Causes of twentieth-century temperature change near the Earth's surface


Observations of the Earth's near-surface temperature show a global-mean temperature increase of approximately 0.6 K since 1900 (ref. 1), occurring from 1910 to 1940 and from 1970 to the present. The temperature change over the past 30–50 years is unlikely to be entirely due to internal climate variability2,3,4 and has been attributed to changes in the concentrations of greenhouse gases and sulphate aerosols5 due to human activity. Attribution of the warming early in the century has proved more elusive. Here we present a quantification of the possible contributions throughout the century from the four components most likely to be responsible for the large-scale temperature changes, of which two vary naturally (solar irradiance and stratospheric volcanic aerosols) and two have changed decisively due to anthropogenic influence (greenhouse gases and sulphate aerosols). The patterns of time/space changes in near-surface temperature due to the separate forcing components are simulated with a coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation model, and a linear combination of these is fitted to observations. Thus our analysis is insensitive to errors in the simulated amplitude of these responses. We find that solar forcing may have contributed to the temperature changes early in the century, but anthropogenic causes combined with natural variability would also present a possible explanation. For the warming from 1946 to 1996 regardless of any possible amplification of solar or volcanic influence, we exclude purely natural forcing, and attribute it largely to the anthropogenic components.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Best-estimate contributions to global-mean temperature change in the twentieth century.
Figure 2: 50-year temperature trends, and uncertainties, due to different causes.


  1. 1

    Parker, D. E., Jones, P. D., Folland, C. K. & Bevan, A. Interdecadal changes of surface temperature since the late nineteenth century. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 14373–14399 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Stouffer, R. J., Manabe, S. & Vinnikov, K. Y. Model assessment of the role of natural variability in recent global warming. Nature 367, 634–636 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Santer, B. D. et al. Asearch for human influences on the thermal structure of the atmosphere. Nature 382, 39–45 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Tett, S. F. B., Mitchell, J. F. B., Parker, D. E. & Allen, M. R. Human influence on the atmospheric vertical temperature structure: Detection and observations. Science 247, 1170–1173 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Hegerl, G. C. et al. Multi-fingerprint detection and attribution analysis of greenhouse gas, greenhouse gas-plus-aerosol and solar forced climate change. Clim. Dyn. 13, 613–634 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Johns, T. C. et al. The second Hadley Centre coupled ocean-atmosphere GCM: Model description, spinup and validation. Clim. Dyn. 13, 103–134 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Tett, S. F. B., Johns, T. C. & Mitchell, J. F. B. Global and regional variability in a coupled AOGCM. Clim. Dyn. 13, 303–323 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Shine, K. P., Fouquart, Y., Ramaswamy, V., Solomon, S. & Srinivasan, J. in Climate Change 1995: the Science of Climate Change(eds Houghton, J. T. et al.) 108–118 (Cambridge Univ. Press, (1996).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Mitchell, J. F. B., Johns, T. C., Gregory, J. M. & Tett, S. F. B. Climate response to increasing levels of greenhouse gases and sulphate aerosols. Nature 376, 501–504 (1995).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Mitchell, J. F. B. & Johns, T. C. On modification of global warming by sulfate aerosols. J. Clim. 10, 245–267 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Mitchell, J. F. B., Davis, R. A., Ingram, W. J. & Senior, C. A. On surface temperature, greenhouse gases, and aerosols: Models and observations. J. Clim. 10, 2364–2386 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Langner, J. & Rodhe, H. Aglobal three-dimensional model of the tropospheric sulfur cycle. J. Atmos. Chem. 13, 225–263 (1991).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Twomey, S. A. Pollution and the planetary albedo. Atmos. Environ. 8, 1251–1256 (1974).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Albrecht, B. A. Aerosols, cloud microphysics and fractional cloudiness. Science 245, 1227–1230 (1989).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Sato, M., Hansen, J. E., McCormick, M. P. & Pollack, J. B. Stratospheric aerosol optical depths (1850–1990). J. Geophys. Res. 98, 22987–22994 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Hoyt, D. V. & Schatten, K. H. Adiscussion of plausible solar irradiance variations, 1700–1992. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 18895–18906 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Willson, R. C. Total solar irradiance trend during solar cycles 21 and 22. Science 277, 1963–1965 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Stott, P. A. & Tett, S. F. B. Scale-dependent detection of climate change. J. Clim. 11, 3282–3294 (1998).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Haywood, J., Stouffer, R., Wetherald, R., Manabe, S. & Ramaswamy, V. Transient response of a coupled model to estimated changes in greenhouse gas and sulfate concentrations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 1335–1338 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Ramaswamy, V. & Chen, C.-T. Linear additivity of climate response for combined albedo and greenhouse perturbations. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 567–570 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Hasselmann, K. Optimal fingerprints for the detection of time-dependent climate change. J. Clim. 6, 1957–1971 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Hasselmann, K. Multi-pattern fingerprint method for detection and attribution of climate change. Clim. Dyn. 13, 601–611 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    North, G. R., Kim, K.-K., Shen, S. S. P. & Hardin, J. W. Detection of forced climate signals. Part I: filter theory. J. Clim. 8, 401–408 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Allen, M. R. & Tett, S. F. B. Checking for model consistency in optimal fingerprinting. Clim. Dyn.(in the press).

  25. 25

    Mardia, K. V., Kent, J. T. & Bibby, J. M. Multivariate Analysis(Academic, London, (1979).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Lean, J., Beer, J. & Bradley, R. Reconstruction of solar irradiance since 1610: implications for climate change. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 3195–3198 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Haigh, J. D. Impact of solar variability on climate. Science 272, 981–984 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Haigh, J. D. The role of stratospheric ozone in modulating the solar radiative forcing of climate. Nature 370, 544–546 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


S.F.B.T., P.A.S. and computer time were funded by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. W.J.I. and J.F.B.M. were supported by the UK Public Meteorological Service Research and Development programme. M.R.A. was supported by a research fellowship from the UK Natural Environment Research Council. Supplementary support was provided by the European Commission.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon F. B. Tett.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Tett, S., Stott, P., Allen, M. et al. Causes of twentieth-century temperature change near the Earth's surface. Nature 399, 569–572 (1999).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing