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Climate Change: 2013 IPCC Update

6. What are the main uncertainties regarding climate change?

  • 6.1 Key Uncertainties in Observation of Changes in the Climate System
  • 6.2 Key Uncertainties in the main drivers of Climate Change
  • 6.3 Key Uncertainties in understanding the recent changes in the climate system
  • 6.4 Key Uncertainties in Projections of Global and Regional Climate Change

The source document for this Digest states:

TS.6 Key Uncertainties

This final section of the Technical Summary provides the reader with a short overview of key uncertainties in the understanding of the climate system and the ability to project changes in response to anthropogenic influences. The overview is not comprehensive and does not describe in detail the basis of for these findings. These are found in the main body of this Technical Summary and in the underlying chapters to which each bullet points in the curly brackets.

Source & ©: IPCC  Working Group I Contribution To The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., TS.6. Key Uncertainties, p.114

6.1 Key Uncertainties in Observation of Changes in the Climate System

The source document for this Digest states:

TS.6.1 Key Uncertainties in Observation of Changes in the Climate System

  • There is only medium to low confidence in the rate of change of tropospheric warming and its vertical structure. Estimates of tropospheric warming rates encompass surface temperature warming rate estimates. There is low confidence in the rate and vertical structure of the stratospheric cooling. {2.4.4}
  • Confidence in global precipitation change over land is low prior to 1951 and medium afterwards because of data incompleteness. {2.5.1}
  • Substantial ambiguity and therefore low confidence remains in the observations of global-scale cloud variability and trends. {2.5.7}
  • There is low confidence in an observed global-scale trend in drought or dryness (lack of rainfall), due to lack of direct observations, methodological uncertainties and choice and geographical inconsistencies in the trends. {2.6.2}
  • There is low confidence that any reported long-term (centennial) changes in tropical cyclone characteristics are robust, after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities. {2.6.3}
  • Robust conclusions on long-term changes in large-scale atmospheric circulation are presently not possible because of large variability on interannual to decadal time scales and remaining differences between data sets. {2.7}
  • Different global estimates of sub-surface ocean temperatures have variations at different times and for different periods, suggesting that sub-decadal variability in the temperature and upper heat content (0– 700 m) is still poorly characterized in the historical record. {3.2}
  • Below ocean depths of 700 m the sampling in space and time is too sparse to produce annual global ocean temperature and heat content estimates prior to 2005. {3.2.4}
  • Observational coverage of the ocean deeper than 2000 m is still limited and hampers more robust estimates of changes in global ocean heat content and carbon content. This also limits the quantification of the contribution of deep ocean warming to sea level rise. {3.2, 3.7, 3.8; Box 3.1}
  • The number of continuous observational time series measuring the strength of climate relevant ocean circulation features (e.g., the meridional overturning circulation) is limited and the existing time series are still too short to assess decadal and longer trends. {3.6}.
  • In Antarctica, available data are inadequate to assess the status of change of many characteristics of sea ice (e.g., thickness and volume). {4.2.3}
  • On a global scale the mass loss from melting at calving fronts and iceberg calving are not yet comprehensively assessed. The largest uncertainty in estimated mass loss from glaciers comes from the Antarctic, and the observational record of ice-ocean interactions around both ice sheets remains poor. {4.3.3, 4.4}

Source & ©: IPCC  Working Group I Contribution To The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., TS.6.1 Key Uncertainties in Observation of Changes in the Climate System, p.114

6.2 Key Uncertainties in the main drivers of Climate Change

The source document for this Digest states:

TS.6.2 Key Uncertainties in Drivers of Climate Change

  • Uncertainties in aerosol-cloud interactions and the associated radiative forcing remain large. As a result, uncertainties in aerosol forcing remain the dominant contributor to the overall uncertainty in net anthropogenic forcing, despite a better understanding of some of the relevant atmospheric processes and the availability of global satellite monitoring. {2.2, 7.4, 7.5, 8.5}
  • The cloud feedback is likely positive but its quantification remains difficult. {7.2}
  • Paleoclimate reconstructions and Earth System Models indicate that there is a positive feedback between climate and the carbon cycle, but confidence remains low in the strength of this feedback, particularly for the land. {6.4}

Source & ©: IPCC  Working Group I Contribution To The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., TS.6.2 Key Uncertainties in Drivers of Climate Change, p.114

6.3 Key Uncertainties in understanding the recent changes in the climate system

The source document for this Digest states:

TS.6.3 Key Uncertainties in Understanding the Climate System and its Recent Changes

  • The simulation of clouds has shown modest improvement since AR4, however it remains challenging. {7.2, 9.2.1, 9.4.1, 9.7.2}
  • Observational uncertainties for climate variables other than temperature, uncertainties in forcings such as aerosols, and limits in process understanding continue to hamper attribution of changes in many aspects of the climate system. {10.1, 10.3, 10.7}
  • Changes in the water cycle remain less reliably modelled in both their changes and their internal variability, limiting confidence in attribution assessments. Observational uncertainties and the large effect of internal variability on observed precipitation also precludes a more confident assessment of the causes of precipitation changes. {2.5.1, 2.5.4, 10.3.2}
  • Modelling uncertainties related to model resolution and incorporation of relevant processes become more important at regional scales, and the effects of internal variability become more significant. Therefore, challenges persist in attributing observed change to external forcing at regional scales. {2.4.1, 10.3.1}
  • The ability to simulate changes in frequency and intensity of extreme events is limited by the ability of models to reliably simulate mean changes in key features. {10.6.1}
  • In some aspects of the climate system, including changes in drought, changes in tropical cyclone activity, Antarctic warming, Antarctic sea ice extent, and Antarctic mass balance confidence in attribution to human influence remains low due to modelling uncertainties and low agreement between scientific studies. {10.3.1, 10.5.2, 10.6.1}

Source & ©: IPCC  Working Group I Contribution To The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., TS.6.3 Key Uncertainties in Understanding the Climate System and its Recent Changes, p.114

6.4 Key Uncertainties in Projections of Global and Regional Climate Change

The source document for this Digest states:

TS.6.4 Key Uncertainties in Projections of Global and Regional Climate Change

  • Based on model results there is medium confidence in the predictability of yearly to decadal averages of temperature both for the global average and for some geographical regions. Multi-model results for precipitation indicate a generally low predictability. Short-term climate projection is also limited by the low confidence in projections of natural forcing. {11.1, 11.2.2, 11.3.1; Box 11.1}
  • There is low confidence in projections for a poleward shift of the position and strength of Northern Hemisphere storm tracks. {11.3.2, 12.4.4}
  • There is generally low confidence in basin-scale projections of significant trends in tropical cyclone frequency and intensity in the 21st century. {11.3.2, 14.6.1}
  • Projected changes in soil moisture and surface run off are not robust in many regions. {11.3.2, 12.4.5}
  • Several components or phenomena in the climate system could potentially exhibit abrupt or nonlinear changes, but for many phenomena there is low confidence and little consensus on the likelihood of such events over the 21st century. {12.5.5}
  • There is low confidence on magnitude of carbon losses through CO2 or CH4 emissions to the atmosphere from thawing permafrost. There is limited confidence in projected future methane emissions from natural sources due to changes in wetlands and gas hydrate release from the sea floor. {6.4.3}
  • There is medium confidence in the projected contributions to sea level rise by models of ice sheet dynamics for the 21st century, and low confidence in their projections beyond 2100. {13.3.3}
  • There is low confidence in semi-empirical model projections of global mean sea level rise, and no consensus in the scientific community about their reliability. {13.5.2, 13.5.3}
  • There is low confidence in projections of many aspects of climate phenomena that influence regional climate change, including changes in amplitude and spatial pattern of modes of climate variability. {9.5.3, 14.2–14.7}

Source & ©: IPCC  Working Group I Contribution To The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis., TS.6.4 Key Uncertainties in Projections of Global and Regional Climate Change, p.115


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