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What are the primary forcings of the Earth system?

The Sun is the primary forcing of Earth's climate system. Sunlight warms our world. Sunlight drives atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns. Sunlight powers the process of photosynthesis that plants need to grow. Sunlight causes convection which carries warmth and water vapor up into the sky where clouds form and bring rain. In short, the Sun drives almost every aspect of our world's climate system and makes possible life as we know it.

Earth's orbit around and orientation toward the Sun change over spans of many thousands of years. In turn, these changing "orbital mechanics" force climate to change because they change where and how much sunlight reaches Earth. (Please see for more details.) Thus, changing Earth's exposure to sunlight forces climate to change. According to scientists' models of Earth's orbit and orientation toward the Sun indicate that our world should be just beginning to enter a new period of cooling -- perhaps the next ice age.

However, a new force for change has arisen: humans. After the industrial revolution, humans introduced increasing amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and changed the surface of the landscape to an extent great enough to influence climate on local and global scales. By driving up carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere (by about 30 percent), humans have increased its capacity to trap warmth near the surface.

Other important forcings of Earth's climate system include such "variables" as clouds, airborne particulate matter, and surface brightness. Each of these varying features of Earth's environment has the capacity to exceed the warming influence of greenhouse gases and cause our world to cool. For example, increased cloudiness would give more shade to the surface while reflecting more sunlight back to space. Increased airborne particles (or "aerosols") would scatter and reflect more sunlight back to space, thereby cooling the surface. Major volcanic eruptions (such as that of Mt. Pinatubo in 1992) can inject so much aerosol into the atmosphere that, as it spreads around the globe, it reduces sunlight and cause Earth to cool. Likewise, increasing the surface area of highly reflective surface types, such as ice sheets, reflects greater amounts of sunlight back to space and causes Earth to cool.

Scientists are using NASA satellites to monitor all of the aforementioned forcings of Earth's climate system to better understand how they are changing over time, and how any changes in them affect climate.

Related missions:

*Sort missions by clicking Launch Date, A-Z, or PHASE column headers.

DivisionNameLaunch DatePhase
Earth ACRIMSAT
ACRIMSAT is the latest in a series of long-term solar-monitoring missions, utilizing the proven Active Cavity Radiometer Irradiance Monitor III (ACRIM III) instrument. This mission is part of SMD's Earth Systematic Missions program.
19991220 12-20-1999Operating
Earth GRACE
The primary goal of the GRACE mission is to accurately map variations in the Earth's gravity field over its 5-year lifetime. This provides scientists from all over the world with an efficient and cost-effective way to map the Earth's gravity ...
20020317 03-17-2002Operating
Earth LDCM
LDCM is a joint NASA-United States Geological Survey (USGS) mission to extend the Landsat record of multispectral, 30-meter resolution, seasonal, global coverage of the Earth's land surface. The Land Remote Sensing Policy Act of 1992 directs NASA and USGS to ...
20121201 12-01-2012Development
Earth NOAA-N
NOAA-N broadcasts data directly to thousands of users around the world and continues to provide a polar-orbiting platform to support the environmental monitoring instruments for imaging and measurement of the Earth's atmosphere, its surface, and cloud cover. Observations include information ...
20050520 05-20-2005Operating
Earth NPOESS
The National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) is a satellite system used to monitor global environmental conditions, and collect and disseminate data related to weather, atmosphere, oceans, land and near-space environment. This mission is part of the GOES/POES program.
20140331 03-31-2014Development
Earth NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP)
NPP is a joint mission to extend key measurements in support of long term monitoring of climate trends and of global biological productivity. This mission is part of SMD's Earth Systematic Missions program.
20110115 01-15-2011Development