Earth's atmosphere trapping 'unprecedented' amount of heat: NASA, NOAA report

Agencies said increase in greenhouse gases partially to blame

Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have determined in new research that the Earth's atmosphere has been trapping an "unprecedented" amount of heat, with the planet's energy imbalance approximately doubling from 2005 to 2019. 

NASA explained in a release Tuesday that the blue marble's climate is determined by the balance between how much of the sun's energy is absorbed in the atmosphere and at the surface and how much thermal infrared radiation is emitted into space.

According to a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters, the sum of those two parts of energy determines whether Earth heats or cools.


"Continued increases in concentrations of well-mixed greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and the long time-scales time required for the ocean, cryosphere, and land to come to thermal equilibrium with those increases result in a net gain of energy, hence warming, on Earth," the study's summary stated further. "Most of this excess energy (about 90%) warms the ocean, with the remainder heating the land, melting snow and ice, and warming the atmosphere."

In order to reach these conclusions, the agency researchers compared data from NASA's Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) satellite sensors with a global array of measurements from "Argo" ocean floats.

"We show that these two independent approaches yield a decadal increase in the rate of energy uptake by Earth from mid-2005 through mid-2019, which we attribute to decreased reflection of energy back into space by clouds and sea-ice and increases in well-mixed greenhouse gases and water vapor," the summary said. 

Increases in greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat in the Earth's atmosphere and capture outgoing radiation, leading to warming and subsequently snow and ice melt and other changes.


"Earth’s energy imbalance is the net effect of all these factors," NASA said in the release, noting that the study's authors had examined changes in clouds, water vapor, combined contributions from trace gases and the output of light from the sun, surface albedo, aerosols and shifts in surface and atmospheric temperature distributions to reach their conclusions.

The doubling of the imbalance is due to the increase of greenhouse gases – or "anthropogenic forcing" – and increases in water vapor and decreases in clouds and sea ice.

"We were careful, also, about not overstating the contributions whether – how much of it is anthropogenic and how much of it is just internal variability. Because, really, both are there. There's no question that there's an anthropogenic component and we kind of fight that as best we could by looking at what the impact of increasing concentrations of CO2 have on the net energy," Norman G. Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA's Langley Research Center, explained in an interview with Fox News. 

"So, we could do that but there are other things we could not do, which was to quantify how other things that change and are changing in the climate system like water vapor surface albedo which is related to snow and ice melt: those are also happening and we can see the changes but we can't quantify how much of those responses are responses to the increases in greenhouse gases versus just the internal fluctuations," he said. 

"So, we said what we could as far as we could from the observations in the paper and explained that certainly the obvious is that we hope that – at least, I hope that – the trend we have observed in the last 15 years doesn't continue in the next 15 years," Loeb added.

Additionally, Loeb and the researchers found that a change in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), a pattern of Pacific climate variability, to a warm phase "likely played a major role in the intensification of the energy imbalance."

NASA said a similar warm PDO phase in 2014 through 2020 also caused a reduction in cloud coverage and an increase in the absorption of solar radiation.

"The two very independent ways of looking at changes in Earth's energy imbalance are in really, really good agreement, and they're both showing this very large trend, which gives us a lot of confidence that what we're seeing is a real phenomenon and not just an instrumental artifact," Loeb said in the release. "The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense."


"It's likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability," he added. "And over this period they're both causing warming, which leads to a fairly large change in Earth's energy imbalance. The magnitude of the increase is unprecedented."

Ultimately, the study determined that unless the rate of heat intake abates, the Earth is in for greater changes in climate.

"So, my hope is that the internal variations kind of give us a break," Loeb told Fox News, "but don't have as big [of] an uptake continuing in the next 15 to 20 years. But, I have no doubt that it's going to remain positive for quite a long time." 

"In other words, we're going to be taking up more heat than we're emitting back to space, that's for sure. But, it's whether or not the rate at which that's going on is going to continue … my hope is that it's not," he said.