Contribution by factors of cooling and warming

Continued (relatively) low solar activity

Over the past 5 years, the reduced solar activity has continued and, thus, likely also has slightly reduced global warming over that period. In the discussion at the time, Strengers wrote: ‘astrophysics [...] cannot rule out the possibility of a long period of relatively low activity. This could lead to a reduction in warming of up to 0.4 °C (although 0.2 °C is more likely) over the coming 20 to 30 years.’ The past 5 years, therefore, are in keeping with the idea that such a period of relatively low activity is a fact, but the degree to which this reduction will actually continue over the coming years, or for how long it will go on, is still very uncertain.

Relatively high heat uptake by the (deep) oceans

Over 90% of the heat that is added to the climate system, particularly caused by the increase in greenhouse gases, ends up in the oceans. Only a few per cent is stored in the atmosphere. The remainder is absorbed by the land surface and ice sheets (which are therefore steadily melting). Variations in oceanic heat uptake can have a large impact on surface temperatures. According to a recent study by England et al., published in December 2013 in Nature, there has been increased heat uptake by the oceans since 2001, which since then has reduced warming by 0.1 to 0.2 °C. The added heat seem to be concentrated largely around the equator in the western part of the Pacific Ocean, at a depth of around 125 to 200 metres, which means it remains ‘hidden’ from the atmosphere. England and his team do not expect this heat storage effect to continue in this way and they project that, at a certain moment, temperatures at the surface level will begin to increase more rapidly. This could happen, for example, due to an El Niño with large amounts of heat being released suddenly, possibly causing temperatures to jump, as happened in 1997–1998 during the so-called super El Niño. Over the past months, a new El Niño seems to be developing. If this continues into 2015, this year may end up being even warmer than the record year of 2014.

A period of cooling due to incidental variations in the climate

The climate knows random variations. Strengers wrote that these may lead to longer periods of no warming or even cooling, even under a steady increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. During the discussions, Strengers pointed to a study which shows on the basis of climate models that periods of up to 16 years of random cooling or non-warming may occur, even in an overall warming climate. Recent research shows that a combination of random factors likely has led to a reduction in temperature increases over the past 15 years (see the section below, ‘IPCC's ‘best-estimate’ is that of a warming of around 0.2 °C per decade’, for more details). However, this reduction in warming was not high enough for the past 5 years to be cooler than the decade before that.

Lower climate sensitivity than expected

The IPCC – the scientific body that inventories all knowledge on climate change every 5 to 7 years – stated in 2007 in its fourth assessment report (AR4) that climate sensitivity was likely (i.e.  with a likelihood of 66%) between 2.0 and 4.5 °C, with a ‘best estimate’ of 3 °C. The fifth assessment report (2013) stated a range of 1.5 to 4.5 °C without giving a ‘best estimate’. The reason for the downward adjustment of the lower limit to 1.5 °C (at which it had been estimated since 1990) originated from a number of studies that pointed to the possibility of a low climate sensitivity. The ‘best estimate’ was not provided “because of a lack of agreement on values across assessed lines of evidence and studies” (i.e. based on all studies up to and including July 2012). All this, however, does not mean that climate sensitivity was ‘less than expected’. In fact, the only thing that can be concluded is that the value of climate sensitivity has become more uncertain.

Further increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere

Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have steadily increased over the past 5 years. By late 2014, CO2 concentrations were at 399 ppm (399 molecules of CO2 per million molecules of air). Five years ago this level was 388 ppm. The increase is a direct result from an ever faster increase in CO2 emissions, particularly in countries such as India and China. 

IPCC's ‘best-estimate’ is that of a warming of around 0.2 °C per decade

At the time of IPCC’s fourth assessment report, in 2007, a global warming of 0.2 °C was assumed for the current decade (2010–2019), particularly on the basis of climate model results. As discussed above, the degree of warming according to the UAH series, which is based on satellite measurements, was 0.1 °C over the last 5 years, compared to the mean of the 10 years before that. If this trend continues over the coming 5 years, our current decade will register a warming of around 0.15 °C – slightly less than the ‘best estimate’, but well within the projected range by the IPCC. However, all surface temperature series show a lower degree of warming, between 0.04 and 0.05 °C, over the past 5 years (see the section on ‘What causes the differences between the data series?’). Extrapolation over the 2010–2019 decade shows a total maximum warming of 0.08 °C. This is in line with the discussion on the ´hiatus´ or the finding that the warming over the past 15 years has been less severe than in the 20 years before that, and also less than the average outcome of many climate models. If, however, climate model calculations take into account the ´random factors´ that cannot be predicted, such as the occurrence of El Niños, solar activity, and volcano eruptions, then models and observations seem much more in agreement.

The chances of overestimating climate sensitivity are smaller than those of underestimation

The IPPC's fifth assessment report (2013) states that climate sensitivity is likely (66% probability) to be between 1.5 and 4.5 °C. It subsequently states that it is extremely unlikely (less than 5% probability) to be smaller than 1, and very unlikely (less than 10% probability) to be higher than 6.  In other words, very low values are less likely than very high values, which substantiates the above statement.

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