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Global Temperature Rise

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.

Snow and ice

Perhaps the most well known feedback comes from melting snow and ice in the Northern Hemisphere. Warming temperatures are already melting a growing percentage of Arctic sea ice, exposing dark ocean water during the perpetual sunlight of summer. Snow cover on land is also dwindling in many areas. In the absence of snow and ice, these areas go from having bright, sunlight-reflecting surfaces that cool the planet to having dark, sunlight-absorbing surfaces that bring more energy into the Earth system and cause more warming.

Photograph of the retreating Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Canada.

Canada’s Athabasca Glacier has been shrinking by about 15 meters per year. In the past 125 years, the glacier has lost half its volume and has retreated more than 1.5 kilometers. As glaciers retreat, sea ice disappears, and snow melts earlier in the spring, the Earth absorbs more sunlight than it would if the reflective snow and ice remained. (Photograph ©2005 Hugh Saxby.)

Water Vapor

The largest feedback is water vapor. Water vapor is a strong greenhouse gas. In fact, because of its abundance in the atmosphere, water vapor causes about two-thirds of greenhouse warming, a key factor in keeping temperatures in the habitable range on Earth. But as temperatures warm, more water vapor evaporates from the surface into the atmosphere, where it can cause temperatures to climb further.

The question that scientists ask is, how much water vapor will be in the atmosphere in a warming world? The atmosphere currently has an average equilibrium or balance between water vapor concentration and temperature. As temperatures warm, the atmosphere becomes capable of containing more water vapor, and so water vapor concentrations go up to regain equilibrium. Will that trend hold as temperatures continue to warm?

The amount of water vapor that enters the atmosphere ultimately determines how much additional warming will occur due to the water vapor feedback. The atmosphere responds quickly to the water vapor feedback. So far, most of the atmosphere has maintained a near constant balance between temperature and water vapor concentration as temperatures have gone up in recent decades. If this trend continues, and many models say that it will, water vapor has the capacity to double the warming caused by carbon dioxide alone.