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Keywords:

  • climate change;
  • radiative forcing

[1] We examine the Earth's energy balance since 1950, identifying results that can be obtained without using global climate models. Important terms that can be constrained using only measurements and radiative transfer models are ocean heat content, radiative forcing by long-lived trace gases, and radiative forcing from volcanic eruptions. We explicitly consider the emission of energy by a warming Earth by using correlations between surface temperature and satellite radiant flux data and show that this term is already quite significant. About 20% of the integrated positive forcing by greenhouse gases and solar radiation since 1950 has been radiated to space. Only about 10% of the positive forcing (about 1/3 of the net forcing) has gone into heating the Earth, almost all into the oceans. About 20% of the positive forcing has been balanced by volcanic aerosols, and the remaining 50% is mainly attributable to tropospheric aerosols. After accounting for the measured terms, the residual forcing between 1970 and 2000 due to direct and indirect forcing by aerosols as well as semidirect forcing from greenhouse gases and any unknown mechanism can be estimated as −1.1 ± 0.4 W m−2 (1σ). This is consistent with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's best estimates but rules out very large negative forcings from aerosol indirect effects. Further, the data imply an increase from the 1950s to the 1980s followed by constant or slightly declining aerosol forcing into the 1990s, consistent with estimates of trends in global sulfate emissions. An apparent increase in residual forcing in the late 1990s is discussed.