IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report

1 Observed changes in climate and their effects

1.1 Observations of climate change

Since the TAR, progress in understanding how climate is changing in space and time has been gained through improvements and extensions of numerous datasets and data analyses, broader geographical coverage, better understanding of uncertainties and a wider variety of measurements. {WGI SPM}

Definitions of climate change

Climate change in IPCC usage refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. This usage differs from that in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.

Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level (Figure 1.1). {WGI 3.2, 4.8, 5.2, 5.5, SPM}

Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the twelve warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850). The 100-year linear trend (1906-2005) of 0.74 [0.56 to 0.92]°C is larger than the corresponding trend of 0.6 [0.4 to 0.8]°C (1901-2000) given in the TAR (Figure 1.1). The linear warming trend over the 50 years from 1956 to 2005 (0.13 [0.10 to 0.16]°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the 100 years from 1906 to 2005. {WGI 3.2, SPM}

The temperature increase is widespread over the globe and is greater at higher northern latitudes (Figure 1.2). Average Arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years. Land regions have warmed faster than the oceans (Figures 1.2 and 2.5). Observations since 1961 show that the average temperature of the global ocean has increased to depths of at least 3000m and that the ocean has been taking up over 80% of the heat being added to the climate system. New analyses of balloon-borne and satellite measurements of lower- and mid-tropospheric temperature show warming rates similar to those observed in surface temperature. {WGI 3.2, 3.4, 5.2, SPM}

Increases in sea level are consistent with warming (Figure 1.1). Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3]mm per year over 1961 to 2003 and at an average rate of about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8]mm per year from 1993 to 2003. Whether this faster rate for 1993 to 2003 reflects decadal variation or an increase in the longer-term trend is unclear. Since 1993 thermal expansion of the oceans has contributed about 57% of the sum of the estimated individual contributions to the sea level rise, with decreases in glaciers and ice caps contributing about 28% and losses from the polar ice sheets contributing the remainder. From 1993 to 2003 the sum of these climate contributions is consistent within uncertainties with the total sea level rise that is directly observed. {WGI 4.6, 4.8, 5.5, SPM, Table SPM.1}

Observed decreases in snow and ice extent are also consistent with warming (Figure 1.1). Satellite data since 1978 show that annual average Arctic sea ice extent has shrunk by 2.7 [2.1 to 3.3]% per decade, with larger decreases in summer of 7.4 [5.0 to 9.8]% per decade. Mountain glaciers and snow cover on average have declined in both hemispheres. The maximum areal extent of seasonally frozen ground has decreased by about 7% in the Northern Hemisphere since 1900, with decreases in spring of up to 15%. Temperatures at the top of the permafrost layer have generally increased since the 1980s in the Arctic by up to 3°C. {WGI 3.2, 4.5, 4.6, 4.7, 4.8, 5.5, SPM}

Changes in temperature, sea level and Northern Hemisphere snow cover

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1. Observed changes in (a) global average surface temperature; (b) global average sea level from tide gauge (blue) and satellite (red) data; and (c) Northern Hemisphere snow cover for March-April. All differences are relative to corresponding averages for the period 1961-1990. Smoothed curves represent decadal averaged values while circles show yearly values. The shaded areas are the uncertainty intervals estimated from a comprehensive analysis of known uncertainties (a and b) and from the time series (c). {WGI FAQ 3.1 Figure 1, Figure 4.2, Figure 5.13, Figure SPM.3}

At continental, regional and ocean basin scales, numerous long-term changes in other aspects of climate have also been observed. Trends from 1900 to 2005 have been observed in precipitation amount in many large regions. Over this period, precipitation increased significantly in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia whereas precipitation declined in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia. Globally, the area affected by drought has likely[2] increased since the 1970s. {WGI 3.3, 3.9, SPM}

Some extreme weather events have changed in frequency and/or intensity over the last 50 years:

  • It is very likely that cold days, cold nights and frosts have become less frequent over most land areas, while hot days and hot nights have become more frequent. {WGI 3.8, SPM}
  • It is likely that heat waves have become more frequent over most land areas. {WGI 3.8, SPM}
  • It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation events (or proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls) has increased over most areas. {WGI 3.8, 3.9, SPM}
  • It is likely that the incidence of extreme high sea level[3] has increased at a broad range of sites worldwide since 1975. {WGI 5.5, SPM}

There is observational evidence of an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, and suggestions of increased intense tropical cyclone activity in some other regions where concerns over data quality are greater. Multi-decadal variability and the quality of the tropical cyclone records prior to routine satellite observations in about 1970 complicate the detection of long-term trends in tropical cyclone activity. {WGI 3.8, SPM}

Average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were very likely higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the highest in at least the past 1300 years. {WGI 6.6, SPM}

Changes in physical and biological systems and surface temperature 1970-2004

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2. Locations of significant changes in data series of physical systems (snow, ice and frozen ground; hydrology; and coastal processes) and biological systems (terrestrial, marine, and freshwater biological systems), are shown together with surface air temperature changes over the period 1970-2004. A subset of about 29,000 data series was selected from about 80,000 data series from 577 studies. These met the following criteria: (1) ending in 1990 or later; (2) spanning a period of at least 20 years; and (3) showing a significant change in either direction, as assessed in individual studies. These data series are from about 75 studies (of which about 70 are new since the TAR) and contain about 29,000 data series, of which about 28,000 are from European studies. White areas do not contain sufficient observational climate data to estimate a temperature trend. The 2 x 2 boxes show the total number of data series with significant changes (top row) and the percentage of those consistent with warming (bottom row) for (i) continental regions: North America (NAM), Latin America (LA), Europe (EUR), Africa (AFR), Asia (AS), Australia and New Zealand (ANZ), and Polar Regions (PR) and (ii) global-scale: Terrestrial (TER), Marine and Freshwater (MFW), and Global (GLO). The numbers of studies from the seven regional boxes (NAM, …, PR) do not add up to the global (GLO) totals because numbers from regions except Polar do not include the numbers related to Marine and Freshwater (MFW) systems. Locations of large-area marine changes are not shown on the map. {WGII Figure SPM.1, Figure 1.8, Figure 1.9; WGI Figure 3.9b}

  1. ^  Likelihood and confidence statements in italics represent calibrated expressions of uncertainty and confidence. See Box ‘Treatment of uncertainty’ in the Introduction for an explanation of these terms.
  2. ^  Excluding tsunamis, which are not due to climate change. Extreme high sea level depends on average sea level and on regional weather systems. It is defined here as the highest 1% of hourly values of observed sea level at a station for a given reference period.