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Earth's Climate Now Starting to Change Faster Than Ever

Mar 11, 2015 06:06 PM EDT
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We all know that climate change is a current reality - even the US Senate says so - but now the Earth is entering a new era, one during which the climate will likely start to change faster than ever, according to a new analysis.

During this study, a team at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory examined historical and projected changes over decades, rather than centuries, to see what kind of warming world we can expect.

"We focused on changes over 40-year periods, which is similar to the lifetime of houses and human-built infrastructure such as buildings and roads," lead author Steve Smith said in a news release. "In the near term, we're going to have to adapt to these changes."

It's typical for global temperatures to fluctuate, but while such natural processes have been well-studied, scientists still don't understand how quickly temperatures have changed, and can change over time scales relevant to society - such as over a person's lifetime.

So to better examine rates of change, Smith and his colleagues used the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), which combines simulations from over two-dozen climate models. These models take into account past and future greenhouse gas concentrations, pollutant emissions, and changes to how land is used.

Between 1850 and 1930, when fossil fuels were not as widespread as they are today, temperature changes in North America and Europe rose and fell as much as 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade.

However, from 1971 to 2020, they found that the average rate of change over North America, for example, was about 0.3 degrees Celsius per decade - that's higher than can be accounted for by natural variability alone.

"In these climate model simulations, the world is just now starting to enter into a new place, where rates of temperature change are consistently larger than historical values over 40-year time spans," said Smith. "We need to better understand what the effects of this will be and how to prepare for them."

These findings suggest that the Earth, which is experiencing record-high levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, will see faster climate changes throughout the rest of this century.

The results were published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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