Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Near-term acceleration in the rate of temperature change


Anthropogenically driven climate changes, which are expected to impact human and natural systems, are often expressed in terms of global-mean temperature1. The rate of climate change over multi-decadal scales is also important, with faster rates of change resulting in less time for human and natural systems to adapt2. We find that present trends in greenhouse-gas and aerosol emissions are now moving the Earth system into a regime in terms of multi-decadal rates of change that are unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years. The rate of global-mean temperature increase in the CMIP5 (ref. 3) archive over 40-year periods increases to 0.25 ± 0.05 °C (1σ) per decade by 2020, an average greater than peak rates of change during the previous one to two millennia. Regional rates of change in Europe, North America and the Arctic are higher than the global average. Research on the impacts of such near-term rates of change is urgently needed.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Rates of temperature change over 40-year periods for a number of climate reconstructions that cover various Northern Hemisphere areas.
Figure 2: 40-year rates of change from the PAGES 2k reconstructions up to 1900 and the CMIP5 climate model archive for the period 1850–1930.
Figure 3: Past and future regional rates of change from CMIP5.
Figure 4: Decomposition of global rates of temperature change from the MAGICC model.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Smith, J. B. et al. Assessing dangerous climate change through an update of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “reasons for concern”. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 4133–4137 (2009).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. O’Neill, B. C. & Oppenheimer, M. Climate change impacts are sensitive to the concentration stabilization path. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 101, 16411–16416 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Taylor, K. E., Stouffer, R. J. & Meehl, G. A. An overview of CMIP5 and the experiment design. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 93, 485–498 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Ross, A., Matthews, H. D., Schmittner, A. & Kothavala, Z. Assessing the effects of ocean diffusivity and climate sensitivity on the rate of global climate change. Tellus B 64 (2012).

  5. Jungclaus, J. H. et al. Climate and carbon-cycle variability over the last millennium. Clim. Past 6, 723–737 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Pages 2k Consortium, Continental-scale temperature variability during the past two millennia. Nature Geosci. 6, 339–346 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Tingley, M. P. & Huybers, P. Recent temperature extremes at high northern latitudes unprecedented in the past 600 years. Nature 496, 201–205 (2013).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Collins, M. et al. in Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis (eds Stocker, T. F. et al.) Ch. 12, 1029–1136 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  9. Smith, S. J. et al. Anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions: 1850–2005. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 1101–1116 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  10. Klimont, Z., Smith, S. J. & Cofala, J. The last decade of global anthropogenic sulfur dioxide: 2000–2011 emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 014003 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Thomson, A. M. et al. RCP4.5: A pathway for stabilization of radiative forcing by 2100. Climatic Change 109, 77–94 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Riahi, K. et al. RCP 8.5—A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions. Climatic Change 109, 33–57 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Morice, C. P., Kennedy, J. J., Rayner, N. A. & Jones, P. D. Quantifying uncertainties in global and regional temperature change using an ensemble of observational estimates: The HadCRUT4 dataset. J. Geophys. Res. 117, D08101 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Smith, S. J. & Bond, T. C. Two hundred fifty years of aerosols and climate: The end of the age of aerosols. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 14, 537–549 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Smith, S. J., Pitcher, H. & Wigley, T. M. L. Future sulfur dioxide emissions. Climatic Change 73, 267–318 (2005).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Van Vuuren, D. P. et al. Temperature increase of 21st century mitigation scenarios. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 15258–15262 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Stott, P. et al. The upper end of climate model temperature projections is inconsistent with past warming. Environ. Res. Lett. 8, 014024 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Meehl, G. A., Arblaster, J. M., Fasullo, J. T., Hu, A. & Trenberth, K. E. Model-based evidence of deep-ocean heat uptake during surface-temperature hiatus periods. Nature Clim. Change 1, 360–364 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Easterling, D. R. & Wehner, M. F. Is the climate warming or cooling? Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L08706 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Balmaseda, M. A., Trenberth, K. E. & Källén, E. Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat content. Geophys. Res. Lett. 40, 1754–1759 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Guemas, V., Doblas-Reyes, F. J., Andreu-Burillo, I. & Asif, M. Retrospective prediction of the global warming slowdown in the past decade. Nature Clim. Change 3, 649–653 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Rahmstorf, S., Foster, G. & Cazenave, A. Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 044035 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Meehl, G. A. et al. Decadal prediction—can it be skillful? Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 1467–1485 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Hawkins, E. & Sutton, R. The potential to narrow uncertainty in regional climate predictions. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 1095–1107 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Schurer, A. P., Hegerl, G. C., Mann, M. E., Tett, S. F. B. & Phipps, S. J. Separating forced from chaotic climate variability over the past millennium. J. Clim. 26, 6954–6973 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Rosenzweig, C. & Neofotis, P. Detection and attribution of anthropogenic climate change impacts. WIREs Clim. Change 4, 121–150 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Wigley, T. M. L. & Raper, S. C. B. Reasons for larger warming projections in the IPCC Third Assessment Report. J. Clim. 15, 2945–2952 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Raper, S. C. B. & Cubasch, U. Emulation of the results from a coupled general circulation model using a simple climate model. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 1107–1110 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Raper, S. C. B., Gregory, J. M. & Osborn, T. J. Use of an upwelling-diffusion energy balance climate model to simulate and diagnose A/OGCM results. Clim. Dynam. 17, 601–613 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The authors are grateful for research support provided by the Integrated Assessment Research Program in the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy and the PNNL Global Technology Strategy Program. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is operated for DOE by Battelle Memorial Institute under contract DE-AC05-76RL01830. We acknowledge the World Climate Research Programme’s Working Group on Coupled Modeling and the climate modelling groups (Supplementary Table 2) for producing and making available their model output. The US Department of Energy’s Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison provides coordinating support for CMIP. The views and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors. The authors would like to thank J. Dooley and P. Applegate for helpful comments and J. Seibert for data analysis.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.J.S., J.E. and K.C. designed research. S.J.S., C.A.H. and A.M. conducted research. All authors wrote paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Steven J. Smith.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Smith, S., Edmonds, J., Hartin, C. et al. Near-term acceleration in the rate of temperature change. Nature Clim Change 5, 333–336 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

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