global warming

global warming

global warming, the gradual increase of the temperature of the earth's lower atmosphere as a result of the increase in greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution.

The temperature of the atmosphere near the earth's surface is warmed through a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Visible, shortwave light comes from the sun to the earth, passing unimpeded through a blanket of thermal, or greenhouse, gases composed largely of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Infrared radiation reflects off the planet's surface toward space but does not easily pass through the thermal blanket. Some of it is trapped and reflected downward, keeping the planet at an average temperature suitable to life, about 60°F; (16°C;).

Growth in industry, agriculture, and transportation since the Industrial Revolution has produced additional quantities of the natural greenhouse gases plus smaller quantities of chlorofluorocarbons and other more potent greenhouse gases, augmenting the thermal blanket. It is generally accepted that this increase in the quantity of greenhouse gases is trapping more heat and increasing global temperatures, making a process that has been beneficial to life potentially disruptive and harmful. During the 20th cent., the atmospheric temperature rose 1.1°F; (0.6°C;), and sea level rose several inches. Some projected, longer-term results of global warming include melting of polar ice, with a resulting rise in sea level and coastal flooding; disruption of drinking water supplies dependent on snow melts; profound changes in agriculture due to climate change; extinction of species as ecological niches disappear; more frequent tropical storms; and an increased incidence of tropical diseases.

Among factors that may be contributing to global warming are the burning of coal and petroleum products (sources of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone); deforestation, which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; methane gas released in animal waste; and increased cattle production, which contributes to deforestation, methane production, and use of fossil fuels.

Much of the debate surrounding global warming has centered on the accuracy of scientific predictions concerning future warming. To predict global climatic trends, climatologists accumulate large historical databases and use them to create computerized models that simulate the earth's climate. The validity of these models has been a subject of controversy. Skeptics say that the climate is too complicated to be accurately modeled, and that there are too many unknowns. Some also question whether the observed climate changes might simply represent normal fluctuations in global temperature. Nonetheless, for some time there has been general agreement that at least part of the observed warming is the result of human activity, and that the problem needs to be addressed. In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, over 150 nations signed a binding declaration on the need to reduce global warming.

In 1994, however, a UN scientific advisory panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, concluded that reductions beyond those envisioned by the treaty would be needed to avoid global warming. The following year, the advisory panel forecast a rise in global temperature of from 1.44 to 6.3°F; (0.8-3.5°C;) by 2100 if no action is taken to cut down on the production of greenhouse gases, and a rise of from 1 to 3.6°F; (0.5-2°C;) even if action is taken (because of already released gases that will persist in the atmosphere). A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, based on a three-year study, termed global warming "unequivocal" and said that most of the change was most likely due to human activities.

A UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 resulted in an international agreement to fight global warming, which called for reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases by industrialized nations. Not all industrial countries, however, immediately signed or ratified the accord. In 2001 the G. W. Bush administration announced it would abandon the Kyoto Protocol; because the United States produces about one quarter of the world's greenhouse gases, this was regarded as a severe blow to the effort to slow global warming. Despite the American move, most other nations agreed later in the year (in Bonn, Germany, and in Marrakech, Morocco) on the details necessary to convert the agreement into a binding international treaty, which came into force in 2005 after ratification by more than 125 nations.

In 2002 the Bush administration proposed several voluntary measures for slowing the increase in, instead of reducing, emissions of greenhouses gases. The United States, Australia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea established (2005) an agreement outside the Kyoto Protocal that proposed to reduce emissions through the development and implementation of new technologies. The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, as it is called, involves no commitments on the part of its members; it held its first meeting in 2006. Also in 2006, California enacted legislation that called for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 25% by 2020; the state is responsible for nearly 7% of all such emissions in the United States.

In 2007 President George W. Bush called for the world's major polluting nations to set global and national goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but the nonbinding nature of the proposed goals provoked skepticism from nations that favored stronger measures. The 15th UN Conference on Climate Change, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, in Dec., 2009, failed to lead to a legally binding treaty on reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions. It had been hoped that the meeting would result in a new protocol that would replace that agreed to at Kyoto.

See P. Brown, Global Warming: Can Civilization Survive? (1997); T. G. Moore, Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry about Global Warming (1998); S. G. Philander, Is the Temperature Rising?: The Uncertain Science of Global Warming (1998); K. E. Ready, GAIA Weeps: The Crisis of Global Warming (1998); G. E. Christianson, Greenhouse: The 200-Year Story of Global Warming (1999); T. Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth (2006); E. Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006); E. Linden, The Winds of Change (2006).

Global warming potential (GWP) is a measure of how much a given mass of greenhouse gas is estimated to contribute to global warming. It is a relative scale which compares the gas in question to that of the same mass of carbon dioxide (whose GWP is by definition 1). A GWP is calculated over a specific time interval and the value of this must be stated whenever a GWP is quoted or else the value is meaningless.

The substances subject to restrictions in the Kyoto protocol either are rapidly increasing their concentrations in Earth's atmosphere or have a large GWP.

The GWP depends on the following factors:

Thus, a high GWP correlates with a large infrared absorption and a long atmospheric lifetime. The dependence of GWP on the wavelength of absorption is more complicated. Even if a gas absorbs radiation efficiently at a certain wavelength, this may not affect its GWP much if the atmosphere already absorbs most radiation at that wavelength. A gas has the most effect if it absorbs in a "window" of wavelengths where the atmosphere is fairly transparent. The dependence of GWP as a function of wavelength has been found empirically and published as a graph.

Because the GWP of a greenhouse gas depends directly on its infrared spectrum, the use of infrared spectroscopy to study greenhouse gases is centrally important in the effort to understand the impact of human activities on global climate change.

Calculating the global warming potential

Just as radiative forcing provides a simplified means of comparing the various factors that are believed to influence the climate system to one another, Global Warming Potentials (GWPs) are one type of simplified index based upon radiative properties that can be used to estimate the potential future impacts of emissions of different gases upon the climate system in a relative sense. GWP is based on a number of factors, including the radiative efficiency (infrared-absorbing ability) of each gas relative to that of carbon dioxide, as well as the decay rate of each gas (the amount removed from the atmosphere over a given number of years) relative to that of carbon dioxide

The radiative forcing capacity (RF) is the amount of energy per unit area per unit time, absorbed by the greenhouse gas, that would otherwise be lost to space. It can be expressed by the formula:

RF = sum_{n=1}^{100} Abs_i * F_i / (path length * density)

where the subscript i represents an interval of 10 inverse centimeters. Absi represents the integrated infrared absorbance of the sample in that interval, and Fi represents the RF for that interval.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides the generally accepted values for GWP, which changed slightly between 1996 and 2001. An exact definition of how GWP is calculated is to be found in the IPCC's 2001 Third Assessment Report The GWP is defined as the ratio of the time-integrated radiative forcing from the instantaneous release of 1 kg of a trace substance relative to that of 1 kg of a reference gas:

GWP left(xright) = frac{int_0^{TH} a_x cdot left[x(t)right] dt} {int_0^{TH} a_r cdot left[r(t)right] dt}

where TH is the time horizon over which the calculation is considered; ax is the radiative efficiency due to a unit increase in atmospheric abundance of the substance (i.e., Wm-2 kg-1) and [x(t)] is the time-dependent decay in abundance of the substance following an instantaneous release of it at time t=0. The denominator contains the corresponding quantities for the reference gas (i.e. CO2). The radiative efficiencies ax and ar are not necessarily constant over time. While the absorption of infrared radiation by many greenhouse gases varies linearly with their abundance, a few important ones display non-linear behaviour for current and likely future abundances (e.g., CO2, CH4, and N2O). For those gases, the relative radiative forcing will depend upon abundance and hence upon the future scenario adopted.

Since all GWP calculations are a comparison to CO2 which is non-linear, all GWP values are affected. Assuming otherwise as is done above will lead to lower GWPs for other gases than a more detailed approach would.

Use in Kyoto Protocol

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the Conference of the Parties decided (decision 2/CP.3) that the values of GWP calculated for the IPCC Second Assessment Report are to be used for converting the various greenhouse gas emissions into comparable CO2 equivalents when computing overall sources and sinks.

Importance of time horizon

Note that a substance's GWP depends on the timespan over which the potential is calculated. A gas which is quickly removed from the atmosphere may initially have a large effect but for longer time periods as it has been removed becomes less important. Thus methane has a potential of 25 over 100 years but 72 over 20 years; conversely sulfur hexafluoride has a GWP of 22,800 over 100 years but 16,300 over 20 years (IPCC TAR). The GWP value depends on how the gas concentration decays over time in the atmosphere. This is often not precisely known and hence the values should not be considered exact. For this reason when quoting a GWP it is important to give a reference to the calculation.

The GWP for a mixture of gases can not be determined from the GWP of the constituent gases by any form of simple linear addition.

Commonly, a time horizon of 100 years is used by regulators (e.g., the California Air Resources Board).


Carbon dioxide has a GWP of exactly 1 (since it is the baseline unit to which all other greenhouse gases are compared).

GWP values and lifetimes from 2007 IPCC AR4 (2001 IPCC TAR in brackets) Lifetime - years GWP time horizon
20 years
100 years
500 years
Methane 12         (12) 72         (62) 25         (23) 7.6       (7)
Nitrous oxide 114       (114) 310       (275) 298       (296) 153       (156)
HFC-23 (hydrofluorocarbon) 270       (260) 12,000   (9400) 14,800   (12000) 12,200   (10000)
HFC-134a (hydrofluorocarbon) 14         (13.8) 3830     (3300) 1430     (1300) 435       (400)
sulfur hexafluoride 3200     (3200) 16,300   (15100) 22,800   (22200) 32,600   (32400)

A GWP is not usually calculated for water vapour. Water vapour has a significant influence with regard to absorbing IR radiation; however its concentration in the atmosphere mainly depends on air temperature. As there is no possibility to directly influence atmospheric water vapour concentration, the GWP-level for water vapour is not calculated; see greenhouse gas.

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