On the broadest scale, the rate at which energy is received from the sun and the rate at which it is lost to space determine the equilibrium temperature and climate of Earth. This energy is distributed around the globe by winds, ocean currents, and other mechanisms to affect the climates of different regions.
Factors that can shape climate are called climate forcings or “forcing mechanisms”. These include processes such as variations in solar radiation, variations in the Earth’s orbit, mountain-building and continental drift and changes in greenhouse gas concentrations. There are a variety of climate change feedbacks that can either amplify or diminish the initial forcing. Some parts of the climate system, such as the oceans and ice caps, respond slowly in reaction to climate forcings, while others respond more quickly.
Forcing mechanisms can be either “internal” or “external”. Internal forcing mechanisms are natural processes within the climate system itself (e.g., the thermohaline circulation). External forcing mechanisms can be either natural (e.g., changes in solar output) or anthropogenic (e.g., increased emissions of greenhouse gases).
Whether the initial forcing mechanism is internal or external, the response of the climate system might be fast (e.g., a sudden cooling due to airborne volcanic ash reflecting sunlight), slow (e.g. thermal expansion of warming ocean water), or a combination (e.g., sudden loss of albedo in the arctic ocean as sea ice melts, followed by more gradual thermal expansion of the water). Therefore, the climate system can respond abruptly, but the full response to forcing mechanisms might not be fully developed for centuries or even longer.
Internal forcing mechanisms
Natural changes in the components of Earth’s climate system and their interactions are the cause of internal climate variability, or “internal forcings.” Scientists generally define the five components of earth’s climate system to include atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere (restricted to the surface soils, rocks, and sediments), and biosphere. Ocean variability
Main article: Thermohaline circulation
Pacific Decadal Oscillation 1925 to 2010
The ocean is a fundamental part of the climate system, some changes in it occurring at longer timescales than in the atmosphere, massing hundreds of times more and having very high thermal inertia (such as the ocean depths still lagging today in temperature adjustment from the Little Ice Age).[clarification needed] Short-term fluctuations (years to a few decades) such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, the Pacific decadal oscillation, the North Atlantic oscillation, and the Arctic oscillation, represent climate variability rather than climate change. On longer time scales, alterations to ocean processes such as thermohaline circulation play a key role in redistributing heat by carrying out a very slow and extremely deep movement of water and the long-term redistribution of heat in the world’s oceans.
A schematic of modern thermohaline circulation. Tens of millions of years ago, continental plate movement formed a land-free gap around Antarctica, allowing formation of the ACC which keeps warm waters away from Antarctica.
Life affects climate through its role in the carbon and water cycles and such mechanisms as albedo, evapotranspiration, cloud formation, and weathering. Examples of how life may have affected past climate include: glaciation 2.3 billion years ago triggered by the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, glaciation 300 million years ago ushered in by long-term burial of decomposition-resistant detritus of vascular land plants (forming coal), termination of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago by flourishing marine phytoplankton, reversal of global warming 49 million years ago by 800,000 years of arctic azolla blooms, and global cooling over the past 40 million years driven by the expansion of grass-grazer ecosystems. External forcing mechanisms
Increase in atmospheric CO2 levels
Milankovitch cycles from 800,000 years ago in the past to 800,000 years in the future.
Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from the Vostok ice core over the last 450,000 years
Main article: Milankovitch cycles
Slight variations in Earth’s orbit lead to changes in the seasonal distribution of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface and how it is distributed across the globe. There is very little change to the area-averaged annually averaged sunshine; but there can be strong changes in the geographical and seasonal distribution. The three types of orbital variations are variations in Earth’s eccentricity, changes in the tilt angle of Earth’s axis of rotation, and precession of Earth’s axis. Combined together, these produce Milankovitch cycles which have a large impact on climate and are notable for their correlation to glacial and interglacial periods, their correlation with the advance and retreat of the Sahara, and for their appearance in the stratigraphic record. The IPCC notes that Milankovitch cycles drove the ice age cycles, CO2 followed temperature change “with a lag of some hundreds of years,” and that as a feedback amplified temperature change. The depths of the ocean have a lag time in changing temperature (thermal inertia on such scale). Upon seawater temperature change, the solubility of CO2 in the oceans changed, as well as other factors impacting air-sea CO2 exchange. Solar output
Main article: Solar variation
Variations in solar activity during the last several centuries based on observations of sunspots and beryllium isotopes. The period of extraordinarily few sunspots in the late 17th century was the Maunder minimum.
The Sun is the predominant source for energy input to the Earth. Both long- and short-term variations in solar intensity are known to affect global climate.
Three to four billion years ago the sun emitted only 70% as much power as it does today. If the atmospheric composition had been the same as today, liquid water should not have existed on Earth. However, there is evidence for the presence of water on the early Earth, in the Hadean and Archean eons, leading to what is known as the faint young Sun paradox. Hypothesized solutions to this paradox include a vastly different atmosphere, with much higher concentrations of greenhouse gases than currently exist. Over the following approximately 4 billion years, the energy output of the sun increased and atmospheric composition changed. The Great Oxygenation Event – oxygenation of the atmosphere around 2.4 billion years ago – was the most notable alteration. Over the next five billion years the sun’s ultimate death as it becomes a red giant and then a white dwarf will have large effects on climate, with the red giant phase possibly ending any life on Earth that survives until that time.
Solar output also varies on shorter time scales, including the 11-year solar cycle and longer-term modulations. Solar intensity variations are considered to have been influential in triggering the Little Ice Age, and some of the warming observed from 1900 to 1950. The cyclical nature of the sun’s energy output is not yet fully understood; it differs from the very slow change that is happening within the sun as it ages and evolves. Research indicates that solar variability has had effects including the Maunder minimum from 1645 to 1715 A.D., part of the Little Ice Age from 1550 to 1850 A.D. that was marked by relative cooling and greater glacier extent than the centuries before and afterward. Some studies point toward solar radiation increases from cyclical sunspot activity affecting global warming, and climate may be influenced by the sum of all effects (solar variation, anthropogenic radiative forcings, etc.). Interestingly, a 2010 study suggests, “that the effects of solar variability on temperature throughout the atmosphere may be contrary to current expectations.”
In an Aug 2011 Press Release, CERN announced the publication in the Nature journal the initial results from its CLOUD experiment. The results indicate that ionisation from cosmic rays significantly enhances aerosol formation in the presence of sulphuric acid and water, but in the lower atmosphere where ammonia is also required, this is insufficient to account for aerosol formation and additional trace vapours must be involved. The next step is to find more about these trace vapours, including whether they are of natural or human origin.
Further information: Cosmic ray#Role in climate change
Magnetic field strength
Some recent (2006+) analysis suggests that global climate is correlated with the strength of Earth’s magnetic field. Volcanism
In atmospheric temperature from 1979 to 2010, determined by MSU NASA satellites, effects appear from aerosols released by major volcanic eruptions (El Chichón and Pinatubo). El Niño is a separate event, from ocean variability.
Volcanic eruptions release gases and particulates into the atmosphere. Eruptions large enough to affect climate occur on average several times per century, and cause cooling (by partially blocking the transmission of solar radiation to the Earth’s surface) for a period of a few years. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the second largest terrestrial eruption of the 20th century (after the 1912 eruption of Novarupta) affected the climate substantially. Global temperatures decreased by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F). The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 caused the Year Without a Summer. Much larger eruptions, known as large igneous provinces, occur only a few times every hundred million years, but may cause global warming and mass extinctions. Volcanoes are also part of the extended carbon cycle. Over very long (geological) time periods, they release carbon dioxide from the Earth’s crust and mantle, counteracting the uptake by sedimentary rocks and other geological carbon dioxide sinks. The US Geological Survey estimates are that volcanic emissions are at a much lower level than the effects of current human activities, which generate 100–300 times the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes. A review of published studies indicates that annual volcanic emissions of carbon dioxide, including amounts released from mid-ocean ridges, volcanic arcs, and hot spot volcanoes, are only the equivalent of 3 to 5 days of human caused output. The annual amount put out by human activities may be greater than the amount released by supererruptions, the most recent of which was the Toba eruption in Indonesia 74,000 years ago. Although volcanoes are technically part of the lithosphere, which itself is part of the climate system, the IPCC explicitly defines volcanism as an external forcing agent. Plate tectonics
Over the course of millions of years, the motion of tectonic plates reconfigures global land and ocean areas and generates topography. This can affect both global and local patterns of climate and atmosphere-ocean circulation. The position of the continents determines the geometry of the oceans and therefore influences patterns of ocean circulation. The locations of the seas are important in controlling the transfer of heat and moisture across the globe, and therefore, in determining global climate. A recent example of tectonic control on ocean circulation is the formation of the Isthmus of Panama about 5 million years ago, which shut off direct mixing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This strongly affected the ocean dynamics of what is now the Gulf Stream and may have led to Northern Hemisphere ice cover. During the Carboniferous period, about 300 to 360 million years ago, plate tectonics may have triggered large-scale storage of carbon and increased glaciation. Geologic evidence points to a “megamonsoonal” circulation pattern during the time of the supercontinent Pangaea, and climate modeling suggests that the existence of the supercontinent was conducive to the establishment of monsoons. The size of continents is also important. Because of the stabilizing effect of the oceans on temperature, yearly temperature variations are generally lower in coastal areas than they are inland. A larger supercontinent will therefore have more area in which climate is strongly seasonal than will several smaller continents or islands.