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Joint NASA, NOAA study finds Earth's energy imbalance has doubled
Theo Stein

Joint NASA, NOAA study finds Earth's energy imbalance has doubled

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. Now, NOAA and NASA researchers have found that Earth’s energy imbalance approximately doubled during the 14-year period from 2005 to 2019.

The study was published June 15 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Image
Comparison of overlapping one-year estimates at 6-month intervals of net top-of-the-atmosphere annual energy flux from CERES (solid orange line) and an in situ observational estimate of uptake of energy by Earth climate system (solid turquoise line). Credits: NASA/Tim Marvel

Scientists at NASA and NOAA compared data from two independent measurements. NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) suite of satellite sensors measure how much energy enters and leaves Earth's system. In addition, data from a global array of ocean floats, called Argo, enables an accurate estimate of the rate at which the world’s oceans are heating up. 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.

"These 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 in Hampton, Virginia. "The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense."

Gregory Johnson, a physical oceanographer with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Washington, said that combining the Argo and CERES data helped reveal the variations and trends of Earth’s energy imbalance with increasing accuracy. ‘"Observing the magnitude and variations of this energy imbalance are vital to understanding Earth’s changing climate," said Johnson, a co-author on the study.

Image
This snapshot from the University of Colorado Argoviz website shows the location of Argo float in the northern hemisphere as of June 12, 2021. Credit: University of Colorado

Increases in emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane due to human activity trap heat in the atmosphere, capturing outgoing radiation that would otherwise escape into space. The warming drives other changes, such as snow and ice melt, and 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 primary factors driving the imbalance, the investigators used a method that looked at changes in clouds, water vapor, combined contributions from trace gases and the output of light from the Sun, surface albedo (the amount of light reflected by the Earth's surface), tiny atmospheric particles called aerosols, and changes in surface and atmospheric temperature distributions.

The study finds that the doubling of the imbalance is partially the result of decreased clouds and sea ice that lead to more absorption of solar energy. Additionally, an increase in greenhouse gases due to human activity, also known as anthropogenic forcing, along with increases in water vapor are trapping more outgoing longwave radiation, further contributing to Earth’s energy imbalance. 

The researchers 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. Its fingerprint includes a massive wedge of water in the eastern Pacific that goes through cool and warm phases. This naturally occurring internal variability in the Earth system 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.

"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 in this record."

Loeb cautions that the study is only a snapshot relative to long-term climate change, and that it's not possible to predict with any certainty what the coming decades might look like for the balance of Earth's energy budget. The study does conclude, however, that unless the rate of heat uptake subsides, greater changes in climate than are already occurring should be expected. 

This article was adapted from a NASA Langley news release

For more information, contact Theo Stein, NOAA Communications, at theo.stein@noaa.gov. 

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