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Why is Earth's upper atmosphere cooling?

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(Read caption) Although Earth's troposphere, shown here, and surface have been warming, the upper layers of the atmosphere have been cooling.

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Temperatures at the earth's surface have increased by between 0.2 and 0.4 degrees C in the past 30 years. The vast majority of scientists attribute this warming trend to higher concentrations of greenhouse gases – CO2, methane, CFCs, and others – which warm both the earth's surface and lower atmosphere by holding heat in.

But one of the seeming paradoxes of more greenhouse gases is that while they seem to warm the earth's surface, they also seem to be cooling the higher layers of the atmosphere: Surface temperatures have gone up in recent decades, but they've declined to varying degrees in the stratosphere (above 20 km), the mesosphere (above 50 km), and the thermosphere (above 90 km).

In the lower and middle mesosphere, for example, temperatures have fallen by between 5 and 10 degrees C during the past three decades. And the outermost part of the atmosphere, around 350 km high — the so-called thermosphere — has, as would be expected by cooling, contracted.

(Here's a review of these observed changes in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

The science behind the observed stratospheric cooling is complex, but important to understand.

Some people cite this cooling as evidence that greenhouse gases aren't warming and that human-induced climate change isn't happening. But the conclusion, it seems, should be the opposite.

In 1989, scientists predicted that more greenhouse gases would cool the stratosphere.


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