 through about 2002

The warming (increase in global average temperature) from 1980 through about 2002 is more consistent with the theory that recent temperature changes are largely the result the increasing greenhouse gases. During this period, the global average temperature was increasing sharply, coninciding with large increases in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Keep in mind this correlation does not prove cause and effect, and this is not proof that increasing greenhouse gases have been responsible for most of the warming. This warming period could just be a natural warming period similar to past warming periods and just happens to coincide with a period with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. Just as the previous cooling period does not prove that increased greenhouse gases do not lead to global warming, this warming period does not in itself prove that this temperature increase was mostly the result of the rapidly increasing greenhouse gases.

Based on the historical temperature record, some claim that the warming since 1980 appears to be the fastest rate of increase over the last 10,000 years, but we cannot prove that since we would be unable to resolve all short term temperature variations that have occurred over the last 10,000 years. In other words, because we cannot resolve year to year variations in global average temperature from proxy records, temperature reconstructions based on proxy records are a "smoothed" version of the real temperature changes. Also, note in the global average temperature reconstruction shown above that the rate of increase in global average temperature between 1910 and 1940 is not that much different from the rate of warming between 1980 and 2002. Thus, it is difficult to conclude that the rate of temperature increase today is faster than any other time in the last 10,000 years.

Note also that even though the rate of warming slowed considerably at the start of the 2000s, the global average temperature has remained relatively warm. In fact the 15 warmest years in the measured temperature record have all happened since 1998. For many, this is convincing evidence that the recent temperature increases are not simply part of some natural cycle, and must be due to human activity, caused by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. While this is compelling, the connection cannot be scientifically proven.

[Satellite Temperature from UAH]
Global average lower tropospheric temperature anomaly relative to the 1991 to 2020 average based on satellite observations. There is a blue data circle for each month, while the red circle is a smoothed version of the monthly points, which is drawn to highlight trends. Green lines and annotation added to highlight the "pause" period. Source.

The "pause" in warming 2002 - 2013

During the period from about 2002 to at least 2013, there was no statistically significant increase in global average temperature. Some have called this period "the pause" in global warming. The "pause" from 2002 to 2013 can be clearly seen in the plot above, which shows changes in global average temperature as derived from satellite observations from space. In one sense, global average temperature did not increase during this period, which argues against the theory that recent changes in temperature can be mostly explained by changes in greenhouse gases, since we know greenhouse gases have increased during this period. However, this period was the warmest 12 year period in the record (prior to 2015) and it coincided with the highest concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, so in that sense it does support the connection between higher global average temperature and higher amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. "The pause" could simply have been a near balance between what might have been a natural cooling period without anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and the warming influence of increased greenhouse gases. It will be interesting to see if the global average temperature is beginning a new period of rapid warming starting with the warm year of 2015.

2015 - 2022 : Warmest eight years in the measured record of global average surface temperature

The plot at the top of this page shows that the annual global average temperature jumped up by about 0.2°C after 2014. And 2015 - 2022 have been the warmest 8 years in the entire record of surface temperature observations. In other words, the 8 warmest years in the measured global average surface temperature have been the last 8 years.

The monthly satellite-derived global average temperature for the lower troposphere during late 2015 and early 2016 also reached values that were 0.1°C higher than the previous high temperature anomalies in 1998 as shown in the plot above. In fact the the warmest month was February 2016 in the satellite data. After February 2016, the satellite-derived global average temperature has oscillated up and down, but has remained below the maximum global average temperature set in Feb 2016. There almost seems to be another pause in both the surface measured and satellite-derived global average temperature. However, the current pause is about 0.2°C warmer than the previous pause.

The current eight consecutive warmest years on record (2015 - 2022) coincide with the highest levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for at least thousands of years. This supports, but does not prove the claim that increases in greenhouse gases are responsible for much of the recent warming.

The Impacts of El Nino and La Nina

This section is not required for ATMO 336 students. Please read it if you are interested in this content. We simply do not have time to properly explain the El Nino / La Nina climate cycle.

The influence of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) on global changes in temperature is very apparent based on a comparison of the Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) {click to open in new tab} and the satellite-derived change in temperature, which is shown above on this page. The linked plot shows the ONI index from 1950 to present. Positive ONI values indicate El Nino conditions and negative ONI values indicate La Nina conditions. Without explantion, El Nino events typically result in a warming of global average temperature and La Nina events typically result in a cooling of global average temperature.

The time period from 1997 to 2001 provides a good example of the connection between ENSO and global average temperature. There was a very strong El Nino in 1997/1998, followed by a strong El Nino in 1999/2000 as indicated in the ONI graph. This corresponds with a rapid warming in global average temperature, which is centered in the year 1998 followed by a rapid cooling in global average temperature, which is centered around the year 2000. We can also see the cooling associated with the 2007/2008 La Nina, warming associated with the 2009/2010 El Nino, cooling with the 2011/2012 La Nina, and the warming associated with the 2015/2016 El Nino. We can even see the cooling and warming associated with the weak La Nina of 2017/2018 and the weak El Nino of 2018/2019. You may have noticed that the temperature response (in terms of global average temperature) tend to lag several months after the peak El Nino and La Nina periods.

Currently there are moderate La Nina conditions, which begin in 2020, and corresponds with the obvious decrease in the satellite-derived temperature over the past several months. Based on past observations of this cycle, the current moderate La Nina will end soon and the global average temperature will stop decreasing soon after that.

ENSO is an irregular, periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures that takes place in the tropical Pacific Ocean. This is a pattern of natural variability that has been happening long before humans began emitting greenhouse gases. The connection between the ENSO and changes in global average surface temperature is evidence that natural climate variations have a strong influence on changes in surface temperature. In the short term, variations in global average temperature are more influenced by ENSO than by changes in greenhouse gases.

In spite of the short term fluctuations related to ENSO, there has still been a clear long term increase in global average temperature since the beginning of the satellite record in 1979. Many argue that this long-term increase is mainly due to greenhouse gas increases with natural short term ups and downs caused by ENSO. On the other side, some argue that there are other longer period natural fluctuations over periods of decades, centuries, and even longer that are the main drivers of changes in global average temperature, not fluctuations in greenhouse gases.

Implications of Recent Temperature on Longer Time Scales

If we go back 800 years to the Medieval warm period (or Little Climatic Optimum), the global average temperature during this period may have been close to (or perhaps slightly colder or warmer) than today. If we go back 6,000 years to the Holocene Optimum, global average temperature was most likely warmer than it is today. Although it is uncertain to compare the absolute global average temperature today with what it was hundreds of thousands of years ago, it is very likely that today is not the warmest period in the Holocene Epoch, which is the current interglacial period following the last true Ice Age. There are some who simply argue that the Earth was warmer in the recent past and life thrived, so why should we be concerned about the current global average temperature?

On the other hand, after over four decades of warming (or steady) global average temperature (1980 to 2021), is it possible that the Earth could enter another multi-decadal period of cooling global average temperature? There is evidence for a multi-decadal oscillations in global warming and global cooling since 1860 as indicated in the figure below and discussion of the observed changes global average surface temperature presented above. In fact, several multi-decadal natural oscillations have been identified in climate records. For example the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) {click to open in another tab} contains identifiable warm and cold phases in sea surface temperature in the north Pacific Ocean (a similar North Atlantic Oscillation [NAO] has also been identified), which correspond with periods of global warming and cooling. On the graph, warm phases of the PDO are shown in red and cold phases are shown in red. Although the mechanism is not well understood, these cycles are related to periods of heat storage within and heat release from the oceans, which has a strong impact on changes in the global average near surface air temperature. Several researchers have gone out on a limb to predict global cooling over the next 20-40 years based on a reversal of the PDO from warm phase, which began in 1977 and continued until at least 2020, to a new cold phase, which may have begun after 2020. Decadal changes in the PDO correspond with decadal changes in global average temperature. Notice in the linked figure (above in this paragraph) that the PDO was more often in the warm phase from 1925 to 1945, which corresponds with the warming from 1910 to 1940. The PDO was more often in the cold phase from 1945 to 1977, which corresponds with the cooling period from 1940 to 1980. Since 1980 the PDO has been more often in the warm phase, which corresponds with the warming from 1980 to 2020. We can also see that during the "pause" from 2002 to 2014 the PDO was nearly equally split between the warm and cold phases. We will just have to wait and see what happens next with the PDO and its impact on the global average temperature. While the PDO has been identified, we are not able to predict when the PDO will shift from the current warm phase to the next cold phase. Remember that we also are not able to predict when the Atlantic Multi-decadal Oscillation (AMO) will change from the current warm phase to the next cold phase, even though it has important connections to Atlantic Ocean hurricanes.

[Annotated hadley temperature]
Global average surface temperature anomaly relative to the 1961 to 1990 average (repeated from top of this page), but with annotations added. The annotations along the bottom indicate periods of global average warming, global average cooling, and near steady temperature during the "pause." The black line shows the overall change in global average surface temperature over the period of the observations.

The figure above shows the measured changes in global average temperature as determined by the Hadley Centre with some annotations added. Periods of warming and cooling in global average temperature are indicated. Note "the pause" in global average temperature from 2002 to 2013 is indicated by steady temperature. The period after 2013 marks the beginning of another warming period. There remains the question as to what will happen as we move beyond 2021. One interpretation is that the long term warming of 1.1°C over about 170 years is mostly due to greenhouse gas emissions, but with shorter time scale natural warming and cooling periods superimposed. If this is true then the general warming will continue with short periods of natural cooling and/or steady temperature possible.

There are also questions about the possibility of even longer timescale natural fluctuations in global average temperature. Perhaps in addition to the multi-decadal fluctuations shown in the figure there are also multi-century fluctuations, which may include the Medieval Warm Period (900 - 1100), the Little Ice Age (1650 - 1850), the modern warm period (1860 - ?), perhaps followed by another cool period. If this is true, then perhaps the Earth is simply in a natural warm period that is not influenced much by greenhouse gas emissions. This warming period may last for centuries, reach a peak, and then begin a centuries long period of cooling.

For those convinced that our emissions of greenhouse gases are significantly warming global averge surface temperature, a cooling period (or even a period of steady temperature) is simply explained as a natural climate variation sitting on top of a longer term rise in global average temperature due to increased greenhouse gases. It is difficult to dismiss this possibility.

For those convinced that recent increases in greenhouse gases are not significantly changing global average temperature, natural variations dominate over higher greenhouse gas concentrations. The longer term rise in global average temperatures on top of the multi-decadal oscillation is simply a recovery from the little ice age cold. Some point to a possible longer term multi-century oscillation between warm and cold peroids, i.e., medieval warm period, little ice age, current warm period, etc. It is difficult to dismiss these possibilities.

You should realize that even if we enter a period of 30 years of global cooling, this would not prove or disprove anthropogenic global warming. However, 30 years of global cooling is not predicted by climate models or the 2013 IPCC report, so if it does occur, it may be seen as a failure of current climate models to predict future climate changes. You should also realize that even if we are at the start of a new period of rapid global warming, this would not prove or disprove anthropogenic global warming. However, another 30 years of global warming is consistent with the predictions of climate models that increases in greenhouse gases will result in large increases in global average surface temperature.

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