This website is the digital version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, produced in collaboration with the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

For the official version, please refer to the PDF in the downloads section. The downloadable PDF is the official version of the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

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Welcome to the National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore the effects of climate change
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Our Changing Climate

Global climate is changing and this is apparent across the United States in a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.

Explore our changing climate.



Temperature Change by Decade Temperature Change by Decade Details/Download

Evidence for changes in Earth’s climate can be found from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. Researchers from around the world have compiled this evidence using satellites, weather balloons, thermometers at surface stations, and many other types of observing systems that monitor the Earth’s weather and climate. The sum total of this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming.

Our Changing Climate

Calving ice sheet

The ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass, adding to global sea level rise.

Temperatures at Earth’s surface, in the troposphere (the active weather layer extending up to about 5 to 10 miles above the ground), and in the oceans have all increased over recent decades. The largest increases in temperature are occurring closer to the poles, especially in the Arctic. This warming has triggered many other changes to the Earth’s climate. Snow and ice cover have decreased in most areas. Atmospheric water vapor is increasing in the lower atmosphere because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water. Sea level is increasing because water expands as it warms and because melting ice on land adds water to the oceans. Changes in other climate-relevant indicators such as growing season length have been observed in many areas. Worldwide, the observed changes in average conditions have been accompanied by increasing trends in extremes of heat and heavy precipitation events, and decreases in extreme cold. It is the sum total of these indicators that leads to the conclusion that warming of our planet is unequivocal.

Global Temperature and Carbon Dioxide

Global Temperature and Carbon Dioxide

CO2 Concentration

Global annual average temperature (as measured over both land and oceans) has increased by more than 1.5°F (0.8°C) since 1880 (through 2012). Red bars show temperatures above the long-term average, and blue bars indicate temperatures below the long-term average. The black line shows atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in parts per million (ppm). While there is a clear long-term global warming trend, some years do not show a temperature increase relative to the previous year, and some years show greater changes than others. These year-to-year fluctuations in temperature are due to natural processes, such as the effects of El Niños, La Niñas, and volcanic eruptions. (Figure source: updated from Karl et al. 20091).


Sea ice in the Arctic has decreased dramatically since the satellite record began in 1978. Minimum Arctic sea ice extent (which occurs in early to mid-September) has decreased by more than 40%.4 This decline is unprecedented in the historical record, and the reduction of ice volume and thickness is even greater. Ice thickness decreased by more than 50% from 1958-1976 to 2003-2008.5 The percentage of the March ice cover made up of thicker ice (ice that has survived a summer melt season) decreased from 75% in the mid-1980s to 45% in 2011.6

Arctic Sea Ice Decline

Arctic Sea Ice Cover Reaches Record Low

The retreat of sea ice has occurred faster than climate models had predicted. Image on left shows Arctic minimum sea ice extent in 1984, which was about 2.59 million square miles, the average minimum extent for 1979-2000. Image on right shows that the extent of sea ice had dropped to 1.32 million square miles at the end of summer 2012. The dramatic loss of Arctic sea ice increases warming and has many other impacts on the region. Marine mammals including polar bears and many seal species depend on sea ice for nearly all aspects of their existence. Alaska Native coastal communities rely on sea ice for many reasons, including its role as a buffer against coastal erosion from storms and as a platform for hunting. (Figure source: NASA Earth Observatory 20122).

Ice Loss from the Two Polar Ice Sheets Ice Loss from the Two Polar Ice Sheets Details/Download

Ice loss increases Arctic warming by replacing white, reflective ice with dark water that absorbs more energy from the sun. More open water can also increase snowfall over northern land areas7 and increase the north-south meanders of the jet stream, consistent with the occurrence of unusually cold and snowy winters at mid-latitudes in several recent years.7,8 Significant uncertainties remain in interpreting the effect of Arctic ice changes on mid-latitude weather patterns.9

In addition to the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice, rising temperatures are reducing the volume and surface extent of ice on land and lakes. Snow cover on land has also decreased over the past several decades, especially in late spring.

Climate in the United States is changing.

Observed U.S. Temperature Change Observed U.S. Temperature Change Details/Download

U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3°F to 1.9°F since record keeping began in 1895; most of this increase has occurred since about 1970. The most recent decade was the nation’s warmest on record. Because human-induced warming is superimposed on a naturally varying climate, the temperature rise has not been, and will not be, uniform or smooth across the country or over time.

While surface air temperature is the most widely cited measure of climate change, other aspects of climate that are affected by temperature are often more directly relevant to both human society and the natural environment. Examples include shorter duration of ice on lakes and rivers, reduced glacier extent, earlier melting of snowpack, reduced lake levels due to increased evaporation, lengthening of the growing season, changes in plant hardiness zones, increased humidity, rising ocean temperatures, rising sea level, and changes in some types of extreme weather.

Muir Glacier

Muir Glacier in Alaska

On the left is a photograph of Muir Glacier in Alaska taken on August 13, 1941; on the right, a photograph taken from the same vantage point on August 31, 2004. Total glacial mass has declined sharply around the globe, adding to sea level rise. (Left photo by glaciologist William O. Field; right photo by geologist Bruce F. Molnia of the United States Geological Survey.)

Taken as a whole, these changes provide compelling evidence that increasing temperatures are affecting both ecosystems and human society.

A longer growing season provides a longer period for plant growth and productivity and can slow the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations through increased CO2 uptake by living things and their environment.10 The longer growing season can increase the growth of beneficial plants (such as crops and forests) as well as undesirable ones (such as ragweed).11 In some cases where moisture is limited, the greater evaporation and loss of moisture through plant transpiration (release of water from plant leaves) associated with a longer growing season can mean less productivity because of increased drying12 and earlier and longer fire seasons.

Increased frost-free season length, especially in already hot and moisture-stressed regions like the Southwest, can lead to further heat stress on plants and increased water demands for crops. Higher temperatures and fewer frost-free days during winter can lead to early bud burst or bloom of some perennial plants, resulting in frost damage when cold conditions occur in late spring. In addition, with higher winter temperatures, some agricultural pests can persist year-round, and new pests and diseases may become established.13

Observed Increases in Frost-Free Season Observed Increases in Frost-Free Season Details/Download

The lengthening of the frost-free season has been somewhat greater in the western U.S. than the eastern U.S.,1 increasing by 2 to 3 weeks in the Northwest and Southwest, 1 to 2 weeks in the Midwest, Great Plains, and Northeast, and slightly less than 1 week in the Southeast. These differences mirror the overall trend of more warming in the north and west and less warming in the Southeast.

Average annual precipitation over the U.S. has increased in recent decades, although there are important regional differences. For example, precipitation since 1991 (relative to 1901-1960) increased the most in the Northeast (8%), Midwest (9%), and southern Great Plains (8%), while much of the Southeast and Southwest had a mix of areas of increases and decreases.

Observed U.S. Precipitation Change

Observed U.S. Precipitation Change

The colors on the map show annual total precipitation changes for 1991-2012 compared to the 1901-1960 average, and show wetter conditions in most areas. The bars on the graph show average precipitation differences by decade for 1901-2012 (relative to the 1901-1960 average). The far right bar is for 2001-2012. (Figure source: NOAA NCDC / CICS-NC).


The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.

Climate has changed naturally throughout Earth’s history. However, natural factors cannot explain the recent observed warming.

In the past, climate change was driven exclusively by natural factors: explosive volcanic eruptions that injected reflective particles into the upper atmosphere, changes in energy from the sun, periodic variations in the Earth’s orbit, natural cycles that transfer heat between the ocean and the atmosphere, and slowly changing natural variations in heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

2000 Years of Heat Trapping Gas Levels 2000 Years of Heat Trapping Gas Levels Details/Download

All of these natural factors, and their interactions with each other, have altered global average temperature over periods ranging from months to thousands of years. For example, past glacial periods were initiated by shifts in the Earth’s orbit, and then amplified by resulting decreases in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and subsequently by greater reflection of the sun’s energy by ice and snow as the Earth’s climate system responded to a cooler climate.

Natural factors are still affecting the planet’s climate today. The difference is that, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have been increasingly affecting global climate, to the point where we are now the primary cause of recent and projected future change.

The majority of the warming at the global scale over the past 50 years can only be explained by the effects of human influences, especially the emissions from burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) and from deforestation.

Carbon Emissions in the Industrial Age

Carbon Emissions in the Industrial Age


Carbon emissions from burning coal, oil, and gas and producing cement, in units of million metric tons of carbon. These emissions account for about 80% of the total emissions of carbon from human activities, with land-use changes (like cutting down forests) accounting for the other 20% in recent decades. (Data from Boden et al. 201215).


The emissions from human influences affecting climate include heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and nitrous oxide, and particles such as black carbon (soot), which has a warming influence, and sulfates, which have an overall cooling influence. In addition to human-induced global climate change, local climate can also be affected by other human factors (such as crop irrigation) and natural variability.

highway traffic; power plant

Oil used for transportation and coal used for electricity generation are the largest contributors to the rise in carbon dioxide that is the primary driver of recent climate change.

Carbon dioxide has been building up in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era in the mid-1700s, primarily due to burning coal, oil, and gas, and secondarily due to clearing of forests. Atmospheric levels have increased by about 40% relative to pre-industrial levels.

Methane levels in the atmosphere have increased due to human activities including agriculture (with livestock producing methane in their digestive tracts and rice farming producing it via bacteria that live in the flooded fields); mining coal, extraction and transport of natural gas, and other fossil fuel-related activities; and waste disposal including sewage and decomposing garbage in landfills. Since pre-industrial times, methane levels have increased by 250%.

Other heat-trapping gases produced by human activities include nitrous oxide, halocarbons, and ozone. Nitrous oxide levels are increasing, primarily as a result of fertilizer use and fossil fuel burning. The concentration of nitrous oxide has increased by about 20% relative to pre-industrial times.

The conclusion that human influences are the primary driver of recent climate change is based on multiple lines of independent evidence. The first line of evidence is our fundamental understanding of how certain gases trap heat, how the climate system responds to increases in these gases, and how other human and natural factors influence climate. The second line of evidence is from reconstructions of past climates using evidence such as tree rings, ice cores, and corals. These show that global surface temperatures over the last several decades are clearly unusual, with the last decade (2000-2009) warmer than any time in at least the last 1,300 years and perhaps much longer.

Measurements of Surface Temperature and Sun’s Energy Measurements of Surface Temperature and Sun’s Energy Details/Download

The third line of evidence comes from using climate models to simulate the climate of the past century, separating the human and natural factors that influence climate. When the human factors are removed, these models show that solar and volcanic activity would have tended to slightly cool the earth, and other natural variations are too small to explain the amount of warming. Only when the human influences are included do the models reproduce the warming observed over the past 50 years.

Another line of evidence involves so-called “fingerprint” studies that are able to attribute observed climate changes to particular causes. For example, the fact that the stratosphere (the layer above the troposphere) is cooling while the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere are warming is a fingerprint that the warming is due to increases in heat-trapping gases. In contrast, if the observed warming had been due to increases in solar output, Earth’s atmosphere would have warmed throughout its entire extent, including the stratosphere. In addition to such temperature analyses, scientific attribution of observed changes to human influence extends to many other aspects of climate, such as changing patterns in precipitation, increasing humidity, changes in pressure, and increasing ocean heat content.


  1. Boden, T., G. Marland, and B. Andres, 2012: Global CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2009. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. URL

  2. Forster, P., V. Ramaswamy, P. Artaxo, T. Berntsen, R. Betts, D. W. Fahey, J. Haywood, J. Lean, D. C. Lowe, G. Myhre, J. Nganga, R. Prinn, G. Raga, M. Schulz, and R. Van Dorland, 2007: Ch. 2: Changes in atmospheric constituents and in radiative forcing. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, S. Solomon, D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller, Eds., Cambridge University Press. URL

  3. Francis, J. A., and S. J. Vavrus, 2012: Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, 39, L06801, doi:10.1029/2012GL051000. URL

  4. Frisvold, G., L. E. Jackson, J. G. Pritchett, and J. Ritten, 2013: Ch. 11: Agriculture and ranching. Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for the National Climate Assessment, G. Garfin, A. Jardine, R. Merideth, M. Black, and S. LeRoy, Eds., Island Press, 218-239. URL

  5. Hu, J. I. A., D. J. P. Moore, S. P. Burns, and R. K. Monson, 2010: Longer growing seasons lead to less carbon sequestration by a subalpine forest. Global Change Biology, 16, 771-783, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.01967.x. URL

  6. Karl, T. R., J. T. Melillo, and T. C. Peterson, 2009: Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. T.R. Karl, J.T. Melillo, and T.C. Peterson, Eds. Cambridge University Press, 189 pp. URL

  7. Kwok, R., and D. A. Rothrock, 2009: Decline in Arctic sea ice thickness from submarine and ICESat records: 1958–2008. Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L15501, doi:10.1029/2009gl039035. URL

  8. Liu, J., J. A. Curry, H. Wang, M. Song, and R. M. Horton, 2012: Impact of declining Arctic sea ice on winter snowfall. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109, 4074-4079, doi:10.1073/pnas.1114910109. URL

  9. Maslanik, J., J. Stroeve, C. Fowler, and W. Emery, 2011: Distribution and trends in Arctic sea ice age through spring 2011. Geophysical Research Letters, 38, L13502, doi:10.1029/2011gl047735. URL

  10. NASA Earth Observatory, 2012: Visualizing the 2012 Sea Ice Minimum. NASA Earth Observatory, EOS Project Science Office, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. URL

  11. NSIDC, 2012: Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Lowest Extent for the Year and the Satellite Record. The National Snow and Ice Data Center. URL

  12. Peñuelas, J., T. Rutishauser, and I. Filella, 2009: Phenology feedbacks on climate change. Science, 324, 887-888, doi:10.1126/science.1173004. URL

  13. Screen, J. A., and I. Simmonds, 2013: Exploring links between Arctic amplification and mid-latitude weather. Geophysical Research Letters, 40, 959-964, doi:10.1002/grl.50174. URL

  14. Wouters, B., J. L. Bamber, M. R. van den Broeke, J. T. M. Lenaerts, and I. Sasgen, 2013: Limits in detecting acceleration of ice sheet mass loss due to climate variability. Nature Geoscience, 6, 613-616, doi:10.1038/ngeo1874.

  15. Ziska, L. et al., 2011: Recent warming by latitude associated with increased length of ragweed pollen season in central North America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 4248-4251, doi:10.1073/pnas.1014107108. URL

The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.

A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

United States Global Change Research Program logo United States Global Change Research Program participating agency logos