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a multi-decadal trend in solar output

How Much More Will Earth Warm?

To further explore the causes and effects of global warming and to predict future warming, scientists build climate models—computer simulations of the climate system. Climate models are designed to simulate the responses and interactions of the oceans and atmosphere, and to account for changes to the land surface, both natural and human-induced. They comply with fundamental laws of physics—conservation of energy, mass, and momentum—and account for dozens of factors that influence Earth’s climate.

Though the models are complicated, rigorous tests with real-world data hone them into powerful tools that allow scientists to explore our understanding of climate in ways not otherwise possible. By experimenting with the models—removing greenhouse gases emitted by the burning of fossil fuels or changing the intensity of the Sun to see how each influences the climate—scientists use the models to better understand Earth’s current climate and to predict future climate.

The models predict that as the world consumes ever more fossil fuel, greenhouse gas concentrations will continue to rise, and Earth’s average surface temperature will rise with them. Based on a range of plausible emission scenarios, average surface temperatures could rise between 2°C and 6°C by the end of the 21st century.

Graph of predicted temperature change based on 4 scenarios of carbon dioxide emissions.

Model simulations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimate that Earth will warm between two and six degrees Celsius over the next century, depending on how fast carbon dioxide emissions grow. Scenarios that assume that people will burn more and more fossil fuel provide the estimates in the top end of the temperature range, while scenarios that assume that greenhouse gas emissions will grow slowly give lower temperature predictions. The orange line provides an estimate of global temperatures if greenhouse gases stayed at year 2000 levels. (©2007 IPCC WG1 AR-4.)

Climate Feedbacks

Greenhouse gases are only part of the story when it comes to global warming. Changes to one part of the climate system can cause additional changes to the way the planet absorbs or reflects energy. These secondary changes are called climate feedbacks, and they could more than double the amount of warming caused by carbon dioxide alone.The primary feedbacks are due to snow and ice, water vapor, clouds, and the carbon cycle.