Earth’s Energy Budget Remained Out of Balance Despite Unusually Low Solar Activity
A new NASA study underscores the fact that greenhouse gases generated by human activity — not changes in solar activity — are the primary force driving global warming.
The study offers an updated calculation of the Earth’s energy imbalance, the difference between the amount of solar energy absorbed by Earth’s surface and the amount returned to space as heat. The researchers’ calculations show that, despite unusually low solar activity between 2005 and 2010, the planet continued to absorb more energy than it returned to space.
A graph of the sun’s total solar irradiance shows that in recent years irradiance dipped to the lowest levels recorded during the satellite era. The resulting reduction in the amount of solar energy available to affect Earth’s climate was about .25 Watts per square meter, less than half of Earth’s total energy imbalance. (Credit: NASA/James Hansen)
Total solar irradiance, the amount of energy produced by the sun that reaches the top of each square meter of the Earth’s atmosphere, typically declines by about a tenth of a percent during cyclical lulls in solar activity caused by shifts in the sun’s magnetic field. Usually solar minimums occur about every eleven years and last a year or so, but the most recent minimum persisted more than two years longer than normal, making it the longest minimum recorded during the satellite era.
Pinpointing the magnitude of Earth’s energy imbalance is fundamental to climate science because it offers a direct measure of the state of the climate. Energy imbalance calculations also serve as the foundation for projections of future climate change. If the imbalance is positive and more energy enters the system than exits, Earth grows warmer. If the imbalance is negative, the planet grows cooler.
James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City, led the research. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics published the study last December.
Hansen’s team concluded that Earth has absorbed more than half a Watt more solar energy per square meter than it let off throughout the six year study period. The calculated value of the imbalance (0.58 Watts of excess energy per square meter) is more than twice as much as the reduction in the amount of solar energy supplied to the planet between maximum and minimum solar activity (0.25 Watts per square meter).
“The fact that we still see a positive imbalance despite the prolonged solar minimum isn’t a surprise given what we’ve learned about the climate system, but it’s worth noting because this provides unequivocal evidence that the sun is not the dominant driver of global warming,” Hansen said.
According to calculations conducted by Hansen and his colleagues, the 0.58 Watts per square meter imbalance implies that carbon dioxide levels need to be reduced to about 350 parts per million to restore the energy budget to equilibrium. The most recent measurements show that carbon dioxide levels are currently 392 parts per million and scientists expect that concentration to continue to rise in the future.