Global dimming

Missing image
A NASA photograph showing aircraft contrails and natural clouds. The temporary disappearance of contrails after the September 11, 2001 attacks gave empirical evidence of the cooling effect of water droplets.

Global dimming is a term describing the gradual reduction in the amount of sunlight observed reaching the Earth's surface since the 1950s. The effect varies by location but globally is of the order of a 5% reduction over the three decades 1960-1990; the trend has reversed during the past decade. Global dimming creates a cooling effect that may have led scientists to underestimate the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming.


Cause and effects

It is now thought that the effect is probably due to the increased presence of aerosols and other particulates in the atmosphere. It is thought that the water droplets in clouds coalesce around the particles, resulting in the clouds consisting of a greater number of smaller droplets, which in turn makes them more reflective: bouncing more sunlight back into space.

Clouds intercept both heat from the sun and heat radiated from the Earth. Their effects are complex and vary in time and location and height. Usually, during the day the interception of sunlight predominates, giving a cooling effect; however, at night the re-radiation of heat to the Earth slows the earth's heat loss.


Global dimming may have been reported by Atsumu Ohmura in 1989; it was certainly reported by Stanhill and Moreshet in 1992.

Independent research in Israel and Netherlands in the late 1980s showed an apparent reduction in the amount of sunlight despite wide spread evidence that the climate was actually getting hotter (see global warming). The rate of dimming varies around the world but is on average estimated at around 2–3% per decade, with a possibility that the trend reversed in the early 1990s. It is difficult to make an exact measurement because of the difficulty in accurately calibrating the instruments and the problem of spatial coverage. Nonetheless the effect is almost certainly real.

Note that the effect (2-3%, as above) is due to changes within the Earth's atmosphere; the value of the solar radiation at the top of the atmosphere has not changed by more than a fraction of this amount.

The effect varies greatly over the globe, but estimates of the global average value are:

  • 5.3% (9 W/m²) over 1958-85 (Stanhill and Moreshet, 1992)
  • 2%/decade over 1964–93 (Gilgen et al, 1998)
  • 2.7%/decade (total 20 W/m²) up to 2000 (Stanhill and Cohen, 2001)
  • 4% over 1961-1990 (Liepert 2002) [1] (

The largest reductions are found in the northern hemisphere mid-latitudes.

Experiments in the Maldives (comparing the atmosphere over the northern and southern islands) in the 1990s showed that the effect of macroscopic pollutants in the atmosphere at that time (blown south from India) caused about a 10% reduction in sunlight reaching the surface in the area under the pollution cloud – a much greater reduction than expected from the presence of the particles themselves [2] ( . Prior to the research being undertaken, predictions were of a 0.5% to 1% effect from particulate matter; the variation from prediction is explained by cloud formation with the particles acting as the focus for droplet creation. Clouds are very effective at reflecting light back out into space.

Some climate scientists have theorised that aircraft contrails are implicated in global dimming, but the constant flow of air traffic meant that this could not be tested. The near-total shutdown of civil air traffic during the three days following the September 11, 2001 attacks afforded a rare opportunity in which to observe the climate of the USA absent from the effect of contrails. During this period an increase in diurnal temperature variation of over 1 C was observed, i.e. aircraft contrails have been raising nighttime temperatures and/or lowering daytime temperatures by much more than previously thought.

Recent reversal

In 2005 Wild et al. and Pinker et al. found that the "dimming" trend had reversed since about 1990 [3] ( It is likely that at least some of this change, particularly over Europe, is due to decreases in pollution.

The Baseline Surface Radiation Network (BSRN) has been collecting surface measurements. BSRN didn't get started until the early 1990s and updated the archives. Analysis of recent data reveals the planet's surface has brightened by about 4 percent the past decade. The brightening trend is corroborated by other data, including satellite analyses.


Global dimming may have caused large scale changes in weather patterns. Climate models speculatively suggest that this reduction in sunshine at the surface may have led to the failure of the monsoon in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, together with the associated famines, caused by Northern hemisphere pollution cooling the Atlantic. This is not universally accepted and is very difficult to prove.

Relationship to global warming

Some scientists now consider that the effects of global dimming have masked the effect of global warming, and that resolving global dimming may therefore have a major and previously unpredicted impact on temperatures and sea levels. Initial work to incorporate the effects of global dimming suggest that world temperatures may rise by 2 C by 2030, and as much as 10 C by 2100; this is a doubling of the widely accepted figure of a 5 C rise in global temperature this Century. If this were to be so, such large increases would lead to the melting of the Greenland icecap, major reductions in the extent of tropical rainforests, and significant rises in sea levels.

A further speculation is that such a rise in temperature would trigger a rapid and irreversible release of the huge deposits of methane hydrates currently locked beneath the ocean floor, releasing methane gas, one of the most powerful of the greenhouse gases. A similar mechanism is one of the theories proposed to explain the Permian-Triassic extinction event approximately 252 million years ago, and the extinctions associated with the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum around 55 million years ago. It is estimated that it took the planet as long as 100,000 years to recover to a "normal state" following the Thermal Maximum.

See also


  • Stanhill, G. & Cohen, S. 2001. Global Dimming: a review of the evidence for a widespread and significant reduction in global radiation with discussion of its probable causes and possible agricultural consequences. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 107, 255-278.
  • Roderick, Michael L. and Graham D. Farquhar, 2002. The cause of decreased pan evaporation over the past 50 years. Science Vol. 298, No 5597, pp. 1410-1411, November 15, 2002.
  • BBC Horizon TV broadcast of January 13, 2005 BBC Horizon (
  • Template:Journal reference issue
  • Wild, M et al.; 2005, Science 6 May 2005; 308: 847-850
  • Pinker, et al.; 2005, Science 308: 850-854

External links

nl:Mondiale zonsverduistering es:Oscurecimiento global


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