Climate Change 2001:
Working Group I: The Scientific Basis
Other reports in this collection

B.2 Observed Changes in Precipitation and Atmospheric Moisture

Since the time of the SAR, annual land precipitation has continued to increase in the middle and high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere (very likely to be 0.5 to 1%/decade), except over Eastern Asia. Over the sub-tropics (10°N to 30°N), land-surface rainfall has decreased on average (likely to be about 0.3%/decade), although this has shown signs of recovery in recent years. Tropical land-surface precipitation measurements indicate that precipitation likely has increased by about 0.2 to 0.3%/ decade over the 20th century, but increases are not evident over the past few decades and the amount of tropical land (versus ocean) area for the latitudes 10°N to 10°S is relatively small. Nonetheless, direct measurements of precipitation and model reanalyses of inferred precipitation indicate that rainfall has also increased over large parts of the tropical oceans. Where and when available, changes in annual streamflow often relate well to changes in total precipitation. The increases in precipitation over Northern Hemisphere mid- and high latitude land areas have a strong correlation to long-term increases in total cloud amount. In contrast to the Northern Hemisphere, no comparable systematic changes in precipitation have been detected in broad latitudinal averages over the Southern Hemisphere.

It is likely that total atmospheric water vapour has increased several per cent per decade over many regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Changes in water vapour over approximately the past 25 years have been analysed for selected regions using in situ surface observations, as well as lower-tropospheric measurements from satellites and weather balloons. A pattern of overall surface and lower-tropospheric water vapour increases over the past few decades is emerging from the most reliable data sets, although there are likely to be time-dependent biases in these data and regional variations in the trends. Water vapour in the lower stratosphere is also likely to have increased by about 10% per decade since the beginning of the observational record (1980).

Changes in total cloud amounts over Northern Hemisphere mid- and high latitude continental regions indicate a likely increase in cloud cover of about 2% since the beginning of the 20th century, which has now been shown to be positively correlated with decreases in the diurnal temperature range. Similar changes have been shown over Australia, the only Southern Hemisphere continent where such an analysis has been completed. Changes in total cloud amount are uncertain both over sub-tropical and tropical land areas, as well as over the oceans.

B.3 Observed Changes in Snow Cover and Land- and Sea-Ice Extent

Decreasing snow cover and land-ice extent continue to be positively correlated with increasing land-surface temperatures. Satellite data show that there are very likely to have been decreases of about 10% in the extent of snow cover since the late 1960s. There is a highly significant correlation between increases in Northern Hemisphere land temperatures and the decreases. There is now ample evidence to support a major retreat of alpine and continental glaciers in response to 20th century warming. In a few maritime regions, increases in precipitation due to regional atmospheric circulation changes have overshadowed increases in temperature in the past two decades, and glaciers have re-advanced. Over the past 100 to 150 years, ground-based observations show that there is very likely to have been a reduction of about two weeks in the annual duration of lake and river ice in the mid- to high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere.

Northern Hemisphere sea-ice amounts are decreasing, but no significant trends in Antarctic sea-ice extent are apparent. A retreat of sea-ice extent in the Arctic spring and summer of 10 to 15% since the 1950s is consistent with an increase in spring temperatures and, to a lesser extent, summer temperatures in the high latitudes. There is little indication of reduced Arctic sea-ice extent during winter when temperatures have increased in the surrounding region. By contrast, there is no readily apparent relationship between decadal changes of Antarctic temperatures and sea-ice extent since 1973. After an initial decrease in the mid-1970s, Antarctic sea-ice extent has remained stable, or even slightly increased.

Figure 6: Time-series of relative sea level for the past 300 years from Northern Europe: Amsterdam, Netherlands; Brest, France; Sheerness, UK; Stockholm, Sweden (detrended over the period 1774 to 1873 to remove to first order the contribution of post-glacial rebound); Swinoujscie, Poland (formerly Swinemunde, Germany); and Liverpool, UK. Data for the latter are of "Adjusted Mean High Water" rather than Mean Sea Level and include a nodal (18.6 year) term. The scale bar indicates ±100 mm. [Based on Figure 11.7]

New data indicate that there likely has been an approximately 40% decline in Arctic sea-ice thickness in late summer to early autumn between the period of 1958 to 1976 and the mid-1990s, and a substantially smaller decline in winter. The relatively short record length and incomplete sampling limit the interpretation of these data. Interannual variability and inter-decadal variability could be influencing these changes.

B.4 Observed Changes in Sea Level

Changes during the instrumental record

Based on tide gauge data, the rate of global mean sea level rise during the 20th century is in the range 1.0 to 2.0 mm/yr, with a central value of 1.5 mm/yr (the central value should not be interpreted as a best estimate). (See Box 2 for the factors that influence sea level.) As Figure 6 indicates, the longest instrumental records (two or three centuries at most) of local sea level come from tide gauges. Based on the very few long tide-gauge records, the average rate of sea level rise has been larger during the 20th century than during the 19th century. No significant acceleration in the rate of sea level rise during the 20th century has been detected. This is not inconsistent with model results due to the possibility of compensating factors and the limited data.

Changes during the pre-instrumental record

Since the last glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago, the sea level in locations far from present and former ice sheets has risen by over 120 m as a result of loss of mass from these ice sheets. Vertical land movements, both upward and downward, are still occurring in response to these large transfers of mass from ice sheets to oceans. The most rapid rise in global sea level was between 15,000 and 6,000 years ago, with an average rate of about 10 mm/yr. Based on geological data, eustatic sea level (i.e., corresponding to a change in ocean volume) may have risen at an average rate of 0.5 mm/yr over the past 6,000 years and at an average rate of 0.1 to 0.2 mm/yr over the last 3,000 years. This rate is about one tenth of that occurring during the 20th century. Over the past 3,000 to 5,000 years, oscillations in global sea level on time-scales of 100 to 1,000 years are unlikely to have exceeded 0.3 to 0.5 m.

Box 2: What causes sea level to change?

The level of the sea at the shoreline is determined by many factors in the global environment that operate on a great range of time-scales, from hours (tidal) to millions of years (ocean basin changes due to tectonics and sedimentation). On the time-scale of decades to centuries, some of the largest influences on the average levels of the sea are linked to climate and climate change processes.

Firstly, as ocean water warms, it expands. On the basis of observations of ocean temperatures and model results, thermal expansion is believed to be one of the major contributors to historical sea level changes. Further, thermal expansion is expected to contribute the largest component to sea level rise over the next hundred years. Deep ocean temperatures change only slowly; therefore, thermal expansion would continue for many centuries even if the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases were to stabilise.

The amount of warming and the depth of water affected vary with location. In addition, warmer water expands more than colder water for a given change in temperature. The geographical distribution of sea level change results from the geographical variation of thermal expansion, changes in salinity, winds, and ocean circulation. The range of regional variation is substantial compared with the global average sea level rise.

Sea level also changes when the mass of water in the ocean increases or decreases. This occurs when ocean water is exchanged with the water stored on land. The major land store is the water frozen in glaciers or ice sheets. Indeed, the main reason for the lower sea level during the last glacial period was the amount of water stored in the large extension of the ice sheets on the continents of the Northern Hemisphere. After thermal expansion, the melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps is expected to make the largest contribution to the rise of sea level over the next hundred years. These glaciers and ice caps make up only a few per cent of the world's land-ice area, but they are more sensitive to climate change than the larger ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, because the ice sheets are in colder climates with low precipitation and low melting rates. Consequently, the large ice sheets are expected to make only a small net contribution to sea level change in the coming decades.

Sea level is also influenced by processes that are not explicitly related to climate change. Terrestrial water storage (and hence, sea level) can be altered by extraction of ground water, building of reservoirs, changes in surface runoff, and seepage into deep aquifers from reservoirs and irrigation. These factors may be offsetting a significant fraction of the expected acceleration in sea level rise from thermal expansion and glacial melting. In addition, coastal subsidence in river delta regions can also influence local sea level. Vertical land movements caused by natural geological processes, such as slow movements in the Earth's mantle and tectonic displacements of the crust, can have effects on local sea level that are comparable to climate-related impacts. Lastly, on seasonal, interannual, and decadal time-scales, sea level responds to changes in atmospheric and ocean dynamics, with the most striking example occurring during El Niño events.

Other reports in this collection