Earth More Sensitive to Increasing Greenhouse Gas Than Thought
Earth’s climate may warm considerably more than expected in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a new study of a broad range of climate models hints. The reason, the scientists say, is that simulations that now show only a moderate amount of warming don’t accurately depict the amount of cloud formation in the lower atmosphere, thus cooling the climate more than real-world data suggest will actually occur. If true, warming of the planet will fall toward the high end of the range offered in every expert climate assessment of the past 3 decades.
Carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas: The more of it there is in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped there and the higher the global average temperature climbs. Scientists have long debated how sensitive Earth’s climate is to this planet-warming trace gas. Specifically, they ask, how much will worldwide temperatures rise if the level of CO2 becomes double that seen in the era before human activity began spewing the gas into the atmosphere?
Current models and a range of observations suggest that Earth will warm somewhere between 1.5° and 4.5°C once carbon dioxide levels are twice the preindustrial concentration of about 280 parts per million and the climate system adjusts, says Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. That’s a wide range, he notes—a range that hasn’t narrowed since the first computer simulations of climate debuted in the 1970s. Broad analyses have hinted that a model’s climate sensitivity depends, in large part, on how the model estimates cloud formation at low altitude, he adds. If a simulation produces generous amounts of low-level clouds, more sunlight is reflected back into space, and Earth, on the whole, is cooler than it would have been without the clouds.
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Earth More Sensitive to Increasing Greenhouse Gas Than Thought

Earth’s climate may warm considerably more than expected in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a new study of a broad range of climate models hints. The reason, the scientists say, is that simulations that now show only a moderate amount of warming don’t accurately depict the amount of cloud formation in the lower atmosphere, thus cooling the climate more than real-world data suggest will actually occur. If true, warming of the planet will fall toward the high end of the range offered in every expert climate assessment of the past 3 decades.

Carbon dioxide is a so-called greenhouse gas: The more of it there is in the atmosphere, the more heat is trapped there and the higher the global average temperature climbs. Scientists have long debated how sensitive Earth’s climate is to this planet-warming trace gas. Specifically, they ask, how much will worldwide temperatures rise if the level of CO2 becomes double that seen in the era before human activity began spewing the gas into the atmosphere?

Current models and a range of observations suggest that Earth will warm somewhere between 1.5° and 4.5°C once carbon dioxide levels are twice the preindustrial concentration of about 280 parts per million and the climate system adjusts, says Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. That’s a wide range, he notes—a range that hasn’t narrowed since the first computer simulations of climate debuted in the 1970s. Broad analyses have hinted that a model’s climate sensitivity depends, in large part, on how the model estimates cloud formation at low altitude, he adds. If a simulation produces generous amounts of low-level clouds, more sunlight is reflected back into space, and Earth, on the whole, is cooler than it would have been without the clouds.

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