Water vapor and clouds cannot sustain the greenhouse effect on their own

Researchers at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) have concluded, through the use of a new atmosphere-ocean climate model, that carbon dioxide manipulates Earth's temperature. 

Andrew Lacis of the GISS, along with David Rind and other colleagues, studied the Earth's greenhouse effect, and has concluded that non-condensing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, ozone, chlorofluorocarbons, nitrous oxide and methane play central roles in the greenhouse effect. 

While water vapor and clouds are the major players when it comes to Earth's greenhouse effect, Lacis and his colleagues have found that water vapor and clouds alone could not provide "feedback mechanisms" that help absorb outgoing infrared radiation without the help of non-condensing greenhouse gases. 

Researchers came to this conclusion by running the global climate model forward in time without aerosols and non-condensing greenhouse gases. The result was that Earth's greenhouse effect "collapsed." This happened because water vapor precipitated quickly from the atmosphere and created an icebound state on Earth. Lacis concluded that water vapor acts as a feedback process that contributes 50 percent of the greenhouse warming, but cannot sustain the greenhouse effect on its own.

"Our climate modeling simulation should be viewed as an experiment in atmospheric physics, illustrating a cause and effect problem which allowed us to gain a better understanding of the working mechanics of Earth's greenhouse effect, and enabled us to demonstrate the direct relationship that exists between rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and rising global temperature," said Lacis. 

According to the study, this information directly relates to the geologic record which shows that carbon dioxide levels have shifted between 180 parts per million during ice ages to approximately 280 parts per million during warm interglacial periods. Over the past century, there has been a 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) increase in global temperature, which means that the mean temperature difference between the ice age and interglacial periods is only approximately 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit). 

Rind further explains that as carbon dioxide increases, water vapor returns to the atmosphere in larger amounts. Rind says this is what melted the glaciers that once covered New York City, and that we are in "uncharted territory" today as carbon dioxide levels near 390 parts per million in this "superinterglacial" period. 

"The bottom line is that atmospheric carbon dioxide acts as a thermostat in regulating the temperature of the Earth," said Lacis. "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has fully documented the fact that industrial activity is responsible for the rapidly increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. It is not surprising then that global warming can be linked directly to the observed increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and to human industrial activity in general."

It is generally recognized that the Earth warms and cools over time.  More controversial is the concept that global warming can be human-caused and is currently occurring.  The study offers support to this hypothesis. 

There are some vocal opinions to the contrary. For instance, renowned physics professor Harold Lewis from the University of California in Santa Barbara recently resigned from the American Physical Society in a letter saying that global warming is the "most successful pseudoscientific fraud" he has seen in his life as a physicist. 

"Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare," wrote Lewis. "I don't believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion."

Lacis' study was published in Science.

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