National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2021

Satellite and ocean data reveal marked increase in Earth’s heating rate

Loeb, N.G., G.C. Johnson, T.J. Thorsen, J.M. Lyman, F.G. Rose, and S. Kato

Geophys. Res. Lett., 48(13), e2021GL093047, doi: 10.1029/2021GL093047, View online (open access) (2021)

Earth's Energy Imbalance (EEI) is a relatively small (presently ∼0.3%) difference between global mean solar radiation absorbed and thermal infrared radiation emitted to space. EEI is set by natural and anthropogenic climate forcings and the climate system's response to those forcings. It is also influenced by internal variations within the climate system. Most of EEI warms the ocean; the remainder heats the land, melts ice, and warms the atmosphere. We show that independent satellite and in situ observations each yield statistically indistinguishable decadal increases in EEI from mid-2005 to mid-2019 of 0.50 ± 0.47 W m−2 decade−1 (5%–95% confidence interval). This trend is primarily due to an increase in absorbed solar radiation associated with decreased reflection by clouds and sea-ice and a decrease in outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) due to increases in trace gases and water vapor. These changes combined exceed a positive trend in OLR due to increasing global mean temperatures.

Plain Language Summary. Climate is determined by how much of the sun's energy the Earth absorbs and how much energy Earth sheds through emission of thermal infrared radiation. Their sum determines whether Earth heats up or cools down. Continued increases in concentrations of well-mixed greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and the long time-scales time required for the ocean, cryosphere, and land to come to thermal equilibrium with those increases result in a net gain of energy, hence warming, on Earth. Most of this excess energy (about 90%) warms the ocean, with the remainder heating the land, melting snow and ice, and warming the atmosphere. Here we compare satellite observations of the net radiant energy absorbed by Earth with a global array of measurements used to determine heating within the ocean, land and atmosphere, and melting of snow and ice. We show that these two independent approaches yield a decadal increase in the rate of energy uptake by Earth from mid-2005 through mid-2019, which we attribute to decreased reflection of energy back into space by clouds and sea-ice and increases in well-mixed greenhouse gases and water vapor.

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