Weather and climate
Weather and climate have a profound influence on life on Earth. They are part of the daily experience of human beings and are essential for health, food production and well-being. Many consider the prospect of human-induced climate change as a matter of concern. The IPCC Second Assessment Report (IPCC, 1996) (hereafter SAR) presented scientific evidence that human activities may already be influencing the climate. If one wishes to understand, detect and eventually predict the human influence on climate, one needs to understand the system that determines the climate of the Earth and of the processes that lead to climate change.
In common parlance the notions "weather" and "climate" are loosely defined1. The "weather", as we experience it, is the fluctuating state of the atmosphere around us, characterised by the temperature, wind, precipitation, clouds and other weather elements. This weather is the result of rapidly developing and decaying weather systems such as mid-latitude low and high pressure systems with their associated frontal zones, showers and tropical cyclones. Weather has only limited predictability. Mesoscale convective systems are predictable over a period of hours only; synoptic scale cyclones may be predictable over a period of several days to a week. Beyond a week or two individual weather systems are unpredictable. "Climate" refers to the average weather in terms of the mean and its variability over a certain time-span and a certain area. Classical climatology provides a classification and description of the various climate regimes found on Earth. Climate varies from place to place, depending on latitude, distance to the sea, vegetation, presence or absence of mountains or other geographical factors. Climate varies also in time; from season to season, year to year, decade to decade or on much longer time-scales, such as the Ice Ages. Statistically significant variations of the mean state of the climate or of its variability, typically persisting for decades or longer, are referred to as "climate change". The Glossary gives definitions of these important and central notions of "climate variability" and "climate change".
Climate variations and change, caused by external forcings, may be partly predictable, particularly on the larger, continental and global, spatial scales. Because human activities, such as the emission of greenhouse gases or land-use change, do result in external forcing, it is believed that the large-scale aspects of human-induced climate change are also partly predictable. However the ability to actually do so is limited because we cannot accurately predict population change, economic change, technological development, and other relevant characteristics of future human activity. In practice, therefore, one has to rely on carefully constructed scenarios of human behaviour and determine climate projections on the basis of such scenarios.
The traditional knowledge of weather and climate focuses on those variables that affect daily life most directly: average, maximum and minimum temperature, wind near the surface of the Earth, precipitation in its various forms, humidity, cloud type and amount, and solar radiation. These are the variables observed hourly by a large number of weather stations around the globe.
However this is only part of the reality that determines weather and climate. The growth, movement and decay of weather systems depend also on the vertical structure of the atmosphere, the influence of the underlying land and sea and many other factors not directly experienced by human beings. Climate is determined by the atmospheric circulation and by its interactions with the large-scale ocean currents and the land with its features such as albedo, vegetation and soil moisture. The climate of the Earth as a whole depends on factors that influence the radiative balance, such as for example, the atmospheric composition, solar radiation or volcanic eruptions. To understand the climate of our planet Earth and its variations and to understand and possibly predict the changes of the climate brought about by human activities, one cannot ignore any of these many factors and components that determine the climate. We must understand the climate system, the complicated system consisting of various components, including the dynamics and composition of the atmosphere, the ocean, the ice and snow cover, the land surface and its features, the many mutual interactions between them, and the large variety of physical, chemical and biological processes taking place in and among these components. "Climate" in a wider sense refers to the state of the climate system as a whole, including a statistical description of its variations. This chapter provides the reader with an overview of the climate system and the climate in this wider sense, and acts as an introduction to the Report.
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