Working Group I: The Scientific Basis

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1.1.2 The Climate System

Its components
The climate system, as defined in this Report, is an interactive system consisting of five major components: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the land surface and the biosphere, forced or influenced by various external forcing mechanisms, the most important of which is the Sun (see Figure 1.1). Also the direct effect of human activities on the climate system is considered an external forcing.

Figure 1.1: Schematic view of the components of the global climate system (bold), their processes and interactions (thin arrows) and some aspects that may change (bold arrows).

The atmosphere is the most unstable and rapidly changing part of the system. Its composition, which has changed with the evolution of the Earth, is of central importance to the problem assessed in this Report. The Earth’s dry atmosphere is composed mainly of nitrogen (N2, 78.1% volume mixing ratio), oxygen (O2, 20.9% volume mixing ratio, and argon (Ar, 0.93% volume mixing ratio). These gases have only limited interaction with the incoming solar radiation and they do not interact with the infrared radiation emitted by the Earth. However there are a number of trace gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O) and ozone (O3), which do absorb and emit infrared radiation. These so called greenhouse gases, with a total volume mixing ratio in dry air of less than 0.1% by volume, play an essential role in the Earth’s energy budget. Moreover the atmosphere contains water vapour (H2O), which is also a natural greenhouse gas. Its volume mixing ratio is highly variable, but it is typically in the order of 1%. Because these greenhouse gases absorb the infrared radiation emitted by the Earth and emit infrared radiation up- and downward, they tend to raise the temperature near the Earth’s surface. Water vapour, CO2 and O3 also absorb solar short-wave radiation.

The atmospheric distribution of ozone and its role in the Earth’s energy budget is unique. Ozone in the lower part of the atmosphere, the troposphere and lower stratosphere, acts as a greenhouse gas. Higher up in the stratosphere there is a natural layer of high ozone concentration, which absorbs solar ultra-violet radiation. In this way this so-called ozone layer plays an essential role in the stratosphere’s radiative balance, at the same time filtering out this potentially damaging form of radiation.

Beside these gases, the atmosphere also contains solid and liquid particles (aerosols) and clouds, which interact with the incoming and outgoing radiation in a complex and spatially very variable manner. The most variable component of the atmosphere is water in its various phases such as vapour, cloud droplets, and ice crystals. Water vapour is the strongest greenhouse gas. For these reasons and because the transition between the various phases absorb and release much energy, water vapour is central to the climate and its variability and change.
The hydrosphere is the component comprising all liquid surface and subterranean water, both fresh water, including rivers, lakes and aquifers, and saline water of the oceans and seas. Fresh water runoff from the land returning to the oceans in rivers influences the ocean’s composition and circulation. The oceans cover approximately 70% of the Earth’s surface. They store and transport a large amount of energy and dissolve and store great quantities of carbon dioxide. Their circulation, driven by the wind and by density contrasts caused by salinity and thermal gradients (the so-called thermohaline circulation), is much slower than the atmospheric circulation. Mainly due to the large thermal inertia of the oceans, they damp vast and strong temperature changes and function as a regulator of the Earth’s climate and as a source of natural climate variability, in particular on the longer time-scales.

The cryosphere, including the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, continental glaciers and snow fields, sea ice and permafrost, derives its importance to the climate system from its high reflectivity (albedo) for solar radiation, its low thermal conductivity, its large thermal inertia and, especially, its critical role in driving deep ocean water circulation. Because the ice sheets store a large amount of water, variations in their volume are a potential source of sea level variations (Chapter 11).

Vegetation and soils at the land surface control how energy received from the Sun is returned to the atmosphere. Some is returned as long-wave (infrared) radiation, heating the atmosphere as the land surface warms. Some serves to evaporate water, either in the soil or in the leaves of plants, bringing water back into the atmosphere. Because the evaporation of soil moisture requires energy, soil moisture has a strong influence on the surface temperature. The texture of the land surface (its roughness) influences the atmosphere dynamically as winds blow over the land’s surface. Roughness is determined by both topography and vegetation. Wind also blows dust from the surface into the atmosphere, which interacts with the atmospheric radiation.

The marine and terrestrial biospheres have a major impact on the atmosphere’s composition. The biota influence the uptake and release of greenhouse gases. Through the photosynthetic process, both marine and terrestrial plants (especially forests) store significant amounts of carbon from carbon dioxide. Thus, the biosphere plays a central role in the carbon cycle, as well as in the budgets of many other gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide. Other biospheric emissions are the so-called volatile organic compounds (VOC) which may have important effects on atmospheric chemistry, on aerosol formation and therefore on climate. Because the storage of carbon and the exchange of trace gases are influenced by climate, feedbacks between climate change and atmospheric concentrations of trace gases can occur. The influence of climate on the biosphere is preserved as fossils, tree rings, pollen and other records, so that much of what is known of past climates comes from such biotic indicators.

Interactions among the components
Many physical, chemical and biological interaction processes occur among the various components of the climate system on a wide range of space and time scales, making the system extremely complex. Although the components of the climate system are very different in their composition, physical and chemical properties, structure and behaviour, they are all linked by fluxes of mass, heat and momentum: all subsystems are open and interrelated.

As an example, the atmosphere and the oceans are strongly coupled and exchange, among others, water vapour and heat through evaporation. This is part of the hydrological cycle and leads to condensation, cloud formation, precipitation and runoff, and supplies energy to weather systems. On the other hand, precipitation has an influence on salinity, its distribution and the thermohaline circulation. Atmosphere and oceans also exchange, among other gases, carbon dioxide, maintaining a balance by dissolving it in cold polar water which sinks into the deep ocean and by outgassing in relatively warm upwelling water near the equator.

Some other examples: sea ice hinders the exchanges between atmosphere and oceans; the biosphere influences the carbon dioxide concentration by photosynthesis and respiration, which in turn is influenced by climate change. The biosphere also affects the input of water in the atmosphere through evapotranspiration, and the atmosphere’s radiative balance through the amount of sunlight reflected back to the sky (albedo).

These are just a few examples from a virtually inexhaustible list of complex interactions some of which are poorly known or perhaps even unknown. Chapter 7 provides an assessment of the present knowledge of physical climate processes and feedbacks, whilst Chapter 3 deals with biological feedbacks.

Any change, whether natural or anthropogenic, in the components of the climate system and their interactions, or in the external forcing, may result in climate variations. The following sections introduce various aspects of natural climate variations, followed by an introduction to the human influence on the climate system.

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