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NASA: World of Change -
Global Temperatures

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NASA: World of Change - Global Temperatures

Go to the website for a very informative, simple interactive graphic.


NASA February 24, 2011

NASA: World of Change - Global Temperatures

The world is getting warmer. Whether the cause is

human activity or natural variability-and the

preponderance of evidence says it's likely

humans-thermometer readings all around the world

have risen steadily since the beginning of the

Industrial Revolution. (Click on dates above to

step through the decades.)


According to an ongoing temperature analysis

conducted by scientists at NASA's Goddard

Institute for Space Studies (GISS) and shown in

this series of maps, the average global

temperature on Earth has increased by about

0.8°Celsius (1.4°Fahrenheit) since 1880.

Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since

1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.


But why should we care about one degree of

warming? After all, the temperature fluctuates by

many degrees every day where we live.


The global temperature record represents an

average over the entire surface of the planet.

The temperatures we experience locally and in

short periods can fluctuate significantly due to

predictable cyclical events (night and day,

summer and winter) and hard-to-predict wind and

precipitation patterns. But the global

temperature mainly depends on how much energy the

planet receives from the Sun and how much it

radiates back into space-quantities that change

very little. The amount of energy radiated by the

Earth depends significantly on the chemical

composition of the atmosphere, particularly the

amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.


A one-degree global change is significant because

it takes a vast amount of heat to warm all the

oceans, atmosphere, and land by that much. In the

past, a one- to two-degree drop was all it took

to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age. A

five-degree drop was enough to bury a large part

of North America under a towering mass of ice

20,000 years ago.


The maps above show temperature anomalies, or

changes, not absolute temperature. They depict

how much various regions of the world have warmed

or cooled when compared with a base period of

1951-1980. (The global mean surface air

temperature for that period was estimated to be

14°C (57°F), with an uncertainty of several

tenths of a degree.) In other words, the maps

show how much warmer or colder a region is

compared to the norm for that region from



The data set begins in 1880 because observations

did not have sufficient global coverage prior to

that time. The period of 1951-1980 was chosen

largely because the U.S. National Weather Service

uses a three-decade period to define "normal" or

average temperature. The GISS temperature

analysis effort began around 1980, so the most

recent 30 years was 1951-1980. It is also a

period when many of today's adults grew up, so it

is a common reference that many people can



To conduct its analysis, GISS uses publicly

available data from 6,300 meteorological stations

around the world; ship-based and satellite

observations of sea surface temperature; and

Antarctic research station measurements. These

three data sets are loaded into a computer

analysis program-available for public download

from the GISS web site-that calculates trends in

temperature anomalies relative to the average

temperature for the same month during 1951-1980.


The objective, according to GISS scientists, is

to provide an estimate of temperature change that

could be compared with predictions of global

climate change in response to atmospheric carbon

dioxide, aerosols, and changes in solar activity.


As the maps show, global warming doesn't mean

temperatures rose everywhere at every time by one

degree. Temperatures in a given year or decade

might rise 5 degrees in one region and drop 2

degrees in another. Exceptionally cold winters in

one region might be followed by exceptionally

warm summers. Or a cold winter in one area might

be balanced by an extremely warm winter in

another part of the globe.


Generally, warming is greater over land than over

the oceans because water is slower to absorb and

release heat (thermal inertia). Warming may also

differ substantially within specific land masses

and ocean basins.


In the past decade (2000-2009), land temperature

changes are 50 percent greater in the United

States than ocean temperature changes; two to

three times greater in Eurasia; and three to four

times greater in the Arctic and the Antarctic

Peninsula. Warming of the ocean surface has been

largest over the Arctic Ocean, second largest

over the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans, and

third largest over most of the Atlantic Ocean.


In the analysis, the years from 1880 to 1950 tend

to appear cooler (more blues than reds), growing

less cool as we move toward the 1950s. Decades

within the base period do not appear particularly

warm or cold because they are the standard

against which all decades are measured. The

leveling off between the 1940s and 1970s may be

explained by natural variability and possibly by

cooling effects of aerosols generated by the

rapid economic growth after World War II.


Fossil fuel use also increased in the post-War

era (5 percent per year), boosting greenhouse

gases. But aerosol cooling is more immediate,

while greenhouse gases accumulate slowly and take

much longer to leave the atmosphere. The strong

warming trend of the past three decades likely

reflects a shift from comparable aerosol and

greenhouse gas effects to a predominance of

greenhouse gases, as aerosols were curbed by

pollution controls, according to GISS director

Jim Hansen.


. References


. Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato,

and K. Lo (2010). Global surface temperature

change. Reviews of Geophysics,

doi:10.1029/2010RG000345, in press.

. National Academy of Sciences

(2010). Advancing the Science of Climate Change.

Accessed December 1, 2010.

. National Academy of Sciences

(2006, July 27). Testimony to U.S. House of

Representatives -- Climate Change: Evidence and

Future Projections. Accessed November 30, 2010.

. NASA (2010, January 21). 2009:

Second Warmest Year on Record; End of Warmest

Decade. Accessed November 30, 2010.

. NASA (2010, January 21). NASA

Climatologist Gavin Schmidt Discusses the Surface

Temperature Record. Accessed November 30, 2010.

. NASA Earth Observatory (2010,

June 3) Fact Sheet: Global Warming. November 30,


. NASA Goddard Institute for Space

Studies (n.d.). GISS Surface Temperature

Analysis. Accessed November 30, 2010.

. NOAA National Climatic Data

Center (n.d.). Global Warming Frequently Asked

Questions. Accessed December 1, 2010.

. NOAA Paleoclimatology. (n.d.)

Climate Timeline Tool: Climate Resources for 1000

Years. Accessed December 1, 2010.

. NOAA Satellite and Information

Service (2010, July) State of the Climate in

2009. Accessed December 1, 2010.


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