NCDC Frequently Asked Questions
Can the observed changes be explained by natural variability, including changes in solar output?
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Since our entire climate system is fundamentally driven by energy from the sun, it stands to reason that if the sun's energy output were to change, then so would the climate. Since the advent of space-borne measurements in the late 1970s, solar output has indeed been shown to vary. With now 28 years of reliable satellite observations there is confirmation of earlier suggestions of an 11 (and 22) year cycle of irradiance related to sunspots but no longer term trend in these data. Based on paleoclimatic (proxy) reconstructions of solar irradiance there is suggestion of a trend of about +0.12 W/m2 since 1750 which is about half of the estimate given in the last IPCC report in 2001. There is though, a great deal of uncertainty in estimates of solar irradiance beyond what can be measured by satellites, and still the contribution of direct solar irradiance forcing is small compared to the greenhouse gas component. However, our understanding of the indirect effects of changes in solar output and feedbacks in the climate system is minimal. There is much need to refine our understanding of key natural forcing mechanisms of the climate, including solar irradiance changes, in order to reduce uncertainty in our projections of future climate change.
In addition to changes in energy from the sun itself, the Earth's position and orientation relative to the sun (our orbit) also varies slightly, thereby bringing us closer and further away from the sun in predictable cycles (called Milankovitch cycles). Variations in these cycles are believed to be the cause of Earth's ice-ages (glacials). Particularly important for the development of glacials is the radiation receipt at high northern latitudes. Diminishing radiation at these latitudes during the summer months would have enabled winter snow and ice cover to persist throughout the year, eventually leading to a permanent snow- or icepack. While Milankovitch cycles have tremendous value as a theory to explain ice-ages and long-term changes in the climate, they are unlikely to have very much impact on the decade-century timescale. Over several centuries, it may be possible to observe the effect of these orbital parameters, however for the prediction of climate change in the 21st century, these changes will be far less important than radiative forcing from greenhouse gases.