Earth’s climate is determined by a delicate balance between how much of the Sun’s radiative energy is absorbed in the atmosphere and at the surface and how much thermal infrared radiation Earth emits to space. A positive energy imbalance means the Earth system is gaining energy, causing the planet to heat up. The doubling of the energy imbalance is the topic of a recent study published June 15 in Geophysical Research Letters.
Scientists at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration compared data from two independent sets of measurements. NASA’s Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES) satellite sensors measure how much energy enters and leaves Earth’s system. A global array of ocean floats, called Argo, provide data to enable an accurate estimate of the rate at which the world’s oceans are warming. Since approximately 90 percent of the excess energy from an energy imbalance ends up in the ocean, the overall trends of incoming and outgoing radiation should broadly agree with changes in ocean heat content.
“The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth’s energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they’re both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we’re seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact,” said Norman Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense.”
“It’s likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability,” said Loeb. “And over this period they’re both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth’s energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented.”
Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. The warming drives other changes, such as the melting of snow and ice, increased water vapor, and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming. Earth’s energy imbalance is the net effect of all these factors.
In order to determine the factors driving the imbalance, the investigators examined changes in clouds, water vapor, trace gases, the output of light from the Sun, Earth’s surface albedo (the amount of light reflected by the surface), atmospheric aerosols, and changes in surface and atmospheric temperature distributions.
The scientists found that the doubling of the energy imbalance is partially the result an increase in greenhouse gases from human activity, also known as anthropogenic forcing. It can also be attributed to increases in water vapor, which traps more outgoing longwave radiation and further contributes to Earth’s energy imbalance. The related decrease in clouds and sea ice also lead to more absorption of solar energy.
The authors also found that a flip of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) from a cool phase to a warm phase likely played a major role in the intensification of the energy imbalance. The PDO is a pattern of Pacific climate variability in which a massive wedge of water in the eastern Pacific goes through cool and warm phases. This naturally occurring internal variability in the ocean can have far-reaching effects on weather and climate. An intensely warm PDO phase that began around 2014 and continued until 2020 caused a widespread reduction in cloud coverage over the ocean and a corresponding increase in the absorption of solar radiation.
“The lengthening and highly complementary records from Argo and CERES have allowed us both to pin down Earth’s energy imbalance with increasing accuracy, and to study its variations and trends with increasing insight, as time goes on,” said Gregory Johnson, co-author on the study and physical oceanographer at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. “Observing the magnitude and variations of this energy imbalance are vital to understanding Earth’s changing climate.”
Loeb cautions that the study is only a snapshot relative to long-term climate change, and that it is not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for Earth’s energy budget. The study does conclude, however, that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate should be expected.