Posted by: Dan | February 28, 2010

What is a Radiative Forcing

Every now and then I like to bring back up the topic of global warming, just to remind the denialists out there that, yes, it’s real. And, central to the understanding of climate processes is the concept of radiative forcings.

Figure 2 from IPCC 4AR, WGI, FAQ2.1

What is radiative forcing? The influence of a factor that can cause climate change, such as a greenhouse gas, is often evaluated in terms of its radiative forcing. Radiative forcing is a measure of how the energy balance of the Earth-atmosphere system is influenced when factors that affect climate are altered. The word radiative arises because these factors change the balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing infrared radiation within the Earth’s atmosphere. This radiative balance controls the Earth’s surface temperature. The term forcing is used to indicate that Earth’s radiative balance is being pushed away from its normal state.

Radiative forcing is usually quantified as the ‘rate of energy change per unit area of the globe as measured at the top of the atmosphere’, and is expressed in units of ‘Watts per square metre’ (see Figure 2). When radiative forcing from a factor or group of factors is evaluated as positive, the energy of the Earth-atmosphere system will ultimately increase, leading to a warming of the system. In contrast, for a negative radiative forcing, the energy will ultimately decrease, leading to a cooling of the system. Important challenges for climate scientists are to identify all the factors that affect climate and the mechanisms by which they exert a forcing, to quantify the radiative forcing of each factor and to evaluate the total radiative forcing from the group of factors.

For more, check out the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, WGI, Chapter 2.

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