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Models v Observations

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 5 months ago


1 February 2007


27 October 2006; accepted 25 January 2007

Published online 2 February 2007; 10.1126/science.1136843

Include this information when citing this paper.


/ www.sciencexpress.org / 1 February 2007 / 10.1126/science.1136843


Recent Climate Observations Compared to Projections



Stefan Rahmstorf, Anny Cazenave, John A. Church, James E. Hansen,

Ralph F. Keeling, David E. Parker, Richard C. J. Somerville


Observations of the climate system are crucial to establish actual climatic trends, while climate models are used to project how quantities like global mean air temperature and sea level may be expected to respond to anthropogenic perturbations of the Earth's radiation budget. Here we compile the most recent observed climate trends for carbon dioxide concentration, global-mean air temperature and sea level, and we compare these trends to previous model projections as summarised in the 2001 assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1). The IPCC scenarios and projections start in the year 1990, which is also the base year of the Kyoto protocol in which almost all

industrialised nations have committed to binding reductions of their greenhouse gas emissions. Although published in 2001, these model projections are essentially independent from the observed climate data since 1990: climate models are physics-based models developed over many years that are not "tuned" to reproduce the most recent temperatures, and global sea level data were not yet available at the time. The data now available raise concerns that the climate system, in particular sea level, may be responding more quickly than

climate models indicate.


Carbon dioxide concentration follows the projections almost exactly (Fig. 1), bearing in mind that the measurements shown from Mauna Loa (Hawaii) have a slight positive offset due to the slightly higher CO2 concentration in the Northern Hemisphere compared to the global mean. The level of agreement is partly coincidental, as a result of compensating errors in industrial emissions (based on the IS92a scenario) and carbon sinks in the projections. The global mean surface temperature increase (land and ocean combined) in both the

NASA GISS data set and the Hadley Centre / Climatic Research Unit data set is 0.33 ºC for the 16 years since 1990, which is in the upper part of the range projected by the IPCC.


Given the relatively short 16-year time period considered, it will be difficult to establish the reasons for this relatively rapid warming, although there are only a few likely possibilities. The first candidate reason is intrinsic variability within the climate system. A second candidate is climate forcings other than CO2: While the concentration of other greenhouse gases has risen more slowly than assumed in the IPCC scenarios, a smaller aerosol cooling than

expected is a possible cause of the extra warming. A third candidate is an underestimation of the climate sensitivity to CO2 (i.e., model error). Note that the dashed scenarios shown are for a medium climate sensitivity of 3 ºC for a doubling of CO2 concentration, while the grey band surrounding the scenarios shows the effect of uncertainty in climate sensitivity spanning a range of 1.7 - 4.2ºC.


Since 1990 the observed sea level has been rising faster than projected by models, as shown both by a reconstruction using primarily tide gauge data (2) and, since 1993, by satellite-altimeter data (3) (both series are corrected for

glacial isostatic adjustment). The satellite data show a linear trend of 3.3 mm/yr (1993-2006) and the tide gauge reconstruction slightly less, while the IPCC projected a best-estimate rise of less than 2 mm/yr. Sea level closely follows the upper gray dashed line, the upper limit referred to by IPCC as "including land-ice uncertainty".


Note that the rate of rise for the last 20 years of the reconstructed sea level is 25% faster than the rate of rise in any 20 year period in thepreceding 115 years. Again, we caution that the time interval of overlap is short, so that internal decadal climate variability could cause much of the discrepancy; it would be premature to conclude that sea level will continue to follow this "upper limit" line in future.


The largest contributions to the rapid rise come from ocean thermal expansion (4) and the melting from non-polar glaciers as a result of the warming mentioned

above. While the ice sheet contribution has been small, observations are indicating that it is rapidly increasing, with contributions both from Greenland and Antarctica (e.g., ref. 5). Overall, these observational data underscore the concerns about global climate change. Previous projections, as summarized by IPCC, have not exaggerated but may in some respects even have underestimated the

change, in particular for sea level.



1. IPCC. Climate Change 2001 (Cambridge University Press,

Cambridge, 2001).

2. Church, J. A., and N. J. White, Geophys. Res. Lett., 33,

L01602, doi:10.1029/2005GL024826 (2006).

3. Cazenave, A. and R. S. Nerem, Rev. Geophys., 42, 20


4. Willis, J. K., D. Roemmich, and B. Cornuelle, J. Geophys.

Res., 109, C12036, doi:10.1029/2003JC002260 (2004).

5. A. Cazenave, Science 314, 1250 (2006).

6. Moore, J. C., Grinsted, A. & Jevrejeva, S., Eos 86, 226



27 October 2006; accepted 25 January 2007

Published online 2 February 2007; 10.1126/science.1136843

Include this information when citing this paper.



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