Progress Article | Published:

An update on Earth's energy balance in light of the latest global observations

Nature Geoscience volume 5, pages 691696 (2012) | Download Citation

Abstract

Climate change is governed by changes to the global energy balance. At the top of the atmosphere, this balance is monitored globally by satellite sensors that provide measurements of energy flowing to and from Earth. By contrast, observations at the surface are limited mostly to land areas. As a result, the global balance of energy fluxes within the atmosphere or at Earth's surface cannot be derived directly from measured fluxes, and is therefore uncertain. This lack of precise knowledge of surface energy fluxes profoundly affects our ability to understand how Earth's climate responds to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. In light of compilations of up-to-date surface and satellite data, the surface energy balance needs to be revised. Specifically, the longwave radiation received at the surface is estimated to be significantly larger, by between 10 and 17 Wm−2, than earlier model-based estimates. Moreover, the latest satellite observations of global precipitation indicate that more precipitation is generated than previously thought. This additional precipitation is sustained by more energy leaving the surface by evaporation — that is, in the form of latent heat flux — and thereby offsets much of the increase in longwave flux to the surface.

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Author information

Affiliations

  1. Center for Climate Sciences, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Graeme L. Stephens
    • , Juilin Li
    •  & Matthew Lebsock
  2. Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science, ETH Zurich, Universitätsstrasse 16, CH-8092, Zurich, Switzerland

    • Martin Wild
  3. Phyiscal Oceanography Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 266 Woods Hole Road, Massachusetts 02543, USA

    • Carol Anne Clayson
  4. NASA Langley Research Center, 21 Langley Boulevard, Hampton, Virginia 23681, USA

    • Norman Loeb
    • , Seiji Kato
    •  & Paul W. Stackhouse Jr
  5. Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin 80523, USA

    • Tristan L'Ecuyer
  6. UK Met Office, FitzRoy Road, Exeter, Devon EX1 3PB, UK

    • Timothy Andrews

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Graeme L. Stephens.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1580

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