Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Why global warming is taking a break


The average temperature on Earth has barely risen over the past 16 years. ETH researchers have now found out why. And they believe that global warming is likely to continue again soon.

Global warming is currently taking a break: whereas global temperatures rose drastically into the late 1990s, the global average temperature has risen only slightly since 1998 – surprising, considering scientific climate models predicted considerable warming due to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The number of sunspots (white area here) varies in multi-year cycles. As a result, solar irradiance, which influences the Earth's climate, also fluctuates. The photo shows a UV image of the sun. (Image: Trace Project / NASA)

Climate sceptics used this apparent contradiction to question climate change per se – or at least the harm potential caused by greenhouse gases – as well as the validity of the climate models. Meanwhile, the majority of climate researchers continued to emphasise that the short-term ‘warming hiatus’ could largely be explained on the basis of current scientific understanding and did not contradict longer term warming.

Researchers have been looking into the possible causes of the warming hiatus over the past few years. For the first time, Reto Knutti, Professor of Climate Physics at ETH Zurich, has systematically examined all current hypotheses together with a colleague. In a study published in the latest issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers conclude that two important factors are equally responsible for the hiatus.

El Niño warmed the Earth

One of the important reasons is natural climate fluctuations, of which the weather phenomena El Niño and La Niña in the Pacific are the most important and well known. "1998 was a strong El Niño year, which is why it was so warm that year," says Knutti. In contrast, the counter-phenomenon La Niña has made the past few years cooler than they would otherwise have been.

Although climate models generally take such fluctuations into account, it is impossible to predict the year in which these phenomena will emerge, says the climate physicist. To clarify, he uses the stock market as an analogy: "When pension funds invest the pension capital in shares, they expect to generate a profit in the long term." At the same time, they are aware that their investments are exposed to price fluctuations and that performance can also be negative in the short term. However, what finance specialists and climate scientists and their models are not able to predict is when exactly a short-term economic downturn or a La Niña year will occur.

Longer solar cycles

According to the study, the second important reason for the warming hiatus is that solar irradiance has been weaker than predicted in the past few years. This is because the identified fluctuations in the intensity of solar irradiance are unusual at present: whereas the so-called sunspot cycles each lasted eleven years in the past, for unknown reasons the last period of weak solar irradiance lasted 13 years. Furthermore, several volcanic eruptions, such as Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010, have increased the concentration of floating particles (aerosol) in the atmosphere, which has further weakened the solar irradiance arriving at the Earth's surface.

The scientists drew their conclusions from corrective calculations of climate models. In all climate simulations, they looked for periods in which the El Niño/La Niña patterns corresponded to the measured data from the years 1997 to 2012. With a combination of over 20 periods found, they were able to arrive at a realistic estimate of the influence of El Niño and La Niña. They also retroactively applied in the model calculations the actual measured values for solar activity and aerosol concentration in the Earth's atmosphere. Model calculations corrected in this way match the measured temperature data much more closely.

Incomplete measured data

The discrepancy between the climate models and measured data over the past 16 years cannot solely be attributed to the fact that these models predict too  much warming, says Knutti. The interpretation of the official measured data should also be critically scrutinised. According to Knutti, measured data is likely to be too low, since the global average temperature is only estimated using values obtained from weather stations on the ground, and these do not exist everywhere on Earth. From satellite data, for example, scientists know that the Arctic region in particular has become warmer over the past years, but because there are no weather stations in that area, there are measurements that show strong upward fluctuations. As a result, the specified average temperature is too low.

Last year, British and Canadian researchers proposed an alternative temperature curve with higher values, in which they incorporated estimated temperatures from satellite data for regions with no weather stations. If the model data is corrected downwards, as suggested by the ETH researchers, and the measurement data is corrected upwards, as suggested by the British and Canadian researchers, then the model and actual observations are very similar.

Warming to recommence

Despite the warming hiatus, Knutti is convinced there is no reason to doubt either the existing calculations for the climate activity of greenhouse gases or the latest climate models. "Short-term climate fluctuations can easily be explained. They do not alter the fact that the climate will become considerably warmer in the long term as a result of greenhouse gas emissions," says Knutti. He believes that global warming will recommence as soon as solar activity, aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere and weather phenomena such as El Niño naturally start returning to the values of previous decades.

Literature reference

Huber M, Knutti R: Natural variability, radiative forcing and climate response in the recent hiatus reconciled. Nature Geoscience, online publication 17 August 2014, doi: 10.1038/ngeo2228 

Fabio Bergamin | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: ETH Warming activity atmosphere break fluctuations greenhouse phenomena temperature

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Revealing glacier flow with animated satellite images
26.11.2015 | European Geosciences Union

nachricht Earth's magnetic field is not about to flip
25.11.2015 | The Earth Institute at Columbia University

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Climate study finds evidence of global shift in the 1980s

Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.

Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...

Im Focus: Innovative Photovoltaics – from the Lab to the Façade

Fraunhofer ISE Demonstrates New Cell and Module Technologies on its Outer Building Façade

The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...

Im Focus: Lactate for Brain Energy

Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.

In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...

Im Focus: Laser process simulation available as app for first time

In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.

Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...

Im Focus: Quantum Simulation: A Better Understanding of Magnetism

Heidelberg physicists use ultracold atoms to imitate the behaviour of electrons in a solid

Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

Fraunhofer’s Urban Futures Conference: 2 days in the city of the future

25.11.2015 | Event News

Gluten oder nicht Gluten? Überempfindlichkeit auf Weizen kann unterschiedliche Ursachen haben

17.11.2015 | Event News

Art Collection Deutsche Börse zeigt Ausstellung „Traces of Disorder“

21.10.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Using sphere packing models to explain the structure of forests

26.11.2015 | Ecology, The Environment and Conservation

Dimensionality transition in a newly created material

26.11.2015 | Materials Sciences

Revealing glacier flow with animated satellite images

26.11.2015 | Earth Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>