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The Science Behind Global Warming Theories
by tyler Sunday, Feb. 01, 2004 at 12:57 AM

Section 4 of Perspectives on Global Warming: A Primer

The Science Behind Global Warming Theories

Scientists who study climate change have noted that global warming is not a distant possibility, but may be under way right now. Global mean surface temperature has increased about 1.1F (0.6C) since the beginning of the 20th century, there has been a significant loss of glacial and polar ice, global sea level has risen between 3.9 and 10 in. (10 - 25 cm), and more frequent, persistent and intense El Ninos have been observed in recent decades. While some scientists claim that this is natural fluctuation in temperature, or it is due to the earth getting closer to the sun, there is increasingly clear evidence that this increase in temperature is directly related to human activities, namely the burning of fossil fuels. This article will give a succinct explanation of the science behind the global warming debate. For those interested in reading more detailed analysis, with charts and tables, please visit the links below.

The "greenhouse effect" is actually natural, to some degree. Large amounts of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other "greenhouse gases" exist in the atmosphere naturally, and they keep the earth at a relatively stable temperature by allowing sunlight in, but preventing a great deal of heat from escaping into space. If the greenhouse effect did not exist here on earth, the planet would be inhospitable. A problem, however, arises when the greenhouse effect becomes accelerated. Plant respiration and other natural processes release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere constantly, but for millions of years, the carbon dioxide has been reabsorbed at the same rate by other natural processes and the greenhouse effect has stayed in a state of balance. Since the industrial revolution, however, humans' burning of fossil fuels and other activities, such as production of chemicals like aerosols and massive deforestation, has tipped that balance significantly.

Climate scientists try to predict what will happen now that this balance has been disrupted. Their method is complicated, and involves a great deal of uncertainty. They chart the current temperature trends, then compare them with estimations of global temperature changes in the past. They also measure the amount of emissions released into the air, as well as the amount of deforestation and other significant changes in the atmosphere and oceans, and they compare those changes with the current changes in temperature. This becomes very difficult, as the number of factors that must be considered is gigantic. Once they have some idea of how the earth's temperature has tended to naturally change, and how it is changing now with the human acceleration of the greenhouse effect, they make computer models in order to predict future temperatures. Generally, a collection of scientists with differing ideas of which data is important independently create about two dozen computer models, then predict a range of possible changes. Though there are dissenters, most of the prominent scientific community is very concerned about the results of these models. While some have come to the conclusion that humans actually have very little impact on climate, most of the computer models employed thus far have given predictions from minor discomfort to global catastrophe. But because the calculations are extremely complicated, and we do not yet have enough proven facts about the combined effects of these various factors, all scientists agree that these models are still unrefined, and more research will be necessary if more accurate predictions are expected.

Climate scientists are also able to determine, to a very high degree of accuracy, the sources of all the greenhouse gases. They also know of methods creating "carbon sinks," which are places to which carbon from the atmosphere can be transferred. These range from very simple, like planting trees, to complex and expensive, like ocean sequestering. These parts of climate science are very important in determining the most effective ways of preventing and reversing global warming.


Other Articles about Global Warming:

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