IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

9.2.4 Summary

The uncertainty in the magnitude and spatial pattern of forcing differs considerably between forcings. For example, well-mixed greenhouse gas forcing is relatively well constrained and spatially homogeneous. In contrast, uncertainties are large for many non-greenhouse gas forcings. Inverse model studies, which use methods closely related to those used in climate change detection research, indicate that the magnitude of the total net aerosol forcing has a likely range of –1.7 to –0.1 W m–2. As summarised in Chapter 2, forward calculations of aerosol radiative forcing, which do not depend on knowledge of observed climate change or the ability of climate models to simulate the transient response to forcings, provide results (–2.2 to –0.5 W m–2; 5 to 95%) that are quite consistent with inverse estimates; the uncertainty ranges from inverse and forward calculations are different due to the use of different information. The large uncertainty in total aerosol forcing makes it more difficult to accurately infer the climate sensitivity from observations (Section 9.6). It also increases uncertainties in results that attribute cause to observed climate change (Section, and is in part responsible for differences in probabilistic projections of future climate change (Chapter 10). Forcings from black carbon, fossil fuel organic matter and biomass burning aerosols, which have not been considered in most detection studies performed to date, are likely small but with large uncertainties relative to the magnitudes of the forcings.

Uncertainties also differ between natural forcings and sometimes between different time scales for the same forcing. For example, while the 11-year solar forcing cycle is well documented, lower-frequency variations in solar forcing are highly uncertain. Furthermore, the physics of the response to solar forcing and some feedbacks are still poorly understood. In contrast, the timing and duration of forcing due to aerosols ejected into the stratosphere by large volcanic eruptions is well known during the instrumental period, although the magnitude of that forcing is uncertain.

Differences in the temporal evolution and sometimes the spatial pattern of climate response to external forcing make it possible, with limitations, to separate the response to these forcings in observations, such as the responses to greenhouse gas and sulphate aerosol forcing. In contrast, the climate response and temporal evolution of other anthropogenic forcings is more uncertain, making the simulation of the climate response and its detection in observations more difficult. The temporal evolution, and to some extent the spatial and vertical pattern, of the climate response to natural forcings is also quite different from that of anthropogenic forcing. This makes it possible to separate the climate response to solar and volcanic forcing from the response to anthropogenic forcing despite the uncertainty in the history of solar forcing noted above.