Feedback Processes Determine How the Climate System Responds to Forcing

The response of the climate system to GHG increases and other climate forcing agents is strongly influenced by the effects of positive and negative feedback processes in the climate system. One example of a positive feedback is the water vapor feedback. Water vapor is the most important GHG in terms of its contribution to the natural green house effect (see Figure 6.1), but changes in water vapor are not considered a climate forcing because its concentration in the lower atmosphere is controlled mainly by the (natural) processes of evaporation and precipitation, rather than by human activities. Because the rate of evaporation and the ability of air to hold water vapor both increase as the climate system warms, a small initial warming will increase the amount of water vapor in the air, reinforcing the initial warming—a positive feedback loop. If, on the other hand, an initial warming were to cause an increase in the amount of low-lying clouds, which tend to cool the Earth by reflecting solar radiation back to space (especially when they occur over ocean areas), this would tend to offset some of the initial warming—a negative feedback. Other important feedbacks involve changes in other kinds of clouds, land surface properties, biogeochemical cycles, the vertical profile of temperature in the atmosphere, and the circulation of the atmosphere and oceans—all of which operate on different time scales and interact with one another in addition to responding directly to changes in temperature.

The collective effect of all feedback processes determines the sensitivity of the climate system, or how much the system will warm or cool in response to a certain amount of forcing. A variety of methods have been used to estimate climate sensitivity, which is typically expressed as the temperature change expected if atmospheric CO2 levels reach twice their preindustrial values and then remain there until the climate system reaches equilibrium, with all other climate forcings neglected. Most of these estimates indicate that the expected warming due to a doubling of CO2 is between 3.6°F and 8.1°F (2.0°C and 4.5°C), with a best estimate of 5.4°F (3.0°C). Unfortunately, the diversity and complexity of processes operating in the climate system means that, even with continued progress in understanding climate feedbacks, the exact sensitivity of the climate system will remain somewhat uncertain. Nevertheless, estimates of climate sensitivity are a useful metric for evaluating the causes of observed climate change and estimating how much Earth will ultimately warm in response to human activities.

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