What is Black Carbon?

What Is Black Carbon?
April 2010

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Black Carbon (BC) has recently emerged as a major contributor to global climate change, possibly second only to CO2 as the main driver of change.[1] BC particles[2] strongly absorb sunlight and give soot its black color. BC is produced both naturally and by human activities as a result of the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. Primary sources include emissions from diesel engines, cook stoves, wood burning and forest fires. Reducing CO2 emissions is essential to avert the worst impacts of future climate change, but CO2 has such a long atmospheric lifetime that it will take several decades for CO2 concentrations to begin to stabilize after emissions reductions begin. In contrast, BC remains in the atmosphere for only a few weeks, so cutting its emissions would immediately reduce the rate of warming, particularly in the rapidly changing Arctic. Moreover, reduced exposure to BC provides public health co-benefits, especially in developing countries. Technologies that can reduce global BC emissions are available today.

Black Carbon and Climate Change

BC warms the climate in two ways. When suspended in air, BC absorbs sunlight and generates heat in the atmosphere, which warms the air and can affect regional cloud formation and precipitation patterns. When deposited on snow and ice, it absorbs sunlight, again generating heat, which warms both the air above and the snow and ice below, thus accelerating melting. Because BC remains in the atmosphere for only one to four weeks, its climate effects are strongly regional. Its short lifetime also means that its climate effects would dissipate quickly if black carbon emissions were reduced, thus benefiting most directly the countries or communities that invest in policies to reduce BC emissions.

A recent study suggests that BC may be responsible for more than 30 percent of recent warming in the Arctic,[3] contributing to the acceleration of Arctic sea ice melting. Loss of Arctic sea ice would lead to more rapid warming and possibly irreversible climate change. BC is also driving increased melting of Himalayan glaciers, which are a major source of freshwater for millions of people in the region. BC may also be driving some of the observed reduction of the snowpack in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Different types of soot contain different amounts of BC—generally the blacker the soot, the more of a warming agent it is. Fossil fuel and biofuel soot are blacker than soot from biomass burning[4] (e.g., forest fires and wood fuel), which is generally more of a brownish color. Thus, controlling emissions of soot from fuel sources is an effective way of reducing atmospheric temperatures in the short term. Based on current information, the United States is responsible for about 6 percent of global BC emissions; while it has a history of making reductions to improve air quality, further improvements can be made. The majority of BC emissions come from the developing world: China and India together account for some 25–35 percent of emissions.

Control technologies that reduce BC include retrofitting diesel vehicles with filters to capture BC, fuel switching (e.g., from diesel to natural gas in buses), and replacement of inefficient cook stoves with cleaner alternatives. Adopting these alternatives would have positive co-benefits for public health, especially in the developing world. For example, retrofitting or replacing diesel buses and trucks would greatly improve urban air quality in densely populated cities. Replacement of dirty cook stoves with cleaner alternatives, such as solar cookers or newer models that burn fuel more completely, would improve indoor air quality, which is a major health concern in both urban and rural areas of the developing world.

Reducing BC emissions[5] represents a win-win scenario: it would have an immediate cooling effect on the Earth’s climate, potentially delaying temperature increases in the short run and helping reduce the risk of irreversible tipping points in the climate system, and it would reduce air pollution, resulting in fewer premature deaths and fewer missed work and school days.


1. Ramanathan, V. and G. Carmichael. 2008. Nature Geoscience, 1:221-227.

2. BC is a carbonaceous aerosol. An aerosol is a suspension of fine solid particles or liquid droplets within a gas. Examples include smoke, air pollution, smog, oceanic haze, and tear gas. Carbonaceous refers to a substance rich in carbon.

3. The Arctic warmed by 1.48 ± 0.28 °C during 1976–2007; BC is estimated to have caused 0.5–1.4 °C of that change (Shindell, D. et. al. 2009. Nature Geoscience, 2:294-300).

4. Soot from biomass burning generally tends to have a cooling effect on the climate.

5. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 reported out of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21, 2009, has a significant section on BC emissions, directing the EPA Administrator to investigate BC sources, impacts, and mitigation technologies.


In Brief: Update on the 10-50 Solution: Progress Toward a Low-Carbon Future

January 2010

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Addressing the challenge of global climate change will require a significant reduction in annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States and throughout the world by 2050. This will necessitate a fundamental shift from an economy predominantly based on traditional fossil fuel use to one based on efficiently managed low-carbon energy sources, including technologies that capture and store carbon dioxide (CO2).

Achievement of this transition depends on both near-term and long-term actions that take advantage of current technologies and opportunities and that also make substantial investments in the technologies of the future. But most of all, the United States needs a clearly enunciated and sustained policy to guide those actions. Too often the debate over GHG emission reductions pits near-term actions against long-term investments in technology, when in fact both are necessary and more effective together.

In 2004, the Pew Center held a workshop (the “10-50” Workshop) to understand the technologies likely to enable a low-carbon future by mid-century (50 years) and identify policy options for the coming decade (10 years) to help “push” and “pull” these technologies into the market. This brief reviews some of the key policies and actions deemed important five years ago and reports on progress against those goals to date; it finds significant progress in pushing low-carbon technologies and underscores the critical remaining need for a policy, such as cap and trade, that puts a price on carbon and “pulls” those technologies into the marketplace.

Click here for more on the 10-50 Solution.




Key Scientific Developments Since the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report

Science Brief
June 2009

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, summarizing the scientific community’s current understanding of the science of climate change.  Since that time, a number of new scientific results have been published that expand our understanding of climate science.  This brief summarizes some of the key findings since the last IPCC assessment.





Current Understanding of Antarctic Climate Change

Current Understanding of Antarctic Climate Change
Fall 2007

At a time of dramatic warming and rapid sea ice decline in the Arctic, Antarctica has cooled slightly and sea ice has increased around it. Recent scientific progress in understanding how two distinct processes affect Antarctic climate reconciles these seemingly contradictory trends at the Earth’s poles. In a nutshell, the difference arises from (1) a weak response to increasing greenhouse gases and (2) a cooling effect of the stratospheric ozone hole—both unique to the southern hemisphere.

That is not to say that the southern hemisphere is exempt from global warming. As in the north, the southern hemisphere as a whole has warmed over the past half century, but at a slower rate than in the north (Trenberth et al. 2007). The southern hemisphere has much less land surface and more ocean surface than the northern hemisphere; ocean surfaces warm more slowly than land because more energy is required to heat water, and because ocean mixing transports much of the heat downward away from the surface (Parkinson 2004; Levitus et al. 2005). In fact, the signal of human-induced ocean warming has been detected to a depth of at least 700 meters (Barnett et al. 2005). As in the north, southern-hemisphere warming has been greater at mid-latitudes than at the equator, but the high latitudes around Antarctica have cooled over the past four decades (Chapman and Walsh 2007; Parkinson 2006). Because Antarctica occupies only five percent of the surface area of the southern hemisphere, there is no contradiction in this relatively small region cooling as the hemisphere warms overall. Antarctica is among a minority of regions with unique local climate conditions that currently override the global warming trend, although this situation is likely to change in the future if greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise (Shindell and Schmidt 2004).

In spite of a moderate overall cooling trend, recent Antarctic climate change results from a mix of countervailing signals. A rapid net loss of sea ice occurred during the 1970s, followed by a slow gain. The geographic distribution of sea ice has changed, with the east gaining and the west losing sea ice. The gains and losses are each larger than the overall trend, indicating a high degree of variability and change in the Antarctic sea ice (Parkinson 2006). Scientists were surprised to discover recently that the land-based Antarctic ice sheet, which stores 60 percent of the earth’s fresh water—the equivalent of 70 meters (228 feet) of sea level rise—has been losing slightly more ice each year than it is gaining (Shepherd and Wingham 2007). Most of the ice loss is from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, the margins of which lie in the ocean (Velicogna and Wahr 2006). Warming of the ocean appears to be eroding this ice sheet at its edges (Shepherd et al. 2004; Rignot and Kanagaratnam 2006). Reaching northward from West Antarctica into the mid-latitudes, the Antarctic Peninsula has experienced the most dramatic warming in the region (Chapman and Walsh 2007; Turner et al. 2005). In a preview of the possible consequences of ice sheet erosion by the warming Southern Ocean, the Larsen B ice shelf, which was attached to the peninsula, disintegrated suddenly in February 2002; as a result, the land-based ice behind the shelf began to flow more quickly into the sea (Scambos et al. 2004). Scientists infer that widespread warming in West Antarctica could lead to many such events in the future, potentially leading to dramatic acceleration of global sea level rise (Alley et al. 2005). Clearly, the Antarctic climate is not changing monotonically in a single direction.

Still, while every other continent on Earth has experienced a clear warming trend over the past five decades (Trenberth et al. 2007), Antarctica—the fifth largest continent—has shown no clear trend 
(Chapman and Walsh 2007). There are several key differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic that act in concert to explain the climatic departure between the two regions. Two of the most important factors are the predictably weak warming signal in the Antarctic compared to the Arctic, and the cooling effect of the human-induced stratospheric ozone hole above Antarctica.

As predicted by climate models, the southern hemisphere has warmed less than the northern hemisphere. The warming has occurred predominantly during the winter, and even Antarctica has warmed slightly during the winter, despite its average cooling across all seasons (Chapman and Walsh 2007). Winter is the time of year that climate models show the largest response to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. So, even though the warming signal is weak, the seasonal pattern is consistent with the human-enhanced greenhouse effect. Since Antarctic winters are much colder than necessary to freeze seawater, a little wintertime warming is insufficient to induce large-scale losses of sea ice without concurrent warming during the summer. In an experiment using a climate model to simulate global sea ice change over a century as a result of increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases, antarctic sea ice decreased by only 10%, while arctic sea ice decreased by 60% (Parkinson 2004). It is not surprising, therefore, that Antarctic sea ice has not mirrored the rapid decline of arctic sea ice.

But Antarctica is cooling and antarctic sea ice is expanding—something more than regionally weak global warming is afoot. That other factor is the ozone hole in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) above Antarctica. Over the past four decades, the southern Westerlies—a ring of wind that encircles the southern hemisphere between 30° and 60° latitude—have become more intense and have moved closer to the South Pole in an ever-tighter ring around Antarctica. Whenever the Westerlies intensify—regardless of the cause—Antarctica tends to cool because surface air pressure inside the ring decreases (Marshall 2006). This is called adiabatic cooling and is the same reason that the temperature drops as one climbs a mountain. Although scientists are just beginning to study the physical mechanisms by which changes in the stratosphere affect ground-level climate (Baldwin et al. 2007), observations and model results both indicate that the greater amount of stratospheric ozone depletion over the South Pole compared to mid-latitudes has caused the southern Westerlies to shift poleward and intensify (Gillett and Thompson 2003; Shindell and Schmidt 2004). Since ozone depletion is strong over Antarctica but weak over the Arctic (Solomon et al. 2007), this strong cooling effect is unique to Antarctica.

To summarize, surface warming from the greenhouse effect is weaker in the southern hemisphere than in the northern hemisphere, whereas cooling from stratospheric ozone depletion is stronger in the south than in the north. Consequently, the Arctic has warmed dramatically, even as the Antarctic has experienced a small cooling trend. Climate models reproduce this pattern when they are driven by both greenhouse gas increases and stratospheric ozone depletion (Gillett and Thompson 2003; Shindell and Schmidt 2004). Hence, the present cooling of Antarctica is consistent with the rest of the Earth’s surface warming in response to rising greenhouse gas concentrations.

The stratospheric ozone layer filters out harmful ultraviolet radiation from incoming sunlight. To protect public health and natural ecosystems, an international treaty—the Montreal Protocol—is phasing out the release of ozone-depleting chemicals to the atmosphere. According to climate models that correctly simulate the current cooling trend in Antarctica, if greenhouse gases continue to rise as the ozone layer recovers in future decades, the warming effect of greenhouse gases will begin to outweigh the cooling effect of ozone depletion (Shindell and Schmidt 2004). The result would be widespread warming in Antarctica, with attendant declines in sea ice and accelerated loss of land-based ice, with the latter contributing to accelerated sea level rise.


Alley, R.B., P.U. Clark, P. Huybrechts, and I. Joughin. 2005. Ice-sheet and sea-level changes. Science 310:456-460.

Baldwin, Mark P., Martin Dameris, and Theodore G. Shepherd. 2007. How Will the Stratosphere Affect Climate Change? Science 316 (5831):1576-1577.

Barnett, T. P., D. W. Pierce, K. M. AchutaRao, P. J. Gleckler, B. D. Santer, J. M. Gregory, and W. M. Washington. 2005. Penetration of human-induced warming into the world's oceans. Science 309:284-287.

Chapman, W.L., and J.E. Walsh. 2007. A synthesis of Antarctic Temperatures. Journal of Climate 20:4096-4117.

Gillett, N., and D.W.J. Thompson. 2003. Simulation of Recent Southern Hemisphere Climate Change. Science 302:273-275.

Levitus, S., J. Antonov, and T. Boyer. 2005. Warming of the world ocean, 1955-2003. Geophysical Research Letters 32:L02604, doi:10.1029/2004GL021592.
Marshall, G.J. 2006. Half-century seasonal relationships between the Southern Annular Mode and Antarctic temperatures. International Journal of Climatology 27:doi:10.1002/joc.1407.

Parkinson, C.L. 2004. Southern Ocean sea ice and its wider linkages: insights revealed from models and observations. Antarctic Science 16:387-400.———. 2006. Earth's cryosphere: Current state and recent changes. Review of Environment And Resources 31:33-60.

Rignot, E., and P. Kanagaratnam. 2006. Changes in the velocity structure of the Greenland ice sheet. Science 311:986-990.

Scambos, T.A., J.A. Bohlander, C.A. Shuman, and P. Skvarca. 2004. Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment, Antarctica. Geophysical Research Letters 31:L18402, doi:10.1029/2004GL020670.

Shepherd, A., and D. Wingham. 2007. Recent sea level contributions of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Science 315:1529-1532.
Shepherd, A., D. Wingham, and E. Rignot. 2004. Warm ocean is eroding West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Geophysical Research Letters 31:L23402, doi:10.1029/2004GL021106.

Shindell, D.T., and G.A. Schmidt. 2004. Southern Hemisphere climate response to ozone changes and greenhouse gas increases. Geophysical Research Letters 31:L18209, doi:10.1029/2004GL020724.

Solomon, S., R.W. Portmann, and D.W.J. Thompson. 2007. Contrasts between Antarctic and Arctic ozone depletion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 104:445-449.

Trenberth, K.E., P.D. Jones, P. Ambenje, R. Bojariu, D. Easterling, A.K. Tank, D. Parker, F. Rahimzadeh, J.A. Renwick, M. Rusticucci, B. Soden, and P. Zhai. 2007. Observations: surface and atmospheric climate change. In Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, edited by S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K. B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H. L. Miller. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, N.Y., USA: Cambridge University Press.

Turner, J., S.R. Colwell, G.J. Marshall, T.A. Lachlan-Cope, A.M. Carleton, P.D. Jones, V. Lagun, P.A. Reid, and S. Iagovkina. 2005. Antarctic climate change during the last 50 years. International Journal of Climatology 25:279-294.

Velicogna, I., and J. Wahr. 2006. Measurements of time-variable gravity show mass loss in Antarctica. Science 311:1754-1756. 

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The Science Behind the Shrinking Arctic Ice Cap

September 2007

The Arctic ice cap declined to a record minimum size in summer 2007. Studies indicate this accelerated shrinkage of Arctic sea ice may be in response to a strong warming trend and that the climate reacts more strongly to a given amount of global warming than generally believed.

The Arctic ice cap consists of a continent-sized sheet of sea ice that floats at the surface of the Arctic Ocean. During the dark of winter, the ice cap covers nearly the entire Arctic Ocean, but during the summer constant sunlight melts the edges of the ice cap, causing it to shrink in area. This annual shrinking begins in early spring and progresses into mid-September, when the extent of the ice cap reaches its summertime minimum and begins to grow again as the sun sets for the year and the chill of winter returns. Since 1979, the extent of the Arctic sea ice has been monitored using satellite observations. During this time, the September minimum extent has declined on average as the Arctic has warmed. Since 2000, there has been a series of record-breaking low annual minima, with 2002, 2005, and 2007 each establishing new records. View Graph

On August 17, 2007, the National Sea Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported: “Arctic sea ice surpassed the previous single-day (absolute minimum) record for the lowest extent ever measured by satellite.” One month later, the NSIDC reported that the ice cap had reached it annual minimum size (Figure 1), which was “4.13 million square kilometers (1.59 million square miles), compared to 5.32 million square kilometers (2.05 million square miles) in 2005.” Compared to the long-term average between 1979 and 2000, The 2007 minimum “was lower by 2.61 million square kilometers (one million square miles), an area approximately equal to the size of Alaska and Texas combined, or the size of ten United Kingdoms.” (NSIDC, 2007b).

The wintertime maximum area of the ice cap occurs in March and has also been shrinking. The annual maximum sea ice extent reached record-breaking lows in three consecutive winters (2004-2006). In March 2007, the maximum extent was the second lowest on record after 2006. Regarding this observation, NSIDC scientist Walt Meier said, “This year's low wintertime extent is another milestone in a strong downward trend. We're still seeing near-record lows and higher-than-normal temperatures. We expect the downward trend to continue in future years” (NSIDC, 2007a).

In recent months, some important peer-reviewed studies have been published on the observed and projected shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap. In April, scientists from NSIDC and the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a study documenting from long-term observations that climate models underestimate the rate of Arctic sea ice loss (Stroeve et al., 2007). Observed loss of sea ice from 1953 to 2006 occurred three times faster than the average rate projected for the same period by 18 of the latest generation of climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to a recent review of the scientific evidence, the observed ice loss “is best viewed as a combination of strong natural variability… and a growing radiative forcing associated with rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases…” (Serreze et al., 2007).

This summer, the initial rate of Arctic sea ice decline was similar to previous record-breaking years, but in late June and early July there was a dramatic surge in the rate of loss that led to the early arrival of the record-low sea ice extent reached in August (Figure 2). Regarding this surge, the NSIDC said, “…sea ice declined at a pace of up to 210,000 square kilometers (81,081 square miles) per day, or the equivalent of an area the size of Kansas each day. This rate was unprecedented in the satellite record…” (NSIDC, 2007b). View Graph

The cause of this surge is unclear, but is consistent with recent modeling research suggesting that sudden, extreme acceleration of shrinkage may be an inherent response of Arctic sea ice to a strong warming trend (Holland et al., 2006). In this study, about half of the model projections exhibited sudden accelerations in sea ice loss. In the model projections where such events occurred, trends in ice loss were four times faster than in projections without abrupt accelerations. If such accelerations are inherent to the response of sea ice to persistent warming, the Arctic could be ice free during the summer well before the end of this century (Serreze et al., 2007), a condition that has not existed for at least one million years and probably much longer (Overpeck et al., 2005).

The loss of Arctic sea ice is not the only aspect of climate change that has been underestimated by projections. Recent observations indicate that climate models have underestimated ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets (Shepherd & Wingham, 2007), ice loss from mountain glaciers (Meier et al., 2007), the rate of global sea level rise (Rahmstorf et al., 2007), change in global precipitation (Wentz et al., 2007; Zhang et al., 2007), and response of northern forests to warming (Soja et al., 2007). All of these changes were predicted before they were detected, but they are occurring sooner or more rapidly than expected (Engelhaupt, 2007). Although there are probably multiple reasons for underestimating climate change and ecosystem responses to it, inadequately treated positive feedbacks (amplifying factors within the climate system itself) are probably involved (Pittock, 2006).

The unexpectedly rapid change in Arctic sea ice and other climate processes suggests that the climate reacts more strongly to a given amount of global warming than scientists have calculated. As a result, risks from future climate change are likely greater than scientists have generally believed, and existing climate change projections might best be viewed as the minimum changes that humanity should expect.


Engelhaupt, E. 2007. Models underestimate global warming impacts. 

Environmental Science & Technology, 41, 4488-4489.

Holland, M. M., Bitz, C. M. & Tremblay, B. 2006. Future abrupt reductions in the summer Arctic sea ice. Geophysical Research Letters, 33, L23503, doi:10.1029/2006GL028024.

Meier, M. F., Dyurgerov, M. B., Rick, U. K., O’Neel, S., Pfeffer, T., Anderson, R. S., Anderson, S. P. & Glazovsky, A. F. 2007. Glaciers Dominate Eustatic Sea-Level Rise in the 21st Century. Science, 317, 1064-1067.

NSIDC. 2007a. Arctic Sea Ice Narrowly Misses Wintertime Record Low. National Sea Ice Data Center. Available online: 20070403_winterrecovery.html

NSIDC. 2007b. Arctic Sea Ice News Fall 2007. National Sea Ice Data Center. Available online:

Overpeck, J. T., Sturm, M., Francis, J. A., Perovich, D. K., Serreze, M. C., Benner, R., Carmack, E. C., III, F. S. C., Gerlach, S. C., Hamilton, L. C., Hinzman, L. D., Holland, M., Huntington, H. P., Key, J. R., Lloyd, A. H., MacDonald, G. M., McFadden, J., Noone, D., Prowse, T. D., Schlosser, P. & Vörösmarty, C. 2005. Arctic System on Trajectory to New, Seasonally Ice-Free State. Eos, 86, 309-316.

Pittock, B. A. 2006. Are Scientists Underestimating Climate Change? Eos: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 34, 340-341.

Rahmstorf, S., Cazenave, A., Church, J. A., Hansen, J. E., Keeling, R. F., Parker, D. E. & Somerville, R. C. J. 2007. Recent climate observations compared to projections. Science, 316, 709 (doi:10.1126/science.1136843).

Serreze, M. C., Holland, M. M. & Stroeve, J. 2007. Perspectives on the Arctic’s shrinking sea-ice cover. Science, 315, 1533-1536. 

Shepherd, A. & Wingham, D. 2007. Recent sea-level contributions of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. Science, 315, 1529-1532.

Soja, A. J., Tchebakova, N. M., French, N. H. F., Flannigan, M. D., Shugart, H. H., Stocks, B. J., Sukhinin, A. I., Parfenova, E. I., III, F. S. C. & Jr., P. W. S. 2007. Climate-induced boreal forest change: Predictions versus current observations. Global and Planetary Change, 56, 274-296.

Stroeve, J., Holland, M. M., Meier, W., Scambos, T. & Serreze, M. 2007. Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast. Geophysical Research Letters, 34, L09501, doi: 10.1029/2007GL029703.

Wentz, F. J., Ricciardulli, L., Hilburn, K. & Mears, C. 2007. How Much More Rain Will Global Warming Bring? Science, doi:10.1126/science.1140746.

Zhang, X., Zwiers, F. W., Hegerl, G. C., Lambert, F. H., Gillett, N. P., Solomon, S., Stott, P. A. & Nozawa, T. 2007. Detection of human influence on twentieth-century precipitation trends. Nature, 448, 461-465. 


Global Warming Facts and Figures

These facts and figures are divided into three sections:

  1. Land-Ocean Surface Temperatures
    and other information on our Basics page
  2. Main Greenhouse Gases
  3. U.S. Emissions
  4. International Emissions

These sections explain the scientific evidence for human impacts on the climate system, specifically global warming.

Each section below contains several figures. Click on the section's heading or image to view all.

Land-Ocean Surface Temperatures
and other information on our Basics page
Main Greenhouse Gases
U.S. Emissions

International Emissions


Global warming facts and figures to explain the scientific evidence for human impacts on the climate system.

The Science of Climate Change: Global and U.S. Perspectives

The Science of Climate Change: Global and U.S. Perspectives

Tom M. L. Wigley, National Center For Atmospheric Research

Press Release

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Download Report (ZIP file)

This report is available for download only.

Basic Science on climate change:

  • Projections of future climate change suggest a global temperature increase of 1 to 6°C (2 to 10°F) from 1990 to 2100, with warming in most of the United States expected to be even higher.
  • Current scientific research shows that climate change will have major effects on precipitation, evapotranspiration, and runoff — and ultimately on the nation's water supply
  • While the net impacts of a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentrations on U.S. agriculture as a whole are likely to be small, the impacts are likely to vary considerably from region to region.
  • Climate change will lead to substantial sea-level rise along much of the U.S. coastline, due mostly to thermal expansion of the oceans.
  • The very real possibility exists that warming over this century will jeopardize the integrity of many terrestrial ecosystems and will pose a threat to our nation's biodiversity.

The Wigley report provides more information on how climate is influenced by anthropogenic factors. You may download a pdf of the entire report by clicking on the report cover above, or read portions of the report in html by following the links in the "In This Section" box.



Eileen Claussen, Executive Director, Pew Center on Global Climate Change

This report on the science of climate change seeks to explain how climate is influenced by anthropogenic factors. Understanding the effect of greenhouse gas concentrations on the atmosphere is key to understanding the potential magnitude of the "greenhouse effect," evaluating possible environmental impacts, and considering policy responses.

A variety of factors determine the rate and magnitude of climate change, including the emissions of greenhouse and aerosol-producing gases, the carbon cycle, the oceans, biosphere, and clouds. As our understanding in each of these areas evolves, it is important that researchers, policy-makers, the press, and the public be kept informed since these developments affect our understanding of the seriousness and complexity of this issue.

As part of the Pew Center's series examining the potential impacts of higher atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases on the United States, this paper by the distinguished climate scientist Tom M.L. Wigley, senior scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, addresses what is known and not known about the science of climate change. Its publication comes in an interim period between assessments of the science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (which published its second assessment in 1996 and will publish its third assessment in 2001). The author uses preliminary estimates of greenhouse gas and sulfur dioxide emissions from the current IPCC review process as well as his own work to supplement previously published research.

The new research suggests the likelihood of slightly larger changes in temperature and sea level rise than projected in the most recent IPCC assessment. The temperature rise is expected to be greater in the U.S. than the average temperature increase across the globe. While changes in precipitation and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and other storms are more difficult to predict, it is possible that the intensity of rain and hurricane events could increase. Uncertainties in predicting the direction and magnitude of these changes make it difficult to predict the impacts of climate change. However, even small changes in climate can lead to effects that are far from trivial.

While the analysis presented is the work of one author, this report has been subject to extensive peer review. The Pew Center and the author are indebted to many scientists and organizations for their constructive comments on previous drafts of this paper or sections of this paper. Their comments have helped improve the text substantially, and so, while the opinions expressed in this report are solely those of the author, we gratefully acknowledge their input: E. Barron, B. Felzer, C. Hakkarinen, A. Henderson-Sellers, M. Hulme, M. MacCracken, M. McFarland, J. Mahlman, G. Meehl, N. Nakicenovic, B.D. Santer, M.E. Schlesinger, K.P. Shine, J.B. Smith, and S.J. Smith. The A1, A2, B1, and B2 scenarios developed in the current IPCC working group process have been used with the kind permission of their producers, represented by T. Morita, A. Sankovski, B. deVries, and N. Nakicenovic. D. Viner of the Climate Impacts LINK Project (UK Dept. of the Environment, Regions and Transport contract EPG1/1/68) supplied the HadCM2 data on behalf of the Hadley Centre and UK Meteorological Office. In addition, the Pew Center would like to acknowledge and thank Joel Smith and Brian Hurd of Stratus Consulting for their management of this Environmental Impacts series.

Executive Summary


The average surface temperature of the globe has warmed appreciably since the late 1800s, by about 0.6°C. Since this warming cannot be adequately explained by natural phenomena such as increased solar activity, human-induced increases in greenhouse-gas concentrations appear to be at least partly responsible. In addition to the warming effect of greenhouse-gas increases, however, changes in temperature over the past century are likely to have been significantly influenced by the cooling effect associated with changes in the sulfate aerosol loading of the atmosphere, arising from fossil-fuel-derived sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions. When greenhouse-gas, sulfate aerosol, and solar influences are considered together, observed climate changes are consistent with model predictions.

Projections of future global-mean temperature and sea level change made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 1996 Second Assessment Report used emissions scenarios developed in 1992. Preliminary versions of new emissions scenarios produced by the writing team for the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) are now available. The most important difference between the old (1992) and new (SRES) scenarios is that the new scenarios have much lower emissions of sulfur dioxide. The reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions (and their attendant cooling effects through the production of sulfate aerosols) results in a slight increase in temperature and sea level rise projections from those previously given by the IPCC. If central estimates of model parameters are used, global-mean warming from 1990 to 2100 ranges from 1.9°C to 2.9°C. Sea-level rise estimates over the same period range from 46 to 58 cm. For temperature and sea level changes over the next few decades, projections are virtually independent of the emissions scenario.

Based on results from a number of climate models, the rate of future warming over the United States is expected to be noticeably faster than the global-mean rate. Future regional-scale precipitation changes are highly uncertain. The only result that is common to all climate models is an increase in winter precipitation in northern latitudes, from the northern Great Plains to the northeastern states. Even in the absence of large precipitation changes, there could still be significant changes in the availability of water for agriculture, human consumption, and industry because of the increased evaporation that should accompany warming. This factor alone would lead to drier summer soil conditions and reduced runoff. The effects of increased evaporation, however, may be partly offset by the direct plant-physiological effect that carbon dioxide (CO2) has in improving plant water-use efficiency and, hence, lowering evapotranspiration rates.

Changes in weather and climate extremes over the United States are certain to occur as the global climate changes. The frequency of extremely hot days is almost certain to increase, and the frequency of frosts should decrease. Changes in the frequency of daily precipitation extremes are highly uncertain, although there is evidence for an increase in the frequency of wet extremes. For hurricanes and tropical storms, the evidence suggests that there could be small increases in their windspeeds. It is also likely that future such storms will be accompanied by larger rainfall amounts. While there is no credible model-based information on changes in the number of hurricanes and tropical storms per year worldwide, there is empirical evidence that suggests that a small increase in frequency is possible in the North Atlantic region. For all extreme events, however, it is unlikely that the projected changes will become evident in a statistically convincing way for many decades, with the exception of temperature extremes, which should become evident sooner.

About the Author


Tom M.L. Wigley

Tom M.L. Wigley (B.Sc., Ph.D.), formerly Director of the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K., currently holds a Senior Scientist position with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO. One of the world's foremost scientists in the area of climate change, he has published in diverse aspects of the broad field of climatology. His main interests are in carbon cycle modeling, projections of future climate and sea-level change, and interpretation of past climate change particularly with a view to detecting anthropogenic influences. Recently, he has concentrated on facets of the global warming problem, and has contributed on many occasions to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and assessments.


Tom M. L. Wigley
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