Story at a glance

  • Weather agencies in NASA and NOAA identified data exhibiting Earth intaking more heat than it is releasing
  • This energy imbalance leads to rising temperatures that exacerbate more natural weather patterns.
  • NASA also found that May 2021 was the sixth warmest year on record.

A joint study between the two government agencies NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveals that more energy in the form of heat has been entering and staying in the Earth’s atmosphere than leaving, adding to the large body of scientific literature confirming temperatures on the planet are rising.

This gives way to warmer waters, like oceans, and hot drought-like conditions, such as those currently ravaging the American West

In the study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, scientists used indicator data from satellite sensors as well as ocean barges to estimate changes in atmospheric temperatures. 

Other data that points to rising global temperatures include noted increases in emissions of greenhouse gases, namely methane and carbon dioxide, which contribute largely to the energy imbalance Earth is exhibiting. 

All of these warming changes cause forms of environmental degradation on Earth, like snow and ice melt, along with increased water vapor and cloud changes that can further enhance the warming.

And it only seems to be increasing; scientists write that the imbalance in heat has doubled in the 14-year period from 2005 to 2019.

“The trends we found were quite alarming in a sense,” said Norman Loeb, lead author for the study and principal investigator for CERES at NASA's Langley Research Center. 

Loeb and his colleagues noted that cooler-than-average temperatures also contribute to the recorded energy imbalance in Earth’s atmosphere. Some weather patterns, like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), are naturally occurring and also exacerbate the effects of human-caused climate change. 

Thus, the excess heat coming into the Earth’s atmosphere is likely a result of several factors, some human-driven, or anthropomorphic, and some natural.

"It's likely a mix of anthropogenic forcing and internal variability," Loeb 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."

Either way, warmer temperatures and other changes in the climate system are to be expected.

This comes as NASA separately notes that May 2021 is now tied for the sixth warmest May on record, averaging 1.46 degrees Fahrenheit above 20th-century averages. This brought both lower rates of snow coverage and small Arctic sea ice coverage. 

Published on Jun 17, 2021