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You are here: Home / Environmental topics / Climate change / FAQ / What factors determine Earth’s climate?

What factors determine Earth’s climate?

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The climate system is a complex, interactive system consisting of the atmosphere, land surface, snow and ice, oceans and other bodies of water, and living things. The atmospheric component of the climate system most obviously characterises climate; climate is often defined as ‘average weather’.

Climate is usually described in terms of the mean and variability of temperature, precipitation and wind over a period of time, ranging from months to millions of years (the classical period is 30 years).

The climate system evolves in time under the influence of its own internal dynamics and due to changes in external factors that affect climate (called ‘forcings’). External forcings include natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions and solar variations, as well as human-induced changes in atmospheric composition. Solar radiation powers the climate system.

There are three fundamental ways to change the radiation balance of the Earth:

  1. by changing the incoming solar radiation (e.g., by changes in Earth’s orbit or in the Sun itself);
  2. by changing the fraction of solar radiation that is reflected (called ‘albedo’; e.g., by changes in cloud cover, atmospheric particles or vegetation);
  3. by altering the longwave radiation from Earth back towards space (e.g., by changing greenhouse gas concentrations).

Climate, in turn, responds directly to such changes, as well as indirectly, through a variety of feedback mechanisms.

For more information, see FAQ 1.1, extracted from Chapter 1 of "IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York,

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