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

Direct Observations of Recent Climate Change

Since the TAR, progress in understanding how climate is changing in space and in 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. Increasingly comprehensive observations are available for glaciers and snow cover since the 1960s, and for sea level and ice sheets since about the past decade. However, data coverage remains limited in some regions.

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 (see Figure SPM.3). {3.2, 4.2, 5.5}

Changes in Temperature, Sea Level and Northern Hemisphere Snow Cover

Figure SPM.3

Figure SPM.3. 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 changes are relative to corresponding averages for the period 1961–1990. Smoothed curves represent decadal average 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). {FAQ 3.1 Figure 1, Figure 4.2, Figure 5.13}

  • Eleven of the last twelve years (1995–2006) rank among the 12 warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature[9] (since 1850). The updated 100-year linear trend (1906 to 2005) of 0.74°C [0.56°C to 0.92°C] is therefore larger than the corresponding trend for 1901 to 2000 given in the TAR of 0.6°C [0.4°C to 0.8°C]. The linear warming trend over the last 50 years (0.13°C [0.10°C to 0.16°C] per decade) is nearly twice that for the last 100 years. The total temperature increase from 1850–1899 to 2001–2005 is 0.76°C [0.57°C to 0.95°C]. Urban heat island effects are real but local, and have a negligible influence (less than 0.006°C per decade over land and zero over the oceans) on these values. {3.2}
  • New analyses of balloon-borne and satellite measurements of lower- and mid-tropospheric temperature show warming rates that are similar to those of the surface temperature record and are consistent within their respective uncertainties, largely reconciling a discrepancy noted in the TAR. {3.2, 3.4}
  • The average atmospheric water vapour content has increased since at least the 1980s over land and ocean as well as in the upper troposphere. The increase is broadly consistent with the extra water vapour that warmer air can hold. {3.4}
  • Observations since 1961 show that the average temperature of the global ocean has increased to depths of at least 3000 m and that the ocean has been absorbing more than 80% of the heat added to the climate system. Such warming causes seawater to expand, contributing to sea level rise (see Table SPM.1). {5.2, 5.5}
  • Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined on average in both hemispheres. Widespread decreases in glaciers and ice caps have contributed to sea level rise (ice caps do not include contributions from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets). (See Table SPM.1.) {4.6, 4.7, 4.8, 5.5}
  • New data since the TAR now show that losses from the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have very likely contributed to sea level rise over 1993 to 2003 (see Table SPM.1). Flow speed has increased for some Greenland and Antarctic outlet glaciers, which drain ice from the interior of the ice sheets. The corresponding increased ice sheet mass loss has often followed thinning, reduction or loss of ice shelves or loss of floating glacier tongues. Such dynamical ice loss is sufficient to explain most of the Antarctic net mass loss and approximately half of the Greenland net mass loss. The remainder of the ice loss from Greenland has occurred because losses due to melting have exceeded accumulation due to snowfall. {4.6, 4.8, 5.5}

Table SPM.1. Observed rate of sea level rise and estimated contributions from different sources. {5.5, Table 5.3}

 Rate of sea level rise (mm per year) 
Source of sea level rise  1961–2003  1993–2003 
Thermal expansion  0.42 ± 0.12  1.6 ± 0.5 
Glaciers and ice caps  0.50 ± 0.18  0.77 ± 0.22 
Greenland Ice Sheet  0.05 ± 0.12  0.21 ± 0.07 
Antarctic Ice Sheet  0.14 ± 0.41  0.21 ± 0.35 
Sum of individual climate contributions to sea level rise 1.1 ± 0.5  2.8 ± 0.7 
Observed total sea level rise  1.8 ± 0.5a  3.1 ± 0.7a 
Difference(Observed minus sum of estimated climate contributions)  0.7 ± 0.7  0.3 ± 1.0 

Table note:

a Data prior to 1993 are from tide gauges and after 1993 are from satellite altimetry.

  • Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3] mm per year over 1961 to 2003. The rate was faster over 1993 to 2003: about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8] mm per year. Whether the faster rate for 1993 to 2003 reflects decadal variability or an increase in the longer-term trend is unclear. There is high confidence that the rate of observed sea level rise increased from the 19th to the 20th century. The total 20th-century rise is estimated to be 0.17 [0.12 to 0.22] m. {5.5}
  • For 1993 to 2003, the sum of the climate contributions is consistent within uncertainties with the total sea level rise that is directly observed (see Table SPM.1). These estimates are based on improved satellite and in situ data now available. For the period 1961 to 2003, the sum of climate contributions is estimated to be smaller than the observed sea level rise. The TAR reported a similar discrepancy for 1910 to 1990. {5.5}

At continental, regional and ocean basin scales, numerous long-term changes in climate have been observed. These include changes in arctic temperatures and ice, widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity, wind patterns and aspects of extreme weather including droughts, heavy precipitation, heat waves and the intensity of tropical cyclones.[10] {3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.5, 3.6, 5.2}

  • Average arctic temperatures increased at almost twice the global average rate in the past 100 years. Arctic temperatures have high decadal variability, and a warm period was also observed from 1925 to 1945. {3.2}
  • 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. These values are consistent with those reported in the TAR. {4.4}
  • Temperatures at the top of the permafrost layer have generally increased since the 1980s in the Arctic (by up to 3°C). The maximum area covered by seasonally frozen ground has decreased by about 7% in the Northern Hemisphere since 1900, with a decrease in spring of up to 15%. {4.7}
  • Long-term trends from 1900 to 2005 have been observed in precipitation amount over many large regions.[11] Significantly increased precipitation has been observed in eastern parts of North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia. Drying has been observed in the Sahel, the Mediterranean, southern Africa and parts of southern Asia. Precipitation is highly variable spatially and temporally, and data are limited in some regions. Long-term trends have not been observed for the other large regions assessed.[11] {3.3, 3.9}
  • Changes in precipitation and evaporation over the oceans are suggested by freshening of mid- and high-latitude waters together with increased salinity in low-latitude waters. {5.2}
  • Mid-latitude westerly winds have strengthened in both hemispheres since the 1960s. {3.5}
  • More intense and longer droughts have been observed over wider areas since the 1970s, particularly in the tropics and subtropics. Increased drying linked with higher temperatures and decreased precipitation has contributed to changes in drought. Changes in sea surface temperatures, wind patterns and decreased snowpack and snow cover have also been linked to droughts. {3.3}
  • The frequency of heavy precipitation events has increased over most land areas, consistent with warming and observed increases of atmospheric water vapour. {3.8, 3.9}
  • Widespread changes in extreme temperatures have been observed over the last 50 years. Cold days, cold nights and frost have become less frequent, while hot days, hot nights and heat waves have become more frequent (see Table SPM.2). {3.8}

Table SPM.2. Recent trends, assessment of human influence on the trend and projections for extreme weather events for which there is an observed late-20th century trend. {Tables 3.7, 3.8, 9.4; Sections 3.8, 5.5, 9.7, 11.211.9}

Phenomenona and direction of trend  Likelihood that trend occurred in late 20th century (typically post 1960)  Likelihood of a human contribution to observed trendb  Likelihood of future trends based on projections for 21st century using SRES scenarios 
Warmer and fewer cold days and nights over most land areas  Very likelyc  Likelyd  Virtually certaind 
Warmer and more frequent hot days and nights over most land areas  Very likelye  Likely (nights)d  Virtually certaind 
Warm spells/heat waves.Frequency increases over most land areas  Likely  More likely than notf  Very likely 
Heavy precipitation events.Frequency (or proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls)increases over most areas  Likely  More likely than notf  Very likely 
Area affected by droughts increases  Likely in many regions since 1970s  More likely than not  Likely 
Intense tropical cyclone activity increases  Likely in some regions since 1970  More likely than notf  Likely 
Increased incidence of extreme high sea level (excludes tsunamis)g Likely  More likely than notf,h  Likelyi 

Table notes:

a See Table 3.7 for further details regarding definitions.

b See Table TS.4, Box TS.5 and Table 9.4.

c Decreased frequency of cold days and nights (coldest 10%).

d Warming of the most extreme days and nights each year.

e Increased frequency of hot days and nights (hottest 10%).

f Magnitude of anthropogenic contributions not assessed. Attribution for these phenomena based on expert judgement rather than formal attribution studies.

g 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.

h Changes in observed extreme high sea level closely follow the changes in average sea level. {5.5} It is very likely that anthropogenic activity contributed to a rise in average sea level. {9.5}

i In all scenarios, the projected global average sea level at 2100 is higher than in the reference period. {10.6} The effect of changes in regional weather systems on sea level extremes has not been assessed.

  • There is observational evidence for an increase in intense tropical cyclone activity in the North Atlantic since about 1970, correlated with increases of tropical sea surface temperatures. There are also 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. There is no clear trend in the annual numbers of tropical cyclones. {3.8}

Some aspects of climate have not been observed to change. {3.2, 3.8, 4.4, 5.3}

  • A decrease in diurnal temperature range (DTR) was reported in the TAR, but the data available then extended only from 1950 to 1993. Updated observations reveal that DTR has not changed from 1979 to 2004 as both day- and night-time temperature have risen at about the same rate. The trends are highly variable from one region to another. {3.2}
  • Antarctic sea ice extent continues to show interannual variability and localised changes but no statistically significant average trends, consistent with the lack of warming reflected in atmospheric temperatures averaged across the region. {3.2, 4.4}
  • There is insufficient evidence to determine whether trends exist in the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) of the global ocean or in small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes, hail, lightning and dust-storms. {3.8, 5.3}
  1. ^  The average of near-surface air temperature over land and sea surface temperature.
  2. ^  Tropical cyclones include hurricanes and typhoons.
  3. ^  The assessed regions are those considered in the regional projections chapter of the TAR and in Chapter 11 of this report.