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Earth has experienced warming and cooling many times in the past. The recent Antarctic EPICA ice core spans 800,000 years, including eight glacial cycles timed by orbital variations with interglacial warm periods comparable to present temperatures.
A rapid buildup of greenhouse gases amplified warming in the early Jurassic period (about 180 million years ago), with average temperatures rising by 5 °C (9 °F). Research by the Open University indicates that the warming caused the rate of rock weathering to increase by 400%. As such weathering locks away carbon in calcite and dolomite, CO2 levels dropped back to normal over roughly the next 150,000 years.
Sudden releases of methane from clathrate compounds (the clathrate gun hypothesis) have been hypothesized as both a cause for and an effect of other warming events in the distant past, including the Permian-Triassic extinction event (about 251 million years ago) and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (about 55 million years ago).
Scientists have studied global warming with computer models of the climate. These models are based on physical principles of fluid dynamics, radiative transfer, and other processes, with simplifications being necessary because of limitations in computer power and the complexity of the climate system. All modern climate models include an atmospheric model that is coupled to an ocean model and models for ice cover on land and sea. Some models also include treatments of chemical and biological processes.These models predict that the effect of adding greenhouse gases is to produce a warmer climate. However, even when the same assumptions of future greenhouse gas levels are used, there still remains a considerable range of climate sensitivity.
Including uncertainties in future greenhouse gas concentrations and climate modeling, the IPCC anticipates a warming of 1.1 °C to 6.4 °C (2.0 °F to 11.5 °F) by the end of the 21st century, relative to 1980-1999. Models have also been used to help investigate the causes of recent climate change by comparing the observed changes to those that the models project from various natural and human-derived causes.
Current climate models produce a good match to observations of global temperature changes over the last century, but do not simulate all aspects of climate. These models do not unambiguously attribute the warming that occurred from approximately 1910 to 1945 to either natural variation or human effects; however, they suggest that the warming since 1975 is dominated by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Global climate model projections of future climate are forced by imposed greenhouse gas emission scenarios, most often from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES). Less commonly, models may also include a simulation of the carbon cycle; this generally shows a positive feedback, though this response is uncertain (under the A2 SRES scenario, responses vary between an extra 20 and 200 ppm of CO2). Some observational studies also show a positive feedback.
The representation of clouds is one of the main sources of uncertainty in present-generation models, though progress is being made on this problem. Clouds form when water vapor (water that has evaporated from the surface of the Earth) condenses (turns into liquid water or solid ice) onto microscopic dust particles (or other tiny particles) floating in the air. This condensation (cloud formation) happens when warm and cold air meet, when warm air rises up the side of a mountain and cools as it rises, and when warm air flows over a colder area, like a cool body of water. This occurs because cool air can hold less water vapor than warm air, and excess water condenses into either liquid or ice.
Although it is difficult to connect specific weather events to global warming, an increase in global temperatures may in turn cause broader changes, including glacial retreat, Arctic shrinkage, and worldwide sea level rise. Changes in the amount and pattern of precipitation may result in flooding and drought. There may also be changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.