The science behind climate change. UK Meteorological Office

Climate science is the study of regional and global climate as a system. While meteorologists try to predict forthcoming local weather using detailed analysis of recent patterns, climate scientists aim to understand, and replicate through modelling, how the climate system works as a whole.

Climate scientists use a vast array of monitoring data to create detailed supercomputer models that reproduce the interacting mechanisms of the climate system in ever-increasing detail. As we learn more, the modelling becomes ever more complex and the output more accurate. We can look far into the future or focus on local effects, and experiment with the many different variables that influence climate.

We want to understand how our climate is changing, how variations in the contributing systems affect each other and the likely impact of these changes on ecosystems and human life - on a global, regional and local scale.

Among other things, our climate models are predicting how increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels will affect global temperatures and what reduction in carbon dioxide CO2 levels is necessary to keep global warming in check.

Emissions pathways

Our climate scientists have been working with the UK government and other research agencies on a programme called The AVOID2 programme on avoiding 'dangerous' climate change, which explores the potential long-term effects of 'dangerous' climate change. We define 'dangerous' climate change effects as those that are irreversible, spiraling (self-reinforcing), very large or very rapid, and with a serious impact on natural and human systems.

If global emissions continue unabated at their current rate, the planet's surface temperature is projected to reach 4 °C above pre-industrial levels by the close of the current century. That is the 'business as usual' pathway, and leads to dangerous climate change on a number of fronts. The AVOID programme examined emissions pathways that would limit warming, the mitigation measures that would make it possible and the impacts of climate change that could be avoided.

The ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. Stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at sufficiently low levels will limit global temperatures rise to under 2 °C until at least 2500.

Dangerous changes to the climate system

Impacts on human and natural systems

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