SOTC: Introduction: Are Global Temperatures Rising?

In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that globally averaged combined land and sea surface temperature warmed between 0.65 and 1.06°C from 1880 to 2012 (IPCC 2013). The report also stated, "For the longest period when calculation of regional trends is sufficiently complete (1901 to 2012), almost the entire globe has experienced surface warming." Temperature records supporting IPCC findings have been assembled from thousands of land and ocean observation sites covering a large, representative portion of the Earth's surface, and carefully controlled for possible biases arising from station and instrument changes.

Temperature anomaly graphsTemperature anomalies by latitude: These graphs track temperature anomalies for northern, low, and southern latitudes. The black dotted line is the annual mean and the red solid line is the five-year mean. Graphs courtesy NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies Surface Temperature Analysis.

In January 2013, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies reported that 2012 was the ninth-warmest year since 1880, and except for 1988, the nine warmest years in the 132-year record have all been since the year 2000. The year 2005 was the hottest year on record (GISS 2013).

Temperatures vary from year to year, and also from decade to decade. These variations, however, are superimposed on a longer upward trend. The range of natural variability in global temperature seems to be about ± 0.2°C, so only after the late 1970s do global mean temperatures emerge from the noise of natural variability (Karl and Trenberth 2003). The northern high latitudes have experienced greater warming than the mid-latitudes or the southern high latitudes. This is apparent in the Temperature anomalies by latitude graphs.

In some northern regions, extreme warming has been detected. Locations in Alaska and northern Eurasia, for example, have warmed by nearly 6.0°C in the winter months since 1970 (Serreze et al. 2000). The warming is not universal; some cooling has occurred in the North Atlantic and central North Pacific and is known to be a consequence of changes in the atmospheric circulation.

In its fourth assessment report, the IPCC cited atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases as the causative agent in warming temperatures. The panel identified fossil fuel burning and changes in land use as the primary causes of increased carbon dioxide, and agriculture as the primary cause of increased methane and nitrous oxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in 2005 exceeded the natural range for this gas over the past 650,000 years. The IPCC attributed a "greater than 90 percent certainty" to scientists' assertion that higher greenhouse gas concentrations have trapped more thermal radiation and consequently warmed the planet (IPCC 2007).

Global temperature anomaly mapTemperature change map: This global map shows calculated surface temperature changes for 1901-2012. Estimated temperature decreases appear in shades of blue, and estimated increases appear in shades of orange and purple. Areas with insufficient data are white. Image from IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.

Temperature record graphTemperature record: Global temperature anomalies based on paleoclimate data (green) and the instrumental record (blue) suggest that current temperatures are the warmest in the last millennium, if not longer. Graph courtesy NASA Earth Observatory, adapted from Mann et al., 2008).

Climate forcing graphsClimate forcings: Earth's temperature fluctuates naturally, driven partly by three factors: El Niño, solar variability, and volcanic aerosols. Calculations of these natural factors and human forcings, however, indicate that human activity has overwhelmed natural factors in recent decades. Graphs courtesy NASA Earth Observatory, adapted from Lean et al., 2008).

Is the cryosphere sending signals about climate change?

The cryospheric regions, or regions where water is found in solid form, provide us with direct visual evidence of temperature changes. Unlike other substances found on Earth, ice and snow exist relatively close to their melting point and may frequently change phase from solid to liquid and back again. Consequently, consistent and prolonged warming trends should result in observable changes to Earth's cryosphere. Water changing from solid to liquid and back often results in dramatic visual changes across the landscape as various snow and ice masses shrink or grow.

What are some examples of these snow and ice masses, how do we monitor their conditions, and what do the results show?

In State of the Cryosphere, snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, sea ice, ice shelves, ice sheets, and the related parameter sea level are discussed. In all cases, scientists attempt to monitor both the areal extent and mass of these snow and ice bodies. Areal extent is easier to determine than mass. Various forms of remote sensing, from both aircraft and satellite, allow us to look down on surfaces at varying spatial scales and over time to determine if the snow or ice covered area is expanding or contracting. Long-term monitoring includes looking at the areal extent of snow cover and sea ice, as well as changes in area and mass of mountain glaciers. In all cases shown here, regardless of parameter or measurement method, the amount of snow and ice has been decreasing over the past several decades.

Last updated: 6 February 2014

See Also

CU's Learn More About Climate: Climate change and Colorado's Future, featuring interviews with NSIDC scientists

Melting Snow and Ice (PDF file): Report commissioned by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Al Gore and Norway's Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre