Heat Trapping Gases & Other Climate Change Influences

Carbon dioxide concentration has increased due to the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation, transportation, and industrial and household uses. It is also produced as a by-product during the manufacturing of cement. Deforestation provides a source of carbon dioxide and reduces its uptake by and other plants. Globally, over the past several decades, about 80 percent of human-induced carbon dioxide came from the burning of fossil fuels, while about 20 percent resulted from deforestation and associated agricultural practices. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by roughly 35 percent since the start of the industrial revolution.

Methane concentration has increased mainly as a result of agriculture; raising livestock (which produce methane in their digestive tracts); mining, transportation, and use of certain fossil fuels; sewage; and decomposing garbage in landfills. About 70 percent of the emissions of atmospheric methane are now related to human activities.

Nitrous oxide concentration is increasing as a result of fertilizer use and fossil fuel burning.

Halocarbon emissions come from the release of certain manufactured chemicals to the atmosphere. Examples include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were used extensively in refrigeration and for other industrial processes before their presence in the atmosphere was found to cause stratospheric ozone . The abundance of these gases in the atmosphere is now decreasing as a result of international regulations designed to protect the ozone layer. Continued decreases in ozone-depleting halocarbon emissions are expected to reduce their relative influence on in the future. Many halocarbon replacements, however, are potent greenhouse gases, and their concentrations are increasing.

Ozone is a greenhouse gas, and is continually produced and destroyed in the atmosphere by chemical reactions. In the troposphere, the lowest 5 to 10 miles of the atmosphere near the surface, human activities have increased the ozone concentration through the release of gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides. These gases undergo chemical reactions to produce ozone in the presence of sunlight. In addition to trapping heat, excess ozone in the troposphere causes respiratory illnesses and other human health problems.

In the stratosphere, the layer above the troposphere, ozone exists naturally and protects life on Earth from exposure to excessive ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. As mentioned previously, halocarbons released by human activities destroy ozone in the stratosphere and have caused the ozone hole over Antarctica.8 Changes in the stratospheric ozone layer have contributed to changes in wind patterns and regional climates in Antarctica.9

vapor is the most important and abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Human activities produce only a very small increase in water vapor through irrigation and combustion processes. However, the surface warming caused by human-produced increases in other greenhouse gases leads to an increase in atmospheric water vapor, since a warmer climate increases evaporation and allows the atmosphere to hold more moisture. This creates an amplifying “feedback loop,” leading to more warming.

Other human influences

In addition to the global-scale climate effects of heat-trapping gases, human activities also produce additional local and regional effects. Some of these activities partially offset the warming caused by greenhouse gases, while others increase the warming. One such influence on climate is caused by tiny particles called “aerosols” (not to be confused with aerosol spray cans). For example, the burning of coal produces emissions of sulfur-containing compounds. These compounds form “sulfate aerosol” particles, which reflect some of the incoming sunlight away from the Earth, causing a cooling influence at the surface. Sulfate aerosols also tend to make clouds more efficient at reflecting sunlight, causing an additional indirect cooling effect.

Another type of aerosol, often referred to as soot or black carbon, absorbs incoming sunlight and traps heat in the atmosphere. Thus, depending on their type, aerosols can either mask or increase the warming caused by increased levels of greenhouse gases. On a globally averaged basis, the sum of these aerosol effects offsets some of the warming caused by heat-trapping gases.

The effects of various greenhouse gases and aerosol particles on Earth's climate depend in part on how long these gases and particles remain in the atmosphere. After emission, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide remains elevated for thousands of years, and that of methane for decades, while the elevated concentrations of aerosols only persist for days to weeks. The climate effects of reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other long-lived gases do not become apparent for at least several decades. In contrast, reductions in emissions of short-lived compounds can have a rapid, but complex effect since the geographic patterns of their climatic influence and the resulting surface temperature responses are quite different. One modeling study found that while the greatest emissions of short-lived pollutants in summertime by late this century are projected to come from Asia, the strongest climate response is projected to be over the central United States.

Human activities have also changed the land surface in ways that alter how much heat is reflected or absorbed by the surface. Such changes include the cutting and burning of forests, the replacement of other areas of natural vegetation with agriculture and cities, and large-scale irrigation. These transformations of the land surface can cause local (and even regional) warming or cooling. Globally, the net effect of these changes has probably been a slight cooling of the Earth's surface over the past 100 years.

Natural influences

Two important natural factors also influence climate: the Sun and volcanic eruptions. Over the past three decades, human influences on climate have become increasingly obvious, and global temperatures have risen sharply. During the same period, the Sun's energy output (as measured by satellites since 1979) has followed its historical 11-year cycle. The two major volcanic eruptions of the past 30 years have had short-term cooling effects on climate, lasting 2 to 3 years.17 Thus, these natural factors cannot explain the warming of recent decades; in fact, their net effect on climate has probably been a slight cooling influence over this period. Slow changes in Earth's orbit around the Sun and its tilt toward or away from the Sun are also a purely natural influence on climate, but are only important on timescales from thousands to many tens of thousands of years.

The climate changes that have occurred over the last century are not solely caused by the human and natural factors described above. In addition to these that occur even in the absence of changes in human activities, the Sun, or volcanoes. One example is the El Niño phenomenon, which has important influences on many aspects of regional and global climate. Many other modes of variability have been identified by climate scientists and their effects on climate occur at the same time as the effects of human activities, the Sun, and volcanoes.

Major Warming and Cooling Influences on Climate: 1750-2005

Major Warming and Cooling Influences on Climate
The figure above shows the amount of warming influence (red bars) or cooling influence (blue bars) that different factors have had on Earth's climate over the industrial age (from about 1750 to the present). Results are in watts per square meter. The longer the bar, the greater the influence on climate. The top part of the box includes all the major human-induced factors, while the second part of the box includes the Sun, the only major natural factor with a long-term effect on climate. The cooling effect of individual volcanoes is also natural, but is relatively short-lived (2 to 3 years), thus their influence is not included in this figure. The bottom part of the box shows that the total net effect (warming influences minus cooling influences) of human activities is a strong warming influence. The thin lines on each bar provide an estimate of the range of uncertainty.