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Global temperature hiatus may not have ended after all, new study suggests

Dr David Whitehouse, Science editor

The so-called hiatus in global annual average temperature between 2002 – 2014, once controversial to some but now well-established in the peer-reviewed literature, ended in 2014 with the start of a series of record-breaking El Nino events that spiked global temperature with a subsequent fall-back. Now a new study into the effect of man-made aerosol pollution adds to likely reasons for the end of the hiatus, and may point to lower estimates for future global warming.

An international research team writing in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, uses satellite data to show that concentrations of aerosol particles have decreased significantly since 2000. This is good news as cleaner air benefits health, but it also reduces particles’ which have a cooling effect on the terrestrial climate.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2019 the global temperature had risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels due to increasing greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels. At the same time the combustion of fossil fuels emit aerosols which cool our climate by reflecting sunlight and increasing the reflectivity of clouds.

Professor Johannes Quaas, a meteorologist at Leipzig University, and colleagues from Europe, China, and the US have published robust observational evidence of significant reduction of aerosol pollution and improved global air quality.

“We analysed data from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. They have been providing comprehensive satellite observations of the Earth since the year 2000, measuring incoming and outgoing radiation, but also clouds and aerosol pollution. The latter has decreased significantly across North America, Europe and East Asia since 2000,” Professor Quaas said.

Although Dr Quaas and his colleagues say this new study stresses the urgent need for rapid and strong reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the reduction of the compensating effect of cooling aerosols can also be seen in another way.

The researchers estimate that the weakening of aerosol-induced temperature change between 2000 – 2019 is similar to that estimated by the IPCC’s AR6. Most of this weakening occurred post-2010 coincident with the end of the end of the so-called global warming hiatus period. It suggests that perhaps up to 60% of the global temperature increase since then is down to the reduction of global aerosols.

When taken together with a couple of super-strong El Nino events which temporarily drove up global temperature (see graph below), the new findings suggest that the global warming hiatus — clearly evident prior to 2014 — may not have ended yet. If NASA’s satellite data are confirmed, it would suggest that much of the very moderate changes in global temperature this century may have been driven primarily by cleaner air and naturally-occurring El Ninos.

Global temperature changes 2000-2022. Source: Met Office/HadCRUT5

The new observational data has strong implications for predictions of future global warming due to greenhouse gas forcing, suggesting it might be significantly lower than most models suggest.