The Earth’s climate system is chaotic in the sense that it is continuously changing. Temperature on our planet has changed much and quickly before. These changes can be global or regional: a temperature increase in the northern hemisphere can have had a corresponding lower temperature or no temperature change in the southern part of the world. A “little ice age” in the area around the North Atlantic, has not necessarily affected other regions of the world. A warm ‘bronze age’ in Northern Europe 5000 years ago did not necessarily change global mean temperatures much: an extra tilting angle of the polar axis would entail a warmer north but a colder south. As a rule, solar forcing, negative or positive, has been the main driving or radiative forcing agent for significant climate change throughout the times. Albedo and the chemical composition of the atmosphere have been feedback mechanisms, enhancing the solar forcing either way.
Most researchers think that the temperature rise during the first part of last century was connected to increased solar radiation, and some voice the opinion that at least parts of the temperature rise the last decades also has been caused by increased solar activity. However, according to the UN Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), it is unlikely that the temperature rise during the last decades can be explained by increased solar activity alone.The last forty years, every decade has been warmer than the preceding decade.This in spite of that solar activity this period has been the lowest for hundred years except for a solar outburst in 1998.
In addition, large amounts of aerosols from coal fired power plants and increasing traffic in the air, on sea and land camouflage parts of the warming trend.
A change in the solar radiation having an effect on the earth’s climate is called “solar forcing”. When the solar radiation is less than usual, the forcing is said to be negative. When the sun warms the earth more than usual, the forcing is positive.
Solar forcing tends to vary in fairly regular cycles.
Radiative forcing can in a simple way be defined as a force that changes the equilibrium of the energy budget in our climate system.
Solar activity, or rather the insolation, is the main radiative forcing factor. Insolation varies, and the solar forcing can be quite significant one year, down to “equilibrium”; i.e. no forcing the next.
Negative albedo forcing from particles (aerosols) in the air, e.g. from burning of fossil fuels, will last for some hours or days.
Sulphur aerosols from big volcanic eruptions may stay in the stratosphere for 1-4 years, having a significant cooling effect in that period.
While solar forcing tends to level out over time, the forcing from additional, anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will increase over time. Radiative or climate forcing is therefore often calculated over e.g. a 30 or a 100 year period.
Climate change due to changes in the atmospheric chemistry will therefore be more enduring than those caused by changes in solar forcing.
Whether the radiative forcing is caused by solar activity or changes in the atmospheric chemistry or not, there will be an impact on the third main factor with influence on the world’s climate: albedo.
A cold climate over a long period will increase the size of ice covers, entailing an increase in the albedo, meaning that more sunlight will be reflected and thus strengthen the cooling process. Increasing albedo means increasing negative radiative forcing.
Cooling activates feedback mechanisms enhancing the cooling, and vice versa: warming will activate feedback processes enhancing the warming.
In summary: any factor that changes the energy balance of our planet, either cooling or warming the average global temperature for a longer period of time, is a climate forcing factor. When more energy comes in than goes out, energy accumulates and our planet warms. When more energy leaves our planet than comes in, the global average temperature cools down.
- Introduction to Earth’s Dynamically Changing Climate (NASA)
- About Radiative forcing
- Teaching Essential Principle 2:
Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system
- Teaching Essential Principle 3:
Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate
- Teaching Essential Principle 4:
Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes
- Teaching Essential Principle 5:
Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling
- Teaching Essential Principle 6:
Human activities are impacting the climate system
- A curious cold spot in the Atlantic has scientists thinking their worst fears have come true (Oct 2017)
- Climate Change: Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)
- IPCC: Understanding and Attributing Climate Change
- IPCC: How are Temperatures on Earth Changing?
- IPCC: Global Average Temperatures
- IPCC: Concepts of radiative forcing