proxy indicators, some with annual resolution and others with less resolved time resolution. The data become relatively sparse prior to 1600, and are subject to uncertainties related to spatial completeness and interpretation making the results somewhat equivocal, e.g., less than 90% confidence. Achieving greater certainty as to the magnitude of climate variations before that time will require more extensive data and analysis.
Although warming at Earth's surface has been quite pronounced during the past few decades, satellite measurements beginning in 1979 indicate relatively little warming of air temperature in the troposphere. The committee concurs with the findings of a recent National Research Council report, 1which concluded that the observed difference between surface and tropospheric temperature trends during the past 20 years is probably real, as well as its cautionary statement to the effect that temperature trends based on such short periods of record, with arbitrary start and end points, are not necessarily indicative of the long-term behavior of the climate system. The finding that surface and troposphere temperature trends have been as different as observed over intervals as long as a decade or two is difficult to reconcile with our current understanding of the processes that control the vertical distribution of temperature in the atmosphere.
Because of the large and still uncertain level of natural variability inherent in the climate record and the uncertainties in the time histories of the various forcing agents (and particularly aerosols), a causal linkage between the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established. The fact that the magnitude of the observed warming is large in comparison to natural variability as simulated in climate models is suggestive of such a linkage, but it does not constitute proof of one because the model simulations could be deficient in natural variability on the decadal to century time scale. The warming that has been estimated to have occurred in response to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is somewhat greater than the observed warming. At least some of this excess warming has been offset by the cooling effect of sulfate aerosols, and in any case one should not necessarily expect an exact correspondence because of the presence of natural variability.
The cooling trend in the stratosphere, evident in radiosonde data since the 1960s and confirmed by satellite observations starting in 1979, is so pronounced as to be difficult to explain on the basis of natural variability alone. This trend is believed to be partially a result of stratospheric ozone depletion and partially a result of the buildup of greenhouse gases, which warm the atmosphere at low levels but cool it at high levels. The circulation of the stratosphere has responded to the radiatively induced temperature changes in such a way as to concentrate the effects in high latitudes of the winter hemisphere, where cooling of up to 5°C (9°F) has been observed.
There have been significant changes in the atmospheric circulation during the past several decades: e.g., the transition in climate over the Pacific sector around 1976 that was analogous in some respects to a transition toward more “El Niño-like” conditions over much of the Pacific, and the more gradual strengthening of the wintertime westerlies over sub-polar latitudes of both Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Such features bear watching, lest they be early indications of changes in the natural modes of atmospheric variability triggered by human induced climate change. To place them in context, however, it is worth keeping in mind that there were events of comparable significance earlier in the record, such as the 1930s dust bowl.
1Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change, 2000.