Physical impacts of climate change

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This article is about the physical impacts of climate change. For some of these physical impacts, their effect on social and economic systems are also described.

This article refers to reports produced by the IPCC. In their usage, "climate change" refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or variability of its properties, and that persists for extended periods, typically decades or longer (IPCC, 2007d:30).[1] The climate change referred to may be due to natural causes and/or the result of human activity.

Global warming

The NASA instrumental temperature record shows a long-term trend of global warming between 1880 and 2009
Global mean surface temperature difference from the average for 1880–2009.

[2] Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74 °C (plus or minus 0.18 °C) since the late-19th century, and the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13 °C (plus or minus 0.03 °C) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years. The warming has not been globally uniform. Some areas have, in fact, cooled slightly over the last century. The recent warmth has been greatest over North America and Eurasia between 40 and 70°N. Lastly, seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.

Consistency of evidence for warming

Refer to caption and adjacent text
11 key indicators of global warming.[3]

[4] Thousands of land and ocean temperature measurements are recorded each day around the globe. This includes measurements from climate reference stations, weather stations, ships, buoys and autonomous gliders in the oceans. These surface measurements are also supplemented with satellite measurements. These measurements are processed, examined for random and systematic errors, and then finally combined to produce a time series of global average temperature change. A number of agencies around the world have produced datasets of global-scale changes in surface temperature using different techniques to process the data and remove measurement errors that could lead to false interpretations of temperature trends (see Instrumental temperature record). The warming trend that is apparent in all of the independent methods of calculating global temperature change is also confirmed by other independent observations, such as the melting of mountain glaciers on every continent, reductions in the extent of snow cover, earlier blooming of plants in spring, a shorter ice season on lakes and rivers, ocean heat content, reduced Arctic sea ice, and rising sea levels. Some of these indicators are further discussed in this article.

Global average temperature

[5] Global average temperature is one of the most-cited indicators of global climate change, and shows an increase of approximately 1.4 °F since the early 20th Century. The global surface temperature is based on air temperature data over land and sea-surface temperatures observed from ships, buoys and satellites. There is a clear long-term global warming trend, while each individual year does not always show a temperature increase relative to the previous year, and some years show greater changes than others. These year-to-year fluctuations in temperature are due to natural processes, such as the effects of El Niños, La Niñas, and the eruption of large volcanoes. Notably, the 20 warmest years have all occurred since 1981, and the 10 warmest have all occurred in the past 12 years.

Diurnal temperature

Refer to caption and adjacent text
Annual anomalies of maximum and minimum temperatures and diurnal temperature range (DTR) (°C) relative to the 1961 to 1990 mean, averaged for the 71 percent of global land areas where data are available for 1950 to 2004. The smooth curves show decadal variations.[2]

[2] There has been a general, but not global, tendency toward reduced diurnal temperature range (DTR: the difference between daily high or maximum and daily low or minimum temperatures) over about 70% of the global land mass since the middle of the 20th century. However, for the period 1979–2005 the DTR shows no trend since the trend in both maximum and minimum temperatures for the same period are virtually identical; both showing a strong warming signal. A variety of factors likely contribute to this change in DTR, particularly on a regional and local basis, including changes in cloud cover, atmospheric water vapor, land use and urban effects.

Indirect indicators of warming

[2] Indirect indicators of warming such as borehole temperatures, snow cover, and glacier recession data, are in substantial agreement with the more direct indicators of recent warmth. Evidence such as changes in glacial mass balance (the amount of snow and ice contained in a glacier) is useful since it not only provides qualitative support for existing meteorological data, but glaciers often exist in places too remote to support meteorological stations. The records of glacial advance and retreat often extend back further than weather station records, and glaciers are usually at much higher altitudes than weather stations, allowing scientists more insight into temperature changes higher in the atmosphere.

Effects on weather

Increasing temperature is likely to lead to increasing precipitation[6][7] but the effects on storms are less clear. Extratropical storms partly depend on the temperature gradient, which is predicted to weaken in the northern hemisphere as the polar region warms more than the rest of the hemisphere.[8] It is possible that the Polar and Ferrel cells in one or both hemispheres will weaken and eventually disappear, which would cause the Hadley cell to cover the whole planet.[9] This would greatly decrease the temperature gradient between the arctic and the tropics, and cause the earth to flip to a hothouse state.[9]


Animation of projected annual precipitation from 1900-2100, based on a medium greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions scenario (SRES A1B). This scenario assumes that no efforts are made to limit future GHG emissions. Credit: NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL).[10]
refer to caption and adjacent text
Projected change in annual average precipitation by the end of the 21st century, based on a medium emissions scenario (SRES A1B) (Credit: NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory).[11][12]

Historically (i.e., over the 20th century), subtropical land regions have been mostly semi-arid, while most subpolar regions have had an excess of precipitation over evaporation. Future global warming is expected to be accompanied by a reduction in rainfall in the subtropics and an increase in precipitation in subpolar latitudes and some equatorial regions. In other words, regions which are dry at present will generally become even drier, while regions that are currently wet will generally become even wetter. This projection does not apply to every locale, and in some cases can be modified by local conditions. Drying is projected to be strongest near the poleward margins of the subtropics (for example, South Africa, southern Australia, the Mediterranean, and the south-western U.S.), a pattern that can be described as a poleward expansion of these semi-arid zones.[12]

This large-scale pattern of change is a robust feature present in nearly all of the simulations conducted by the world's climate modeling groups for the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and is also evident in observed 20th century precipitation trends.[12]

Extreme events


Fire is a major agent for conversion of biomass and soil organic matter to CO2 (Denman et al., 2007:527).[13] There is a large potential for future alteration in the terrestrial carbon balance through altered fire regimes. With high confidence, Schneider et al. (2007:789) projected that:[14]

  • An increase in global mean temperature of about 0 to 2 °C by 2100 relative to the 1990–2000 period would result in increased fire frequency and intensity in many areas.
  • An increase in the region of 2 °C or above would lead to increased frequency and intensity of fires.

Extreme weather

refer to caption
Frequency of occurrence (vertical axis) of local June–July–August temperature anomalies (relative to 1951–1980 mean) for Northern Hemisphere land in units of local standard deviation (horizontal axis).[15] According to Hansen et al. (2012),[15] the distribution of anomalies has shifted to the right as a consequence of global warming, meaning that unusually hot summers have become more common. This is analogous to the rolling of a dice: cool summers now cover only half of one side of a six-sided dime, white covers one side, red covers four sides, and an extremely hot (red-brown) anomaly covers half of one side.[15]

IPCC (2007a:8) projected that in the future, over most land areas, the frequency of warm spells or heat waves would very likely increase.[16] Other likely changes are listed below:

Storm strength leading to extreme weather is increasing, such as the power dissipation index of hurricane intensity.[18] Kerry Emanuel writes that hurricane power dissipation is highly correlated with temperature, reflecting global warming.[19] However, a further study by Emanuel using current model output concluded that the increase in power dissipation in recent decades cannot be completely attributed to global warming.[20] Hurricane modeling has produced similar results, finding that hurricanes, simulated under warmer, high-CO2 conditions, are more intense, however, hurricane frequency will be reduced.[21] Worldwide, the proportion of hurricanes reaching categories 4 or 5 – with wind speeds above 56 metres per second – has risen from 20% in the 1970s to 35% in the 1990s.[22] Precipitation hitting the US from hurricanes has increased by 7% over the 20th century.[23][24][25] The extent to which this is due to global warming as opposed to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation is unclear. Some studies have found that the increase in sea surface temperature may be offset by an increase in wind shear, leading to little or no change in hurricane activity.[26] Hoyos et al. (2006) have linked the increasing trend in number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes for the period 1970–2004 directly to the trend in sea surface temperatures.[27]

Thomas Knutson and Robert E. Tuleya of NOAA stated in 2004 that warming induced by greenhouse gas may lead to increasing occurrence of highly destructive category-5 storms.[28] In 2008, Knutson et al. found that Atlantic hurricane and tropical storm frequencies could reduce under future greenhouse-gas-induced warming.[29] Vecchi and Soden find that wind shear, the increase of which acts to inhibit tropical cyclones, also changes in model-projections of global warming. There are projected increases of wind shear in the tropical Atlantic and East Pacific associated with the deceleration of the Walker circulation, as well as decreases of wind shear in the western and central Pacific.[30] The study does not make claims about the net effect on Atlantic and East Pacific hurricanes of the warming and moistening atmospheres, and the model-projected increases in Atlantic wind shear.[31]

The World Meteorological Organization explains that "though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point."[32] They also clarified that "no individual tropical cyclone can be directly attributed to climate change."[32]

A substantially higher risk of extreme weather does not necessarily mean a noticeably greater risk of slightly-above-average weather.[33] However, the evidence is clear that severe weather and moderate rainfall are also increasing. Increases in temperature are expected to produce more intense convection over land and a higher frequency of the most severe storms.[34]

Using the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a 2010 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research projects increasingly dry conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely, if ever, been observed in modern times.[35]

Coumou et al. (2013)[36] estimated that global warming had increased the probability of local record-breaking monthly temperatures worldwide by a factor of 5. This was compared to a baseline climate in which no global warming had occurred. Using a medium global warming scenario, they project that by 2040, the number of monthly heat records globally could be more than 12 times greater than that of a scenario with no long-term warming.

Increased evaporation

File:BAMS climate assess boulder water vapor 2002.gif
Increasing water vapor at Boulder, Colorado.

Over the course of the 20th century, evaporation rates have reduced worldwide;[37] this is thought by many to be explained by global dimming. As the climate grows warmer and the causes of global dimming are reduced, evaporation will increase due to warmer oceans. Because the world is a closed system this will cause heavier rainfall, with more erosion. This erosion, in turn, can in vulnerable tropical areas (especially in Africa) lead to desertification. On the other hand, in other areas, increased rainfall lead to growth of forests in dry desert areas.

Scientists have found evidence that increased evaporation could result in more extreme weather as global warming progresses. The IPCC Third Annual Report says: " average water vapor concentration and precipitation are projected to increase during the 21st century. By the second half of the 21st century, it is likely that precipitation will have increased over northern mid- to high latitudes and Antarctica in winter. At low latitudes there are both regional increases and decreases over land areas. Larger year-to-year variations in precipitation are very likely over most areas where an increase in mean precipitation is projected."[6][38]

Increased freshwater flow

Research based on satellite observations, published in October 2010, shows an increase in the flow of freshwater into the world's oceans, partly from melting ice and partly from increased precipitation driven by an increase in global ocean evaporation. The increase in global freshwater flow, based on data from 1994 to 2006, was about 18%. Much of the increase is in areas which already experience high rainfall. One effect, as perhaps experienced in the 2010 Pakistan floods, is to overwhelm flood control infrastructure.[39]

Regional climate change

General effects

In a literature assessment, Hegerl et al. (2007) assessed evidence for attributing observed climate change. They concluded that since the middle of the 20th century, it was likely that human influences had significantly contributed to surface temperature increases in every continent except Antarctica.[40] The magazine Scientific American reported [1] on December 23, 2008, that the 10 places most affected by climate change were Darfur, the Gulf Coast, Italy, northern Europe, the Great Barrier Reef, island nations, Washington, D.C., the Northwest Passage, the Alps, and Uganda.

Northern hemisphere

See also: Arctic dipole

In the northern hemisphere, the southern part of the Arctic region (home to 4,000,000 people) has experienced a temperature rise of 1 °C to 3 °C (1.8 °F to 5.4 °F) over the last 50 years.[citation needed] Canada, Alaska and Russia are experiencing initial melting of permafrost. This may disrupt ecosystems and by increasing bacterial activity in the soil lead to these areas becoming carbon sources instead of carbon sinks.[41] A study (published in Science) of changes to eastern Siberia's permafrost suggests that it is gradually disappearing in the southern regions, leading to the loss of nearly 11% of Siberia's nearly 11,000 lakes since 1971.[42] At the same time, western Siberia is at the initial stage where melting permafrost is creating new lakes, which will eventually start disappearing as in the east. Furthermore, permafrost melting will eventually cause methane release from melting permafrost peat bogs.

Polar regions

Anisimov et al. (2007) assessed the literature on impacts of climate change in Polar regions.[43] Model projections showed that Arctic terrestrial ecosystems and the active layer (the top layer of soil or rock in permafrost that is subjected to seasonal freezing and thawing) would be a small sink for carbon (i.e., net uptake of carbon) over this century (p. 662). These projections were viewed as being uncertain. It was judged that increased emissions of carbon from thawing of permafrost could occur. This would lead to an amplification of warming.


Refer to caption and image description
Temperature trends in the lower stratosphere, mid to upper troposphere, lower troposphere, and surface, 1957-2005.[2]

An enhanced greenhouse effect is expected to cause cooling in higher parts of the atmosphere. Cooling of the lower stratosphere (about 49,000-79,500 ft.) since 1979 is shown by both satellite Microwave sounding unit and radiosonde data, but is larger in the radiosonde data likely due to uncorrected errors in the radiosonde data (see figure opposite). [2]

A contraction of the thermosphere has been observed as a possible result in part due to increased carbon dioxide concentrations, the strongest cooling and contraction occurring in that layer during solar minimum. The most recent contraction in 2008–2009 was the largest such since at least 1967.[44][45][46]

Recent evidence suggests that warming of the tropical oceans since a "tipping point" in 2000 may have acted as a negative feedback, reducing the observed warming during the 2000s (decade). As warming and evaporation above the Pacific Ocean, temperatures in the lower stratosphere near the tropopause declined due to both greenhouse gases and ozone-depleting substances, reducing water vapor levels and removing its warming effect, with vapor concentrations below 2.2 ppmv as measured by the HALOE instrument on the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite, in the lower stratosphere of the tropics between 5°N - 5°S first being observed since 2001, although a reversal in this pattern is also likely. The water vapor in the stratosphere arrives through tall thunderstorms, while 15% of this vapor is delivered by tropical cyclones, and through chemical breakdown of methane into water vapor and carbon dioxide, both of which are greenhouse gases. The vapor is frozen out of the stratosphere as more of the water is subjected to temperatures that freeze it out of the stratosphere. Water vapor concentrations in the lower stratosphere have declined by 10% (0.4 ppmv) since 2000, reducing warming during the decade by 25%. A rapid cooling of 4 °C to 6 °C also occurred in the lower stratosphere in the mid-1990s, while the rate of ocean warming increased. During the 1990s, increased stratospheric water vapor led to a 30% increase in warming. After 2000, the sea surface temperatures of the tropical Western Pacific, where a warm pool of water exists and where temperatures are heavily influenced by ENSO, between 10°N - 10°S and 139° - 171° longitude became anti-correlated with temperatures at the tropopause in the same latitudes between 171° - 200° longitude, both measured since the early 1980s; although the correlation had been previously positive, since 2000 the SST anomalies increased while tropopause temperatures decreased. A sharp increase in average SSTs within the Western Pacific warm pool by more than 0.25 °C in 2000, which has since stabilized, occurred as the "cold point" temperature of the study area at the tropopause experienced a significant reduction. This resulted in less water vapor from tropical thunderstorms entering the stratosphere. However, prior to 2000, increases in average Western Pacific SSTs had resulted in increases in tropopause cold point temperatures.[47][48][49][50][51]

Geophysical systems

Biogeochemical cycles

Climate change can have an effect on the carbon cycle in an interactive "feedback" process . A feedback exists where an initial process triggers changes in a second process that in turn influences the initial process. A positive feedback intensifies the original process, and a negative feedback reduces it (IPCC, 2007d:78).[1] Models suggest that the interaction of the climate system and the carbon cycle is one where the feedback effect is positive (Schneider et al., 2007:792).[14]

Using the A2 SRES emissions scenario, Schneider et al. (2007:789) found that this effect led to additional warming by 2100, relative to the 1990–2000 period, of 0.1 to 1.5 °C. This estimate was made with high confidence. The climate projections made in the IPCC Forth Assessment Report of 1.1 to 6.4 °C account for this feedback effect. On the other hand, with medium confidence, Schneider et al. (2007) commented that additional releases of GHGs were possible from permafrost, peat lands, wetlands, and large stores of marine hydrates at high latitudes.

Gas hydrates

Gas hydrates are ice-like deposits containing a mixture of water and gas, the most common gas of which is methane (Maslin, 2004:1).[52] Gas hydrates are stable under high pressures and at relatively low temperatures and are found underneath the oceans and permafrost regions. Future warming at intermediate depths in the world's oceans, as predicted by climate models, will tend to destabilize gas hydrates resulting in the release of large quantities of methane. On the other hand, projected rapid sea level rise in the coming centuries associated with global warming will tend to stabilize marine gas hydrate deposits.

Carbon cycle

Models have been used to assess the effect that climate change will have on the carbon cycle (Meehl et al., 2007:789-790).[53] In the Coupled Climate-Carbon Cycle Model Intercomparison Project, eleven climate models were used. Observed emissions were used in the models and future emission projections were based on the IPCC SRES A2 emissions scenario.

Unanimous agreement was found among the models that future climate change will reduce the efficiency of the land and ocean carbon cycle to absorb human-induced CO2. As a result, a larger fraction of human-induced CO2 will stay airborne if climate change controls the carbon cycle. By the end of the 21st century, this additional CO2 in the atmosphere varied between 20 and 220 ppm for the two extreme models, with most models lying between 50 and 100 ppm. This additional CO2 led to a projected increase in warming of between 0.1 and 1.5 °C.


See also: Deglaciation

Northern Hemisphere average annual snow cover has declined in recent decades. This pattern is consistent with warmer global temperatures. Some of the largest declines have been observed in the spring and summer months.[54]

Sea ice

File:SeaIce-Sept162012 HR.jpg
Record low Arctic sea ice extent for September 2012

As the climate warms, snow cover and sea ice extent decrease. [2] Large-scale measurements of sea-ice have only been possible since the satellite era, but through looking at a number of different satellite estimates, it has been determined that September Arctic sea ice has decreased between 1973 and 2007 at a rate of about -10% +/- 0.3% per decade. Sea ice extent for September for 2012 was by far the lowest on record at 3.29 million square kilometers, eclipsing the previous record low sea ice extent of 2007 by 18%. The age of the sea ice is also an important feature of the state of the sea ice cover, and for the month of March 2012, older ice (4 years and older) has decreased from 26% of the ice cover in 1988 to 7% in 2012.[55] Sea ice in the Antarctic has shown very little trend over the same period, or even a slight increase since 1979. Though extending the Antarctic sea-ice record back in time is more difficult due to the lack of direct observations in this part of the world.

In a literature assessment, Meehl et al. (2007:750) found that model projections for the 21st century showed a reduction of sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic.[53] The range of model responses was large. Projected reductions were accelerated in the Arctic. Using the high-emission A2 SRES scenario, some models projected that summer sea ice cover in the Arctic would disappear entirely by the latter part of the 21st century.

Glacier retreat and disappearance

A map of the change in thickness of mountain glaciers since 1970. Thinning in orange and red, thickening in blue.

Warming temperatures lead to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets.[56] IPCC (2007a:5) found that, on average, mountain glaciers and snow cover had decreased in both the northern and southern hemispheres.[16] This widespread decrease in glaciers and ice caps has contributed to observed sea level rise.

[56] As stated above, the total volume of glaciers on Earth is declining sharply. Glaciers have been retreating worldwide for at least the last century; the rate of retreat has increased in the past decade. Only a few glaciers are actually advancing (in locations that were well below freezing, and where increased precipitation has outpaced melting). The progressive disappearance of glaciers has implications not only for a rising global sea level, but also for water supplies in certain regions of Asia and South America.

With very high or high confidence, IPCC (2007d:11) made a number of projections related to future changes in glaciers:[1]

  • Mountainous areas in Europe will face glacier retreat
  • In Latin America, changes in precipitation patterns and the disappearance of glaciers will significantly affect water availability for human consumption, agriculture, and energy production
  • In Polar regions, there will be reductions in glacier extent and the thickness of glaciers.

In historic times, glaciers grew during a cool period from about 1550 to 1850 known as the Little Ice Age. Subsequently, until about 1940, glaciers around the world retreated as the climate warmed. Glacier retreat declined and reversed in many cases from 1950 to 1980 as a slight global cooling occurred. Since 1980, glacier retreat has become increasingly rapid and ubiquitous, and has threatened the existence of many of the glaciers of the world. This process has increased markedly since 1995.[57]

Excluding the ice caps and ice sheets of the Arctic and Antarctic, the total surface area of glaciers worldwide has decreased by 50% since the end of the 19th century.[58] Currently glacier retreat rates and mass balance losses have been increasing in the Andes, Alps, Pyrenees, Himalayas, Rocky Mountains and North Cascades.

The loss of glaciers not only directly causes landslides, flash floods and glacial lake overflow,[59] but also increases annual variation in water flows in rivers. Glacier runoff declines in the summer as glaciers decrease in size, this decline is already observable in several regions.[60] Glaciers retain water on mountains in high precipitation years, since the snow cover accumulating on glaciers protects the ice from melting. In warmer and drier years, glaciers offset the lower precipitation amounts with a higher meltwater input.[58]

Of particular importance are the Hindu Kush and Himalayan glacial melts that comprise the principal dry-season water source of many of the major rivers of the Central, South, East and Southeast Asian mainland.[61] Increased melting would cause greater flow for several decades, after which "some areas of the most populated regions on Earth are likely to 'run out of water'" as source glaciers are depleted.[62] The Tibetan Plateau contains the world's third-largest store of ice. Temperatures there are rising four times faster than in the rest of China, and glacial retreat is at a high speed compared to elsewhere in the world.[63]

According to a Reuters report, the Himalayan glaciers that are the sources of Asia's biggest rivers—Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Yellow—could diminish as temperatures rise.[64] Approximately 2.4 billion people live in the drainage basin of the Himalayan rivers.[65] India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar could experience floods followed by droughts in coming decades. The Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra river basins support 700 million people in Asia.[66] In India alone, the Ganges provides water for drinking and farming for more than 500 million people.[67][68][69] It has to be acknowledged, however, that increased seasonal runoff of Himalayan glaciers led to increased agricultural production in northern India throughout the 20th century.[70] Research studies suggest that climate change will have a marked affect on meltwater in the Indus Basin.[71]

The recession of mountain glaciers, notably in Western North America, Franz-Josef Land, Asia, the Alps, the Pyrenees, Indonesia and Africa, and tropical and sub-tropical regions of South America, has been used to provide qualitative support to the rise in global temperatures since the late 19th century. Many glaciers are being lost to melting further raising concerns about future local water resources in these glaciated areas. In Western North America the 47 North Cascade glaciers observed all are retreating.[72]

Retreat of the Helheim Glacier, Greenland

Despite their proximity and importance to human populations, the mountain and valley glaciers of temperate latitudes amount to a small fraction of glacial ice on the earth. About 99% is in the great ice sheets of polar and subpolar Antarctica and Greenland. These continuous continental-scale ice sheets, 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) or more in thickness, cap the polar and subpolar land masses. Like rivers flowing from an enormous lake, numerous outlet glaciers transport ice from the margins of the ice sheet to the ocean.

Glacier retreat has been observed in these outlet glaciers, resulting in an increase of the ice flow rate. In Greenland the period since the year 2000 has brought retreat to several very large glaciers that had long been stable. Three glaciers that have been researched, Helheim, Jakobshavn Isbræ and Kangerdlugssuaq Glaciers, jointly drain more than 16% of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Satellite images and aerial photographs from the 1950s and 1970s show that the front of the glacier had remained in the same place for decades. But in 2001 it began retreating rapidly, retreating 7.2 km (4.5 mi) between 2001 and 2005. It has also accelerated from 20 m (66 ft)/day to 32 m (105 ft)/day.[73] Jakobshavn Isbræ in western Greenland had been moving at speeds of over 24 m (79 ft)/day with a stable terminus since at least 1950. The glacier's ice tongue began to break apart in 2000, leading to almost complete disintegration in 2003, while the retreat rate increased to over 30 m (98 ft)/day.[74]


The role of the oceans in global warming is a complex one. The oceans serve as a sink for carbon dioxide, taking up much that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere, but increased levels of CO2 have led to ocean acidification. Furthermore, as the temperature of the oceans increases, they become less able to absorb excess CO2. Global warming is projected to have a number of effects on the oceans. Ongoing effects include rising sea levels due to thermal expansion and melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and warming of the ocean surface, leading to increased temperature stratification. Other possible effects include large-scale changes in ocean circulation.

Sea level rise

Further information: Amundsen Sea
Sea level rise during the Holocene.
Sea level has been rising 0.2 cm/year, based on measurements of sea level rise from 23 long tide gauge records in geologically stable environments.

IPCC (2007a:5) reported that since 1961, global average sea level had risen at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3] mm/yr.[16] Between 1993 and 2003, the rate increased above the previous period to 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8] mm/yr. IPCC (2007a) were uncertain whether the increase in rate from 1993 to 2003 was due to natural variations in sea level over the time period, or whether it reflected an increase in the underlying long-term trend.

IPCC (2007a:13, 14) projected sea level rise to the end of the 21st century using the SRES emission scenarios. Across the six SRES marker scenarios, sea level was projected to rise by 18 to 59 cm (7.1 to 23.2 inches). This projection was for the time period 2090–2099, with the increase in level relative to average sea levels over the 1980–1999 period. Due to a lack of scientific understanding, this sea level rise estimate does not include all of the possible contributions of ice sheets.

With increasing average global temperature, the water in the oceans expands in volume, and additional water enters them which had previously been locked up on land in glaciers and ice sheets. The Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets are major ice masses, and at least the former of which may suffer irreversible decline.[75] For most glaciers worldwide, an average volume loss of 60% until 2050 is predicted.[76] Meanwhile, the estimated total ice melting rate over Greenland is 239 ± 23 cubic kilometres (57.3 ± 5.5 cu mi) per year, mostly from East Greenland.[77] The Antarctic ice sheet, however, is expected to grow during the 21st century because of increased precipitation.[78] Under the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenario (SRES) A1B, by the mid-2090s global sea level will reach 0.22 to 0.44 m (8.7 to 17.3 in) above 1990 levels, and is currently rising at about 4 mm (0.16 in) per year.[78] Since 1900, the sea level has risen at an average of 1.7 mm (0.067 in) per year;[78] since 1993, satellite altimetry from TOPEX/Poseidon indicates a rate of about 3 mm (0.12 in) per year.[78]

The sea level has risen more than 120 metres (390 ft) since the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago. The bulk of that occurred before 7000 years ago.[79] Global temperature declined after the Holocene Climatic Optimum, causing a sea level lowering of 0.7 ± 0.1 m (27.6 ± 3.9 in) between 4000 and 2500 years before present.[80] From 3000 years ago to the start of the 19th century, sea level was almost constant, with only minor fluctuations. However, the Medieval Warm Period may have caused some sea level rise; evidence has been found in the Pacific Ocean for a rise to perhaps 0.9 m (2 ft 11 in) above present level in 700 BP.[81]

In a paper published in 2007, the climatologist James E. Hansen et al. claimed that ice at the poles does not melt in a gradual and linear fashion, but that another according to the geological record, the ice sheets can suddenly destabilize when a certain threshold is exceeded. In this paper Hansen et al. state:

Our concern that BAU GHG scenarios would cause large sealevel rise this century (Hansen 2005) differs from estimates of IPCC (2001, 2007), which foresees little or no contribution to twentyfirst century sealevel rise from Greenland and Antarctica. However, the IPCC analyses and projections do not well account for the nonlinear physics of wet ice sheet disintegration, ice streams and eroding ice shelves, nor are they consistent with the palaeoclimate evidence we have presented for the absence of discernible lag between ice sheet forcing and sealevel rise.[82]

Sea level rise due to the collapse of an ice sheet would be distributed nonuniformly across the globe. The loss of mass in the region around the ice sheet would decrease the gravitational potential there, reducing the amount of local sea level rise or even causing local sea level fall. The loss of the localized mass would also change the moment of inertia of the Earth, as flow in the Earth's mantle will require 10–15 thousand years to make up the mass deficit. This change in the moment of inertia results in true polar wander, in which the Earth's rotational axis remains fixed with respect to the sun, but the rigid sphere of the Earth rotates with respect to it. This changes the location of the equatorial bulge of the Earth and further affects the geoid, or global potential field. A 2009 study of the effects of collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet shows the result of both of these effects. Instead of a global 5-meter sea level rise, western Antarctica would experience approximately 25 centimeters of sea level fall, while the United States, parts of Canada, and the Indian Ocean, would experience up to 6.5 meters of sea level rise.[83]

A paper published in 2008 by a group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin led by Anders Carlson used the deglaciation of North America at 9000 years before present as an analogue to predict sea level rise of 1.3 meters in the next century,[84][85] which is also much higher than the IPCC projections. However, models of glacial flow in the smaller present-day ice sheets show that a probable maximum value for sea level rise in the next century is 80 centimeters, based on limitations on how quickly ice can flow below the equilibrium line altitude and to the sea.[86]

Temperature rise and ocean heat content

Refer to caption and adjacent text
Time series of seasonal (red dots) and annual average (black line) global upper ocean heat content for the 0-700m layer between 1955 and 2008. The graph shows that ocean heat content has increased over this time period.[87]

From 1961 to 2003, the global ocean temperature has risen by 0.10 °C from the surface to a depth of 700 m. There is variability both year-to-year and over longer time scales, with global ocean heat content observations showing high rates of warming for 1991 to 2003, but some cooling from 2003 to 2007.[78] Nevertheless, there is a strong trend during the period of reliable measurements.[87] Increasing heat content in the ocean is also consistent with sea level rise, which is occurring mostly as a result of thermal expansion of the ocean water as it warms.[87]

The temperature of the Antarctic Southern Ocean rose by 0.17 °C (0.31 °F) between the 1950s and the 1980s, nearly twice the rate for the world's oceans as a whole.[88] As well as having effects on ecosystems (e.g. by melting sea ice, affecting algae that grow on its underside), warming reduces the ocean's ability to absorb CO2.[citation needed]


Main article: Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is an effect of rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, and is not a direct consequence of global warming. The oceans soak up much of the CO2 produced by living organisms, either as dissolved gas, or in the skeletons of tiny marine creatures that fall to the bottom to become chalk or limestone. Oceans currently absorb about one tonne of CO2 per person per year. It is estimated that the oceans have absorbed around half of all CO2 generated by human activities since 1800 (118 ± 19 petagrams of carbon from 1800 to 1994).[89]

In water, CO2 becomes a weak carbonic acid, and the increase in the greenhouse gas since the Industrial Revolution has already lowered the average pH (the laboratory measure of acidity) of seawater by 0.1 units, to 8.2. Predicted emissions could lower the pH by a further 0.5 by 2100, to a level probably not seen for hundreds of millennia and, critically, at a rate of change probably 100 times greater than at any time over this period.[90][91]

There are concerns that increasing acidification could have a particularly detrimental effect on corals[92] (16% of the world's coral reefs have died from bleaching caused by warm water in 1998,[93] which coincidentally was, at the time, the warmest year ever recorded) and other marine organisms with calcium carbonate shells.[94]

In November 2009 an article in Science by scientists at Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans reported they had found very low levels of the building blocks for the calcium chloride that forms plankton shells in the Beaufort Sea.[95] Fiona McLaughlin, one of the DFO authors, asserted that the increasing acidification of the Arctic Ocean was close to the point it would start dissolving the walls of existing plankton: "[the] Arctic ecosystem may be risk. In actual fact, they'll dissolve the shells." Because cold water absorbs CO2 more readily than warmer water the acidification is more severe in the polar regions. McLaughlin predicted the acidified water would travel to the North Atlantic within the next ten years.

Shutdown of thermohaline circulation

There is some speculation that global warming could, via a shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation, trigger localized cooling in the North Atlantic and lead to cooling, or lesser warming, in that region.[96] This would affect in particular areas like Scandinavia and Britain that are warmed by the North Atlantic drift.

The chances of this near-term collapse of the circulation are unclear; there is some evidence for the short-term stability of the Gulf Stream and possible weakening of the North Atlantic drift.[citation needed] However, the degree of weakening, and whether it will be sufficient to shut down the circulation, is under debate. As yet, no cooling has been found in northern Europe or nearby seas.[citation needed] Lenton et al. found that "simulations clearly pass a THC tipping point this century".[96]

IPCC (2007b:17) concluded that a slowing of the Meridional Overturning Circulation would very likely occur this century.[97] Due to global warming, temperatures across the Atlantic and Europe were still projected to increase.

Oxygen depletion

The amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans may decline, with adverse consequences for ocean life.[98][99]

Sulfur aerosols

Sulfur aerosols, especially stratospheric sulfur aerosols have a significant effect on climate. One source of such aerosols is the sulfur cycle, where plankton release gases such as DMS which eventually becomes oxidised to sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere. Disruption to the oceans as a result of ocean acidification or disruptions to the thermohaline circulation may result in disruption of the sulfur cycle, thus reducing its cooling effect on the planet through the creation of stratospheric sulfur aerosols.



The retreat of glaciers and ice caps can cause increased volcanism. Reduction in ice cover reduces the confining pressure exerted on the volcano, increasing deviatoric stresses and potentially causing the volcano to erupt. This reduction of pressure can also cause decompression melting of material in the mantle, resulting in the generation of more magma.[100] Researchers in Iceland have shown that the rate of volcanic rock production there following deglaciation (10,000 to 4500 years before present) was 20–30 times greater than that observed after 2900 years before present.[101] While the original study addresses the first reason for increased volcanism (reduced confining pressure), scientists have more recently shown that these lavas have unusually high trace element concentrations, indicative of increased melting in the mantle.[102] This work in Iceland has been corroborated by a study in California, in which scientists found a strong correlation between volcanism and periods of global deglaciation.[103] The effects of current sea level rise could include increased crustal stress at the base of coastal volcanoes from a rise in the volcano's water table (and the associated saltwater intrusion), while the mass from extra water could activate dormant seismic faults around volcanoes. In addition, the wide-scale displacement of water from melting in places such as West Antarctica is likely to slightly alter the Earth's rotational period and may shift its axial tilt on the scale of hundreds of metres, inducing further crustal stress changes.[104][105]

Current melting of ice is predicted to increase the size and frequency of volcanic eruptions.[106] In particular, lateral collapse events at stratovolcanoes are likely to increase,[106][107] and there are potential positive feedbacks between the removal of ice and magmatism.[106]


A numerical modeling study has demonstrated that seismicity increases during unloading, such as that due to the removal of ice.[108]

See also


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