This Section provides an updated summary of the observations that delineate how the climate system has changed in the past. Many of the variables of the climate system have been measured directly, i.e., the "instrumental record". For example, widespread direct measurements of surface temperature began around the middle of the 19th century. Near global observations of other surface "weather" variables, such as precipitation and winds, have been made for about a hundred years. Sea level measurements have been made for over 100 years in some places, but the network of tide gauges with long records provides only limited global coverage. Upper air observations have been made systematically only since the late 1940s. There are also long records of surface oceanic observations made from ships since the mid-19th century and by dedicated buoys since about the late 1970s. Sub-surface oceanic temperature measurements with near global coverage are now available from the late 1940s. Since the late 1970s, other data from Earth-observation satellites have been used to provide a wide range of global observations of various components of the climate system. In addition, a growing set of palaeoclimatic data, e.g., from trees, corals, sediments, and ice, are giving information about the Earth's climate of centuries and millennia before the present.
This Section places particular emphasis on current knowledge of past changes in key climate variables: temperature, precipitation and atmospheric moisture, snow cover, extent of land and sea ice, sea level, patterns in atmospheric and oceanic circulation, extreme weather and climate events, and overall features of the climate variability. The concluding part of this Section compares the observed trends in these various climate indicators to see if a collective picture emerges. The degree of this internal consistency is a critical factor in assessing the level of confidence in the current understanding of the climate system.
Figure 2: Combined annual land-surface air and sea surface temperature anomalies (°C) 1861 to 2000, relative to 1961 to 1990. Two standard error uncertainties are shown as bars on the annual number. [Based on Figure 2.7c]
Figure 3: Annual temperature trends for the periods 1901 to 1999, 1910 to 1945, 1946 to 1975 and 1976 to 1999 respectively. Trends are represented by the area of the circle with red representing increases, blue representing decreases, and green little or no change. Trends were calculated from annually averaged gridded anomalies with the requirement that the calculation of annual anomalies include a minimum of 10 months of data. For the period 1901 to 1999, trends were calculated only for those grid boxes containing annual anomalies in at least 66 of the 100 years. The minimum number of years required for the shorter time periods (1910 to 1945, 1946 to 1975, and 1976 to 1999) was 24, 20, and 16 years respectively. [Based on Figure 2.9]
The regional patterns of the warming that occurred in the early part of the 20th century were different than those that occurred in the latter part. Figure 3 shows the regional patterns of the warming that have occurred over the full 20th century, as well as for three component time periods. The most recent period of warming (1976 to 1999) has been almost global, but the largest increases in temperature have occurred over the mid- and high latitudes of the continents in the Northern Hemisphere. Year-round cooling is evident in the north-western North Atlantic and the central North Pacific Oceans, but the North Atlantic cooling trend has recently reversed. The recent regional patterns of temperature change have been shown to be related, in part, to various phases of atmospheric-oceanic oscillations, such as the North Atlantic-Arctic Oscillation and possibly the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Therefore, regional temperature trends over a few decades can be strongly influenced by regional variability in the climate system and can depart appreciably from a global average. The 1910 to 1945 warming was initially concentrated in the North Atlantic. By contrast, the period 1946 to 1975 showed significant cooling in the North Atlantic, as well as much of the Northern Hemisphere, and warming in much of the Southern Hemisphere.
New analyses indicate that global ocean heat content has increased significantly since the late 1950s. More than half of the increase in heat content has occurred in the upper 300 m of the ocean, equivalent to a rate of temperature increase in this layer of about 0.04°C/decade.
New analyses of daily maximum and minimum land-surface temperatures for 1950 to 1993 continue to show that this measure of diurnal temperature range is decreasing very widely, although not everywhere. On average, minimum temperatures are increasing at about twice the rate of maximum temperatures (0.2 versus 0.1°C/decade).
It is likely that the rate and duration of the warming of the 20th century
is larger than any other time during the last 1,000 years. The 1990s are likely
to have been the warmest decade of the millennium in the Northern Hemisphere,
and 1998 is likely to have been the warmest year. There has been a considerable
advance in understanding of temperature change that occurred over the last millennium,
especially from the synthesis of individual temperature reconstructions. This
new detailed temperature record for the Northern Hemisphere is shown in Figure
5. The data show a relatively warm period associated with the 11th to 14th
centuries and a relatively cool period associated with the 15th to 19th centuries
in the Northern Hemisphere. However, evidence does not support these "Medieval
Warm Period" and "Little Ice Age" periods, respectively, as being globally synchronous.
As Figure 5 indicates, the rate and
duration of warming of the Northern Hemisphere in the 20th century appears to
have been unprecedented during the millennium, and it cannot simply be considered
as a recovery from the "Little Ice Age" of the 15th to 19th centuries. These
analyses are complemented by sensitivity analysis of the spatial representativeness
of available palaeoclimatic data, indicating that the warmth of the recent decade
is outside the 95% confidence interval of temperature uncertainty, even during
the warmest periods of the last millennium. Moreover, several different analyses
have now been completed, each suggesting that the Northern Hemisphere temperatures
of the past decade have been warmer than any other time in the past six to ten
centuries. This is the time-span over which temperatures with annual resolution
can be calculated using hemispheric-wide tree-ring, ice-cores, corals, and other
annually-resolved proxy data. Because less data are available, less is known
about annual averages prior to 1,000 years before the present and for conditions
prevailing in most of the Southern Hemisphere prior to 1861.
It is likely that large rapid decadal temperature changes occurred during the last glacial and its deglaciation (between about 100,000 and 10,000 years ago), particularly in high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In a few places during the deglaciation, local increases in temperature of 5 to 10°C are likely to have occurred over periods as short as a few decades. During the last 10,000 years, there is emerging evidence of significant rapid regional temperature changes, which are part of the natural variability of climate.
Figure 4: (a) Time-series of seasonal temperature anomalies of the troposphere based on balloons and satellites in addition to the surface.
(b) Time-series of seasonal temperature anomalies of the lower stratosphere from balloons and satellites. [Based on Figure 2.12]
Figure 5: Millennial Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperature reconstruction (blue - tree rings, corals, ice cores, and historical records) and instrumental data (red) from AD 1000 to 1999. Smoother version of NH series (black), and two standard error limits (gray shaded) are shown. [Based on Figure 2.20]
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