Evidence rethink puts CO2 and ancient warming back in sync

A thin layer of ice from an area of the Antarctic where ancient ice records are collected, in polarized light that reveals ice crystals. Rethinking how ice crystal formation affects ancient data collection is helping to solve an outstanding climate puzzle. © Frédéric Parrenin

A thin layer of ice from an area of the Antarctic where ancient ice records are collected, in polarized light that reveals ice crystals. Rethinking how ice crystal formation affects ancient data collection is helping to solve an outstanding climate puzzle. © Frédéric Parrenin

A different way to dig up links between past levels of CO2 in the air and temperatures could solve a troubling question over the historical climate. Previously, data collected from long cylinders drilled from Antarctica’s ice sheet seemed to show temperatures rising hundreds of years before CO2 levels did. If ancient warming came before a CO2 rise, then the greenhouse gas seemingly couldn’t have caused the warming. Climate skeptics have used this to argue  that the CO2 we produce today isn’t causing global warming.

Now, Frédéric Parrenin at the French National Centre for Scientific Research in Grenoble and his teammates have used a different method on these cylindrical ice cores. They say that their approach shows CO2 and temperature rises happened together during the last ‘deglaciation’, when ice sheets retreated during an abrupt warming period 20,000-10,000 years ago. “This makes it possible that CO2 was actually a cause of warming corresponding to the last deglaciation,” Frédéric told me.

Scientists have been using Antarctic ice cores, and bubbles of air from the time the ice formed trapped inside, to study climate history for over 30 years. The time capsule-like bubbles show what chemicals were in the air. Meanwhile, the amounts of different forms, known as isotopes, of elements like hydrogen, carbon and oxygen in the ice reveals the temperature it formed at. And finally, scientists figure out how old the ice and bubbles are from how deep they are in the core – and that’s where Frédéric found problems. Read the rest of this entry »

Cave deposits reveal permafrost concern

University of Oxford's Anton Vaks explores a cave, where he could find stalactites and stalagmites that reveal when the soil above was permafrost. Credit: University of Oxford

University of Oxford’s Anton Vaks explores a cave, where he could find stalactites and stalagmites that reveal when the soil above was permafrost. Credit: University of Oxford

Stalagmite and stalactite deposits in Siberian and Mongolian caves have revealed the most accurate permafrost history yet, suggesting that a global 1.5°C temperature rise could trigger a widespread thaw. “The finding shows how vulnerable the permafrost is,” said Anton Vaks from the University of Oxford. “Russian gas facilities in north-western Siberia are located close to the boundary of the continuous permafrost and rely on it as hard ground. Thawing of the permafrost may cause damage both to Russia, as well as its gas trade partners, like the European Union. The melting permafrost may also release part of the organic carbon currently trapped in it as greenhouse gases, CO2 and methane, enhancing global warming.”

Anton first used cave deposits’ power to study climate history during his PhD to build a 350,000 year record for the northern margin of the Saharan-Arabian Desert. “Stalagmites and stalactites grow only when rain or snowmelt water seep into the cave through the ceiling,” Anton explained. “Therefore each layer of growth of stalagmites and stalactites records a humid event in the desert.” He realised that these deposits’ ability to track water flow could equally measure melting of previously permanently frozen soil known as permafrost. “Cave deposits cannot grow when the rock above the cave is frozen,” Anton said. “Thus, each growth layer in a stalagmite forms during warm periods, whereas growth breaks represent cold periods with permafrost. Past periods that were warmer than now are especially important, because they can show what may happen to the permafrost in the future warmer world.”
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Extra stations bolster warming-extreme rainfall link

The highest daily rainfall in a year is increasing by around 7% per 1°C warming. Credit: Andrew Ciscel via Flickr

The highest daily rainfall in a year is increasing by around 7% per 1°C warming. Credit: Andrew Ciscel via Flickr

The most comprehensive review of changes to extreme rainfall yet has confirmed the link between extreme rainfall intensity and global atmospheric temperature, with annual rainfall highs intensifying by around 7% per 1°C warming. University of Adelaide’s Seth Westra and his teammates called on 8326 weather stations across the Earth’s surface with over 30 years’ data from the period between 1900 and 2009. “The real innovation in this study is the strength of the data set we used,” Seth told me.

As a flood engineer, Seth has conducted numerous flood risk studies using highest daily rainfall amounts over a year period for planning. But when trying to understand how these rainfall amounts are changing, he found that many studies did not present their information so engineers could use it easily. He therefore wanted to do a statistical study that could produce more precise estimates. And when he found out that Lisa Alexander at the University of New South Wales, Australia was bringing together measurements of temperature and rainfall extremes, he saw his opportunity.

Lisa is part of a team that has collected data from 11391 weather stations worldwide, a much larger record than previous studies had used. That’s partly to contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report on global warming, due out in stages in late 2013 and 2014. But it meant the massive task of collecting the measurements needed to do the kind of study Seth planned was already being done. “You can imagine the sheer amount of work in getting data from dozens of meteorological agencies from around the world,” he said. “Trying to feed them all into one single repository is a lot of effort.”

With this data in hand, Seth, Lisa and Francis Zwiers from the University of Victoria, Canada, first selected only the 8326 stations with over 30 years’ worth of data. They then used two statistical tests to look at the annual extreme rainfall highs, which they published online last year in a paper in the Journal of Climate. In the first, they simply looked at whether rainfall extremes increase or decrease at each station over time, Seth explained. Read the rest of this entry »

Altered pressure patterns bring Eurasia intense iciness

People enjoying the winter sun - typical of an anticyclone, or high pressure, weather system - on the frozen Landwehrkanal in Berlin-Kreuzberg, during February 2012, when Berlin set a record for extreme cold. Credit: onnola via Flickr

People enjoying the winter sun – typical of an anticyclone, or high pressure, weather system – on the frozen Landwehrkanal in Berlin-Kreuzberg, during February 2012, when Berlin set a record for extreme cold. Credit: onnola via Flickr

Extreme cold that has left Europe and Asia snowbound, shivering and asking, “What global warming?” in recent years has been driven by intensified high pressure patterns. That’s according to Xiangdong Zhang at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who has been studying how such cold snaps fit in with increasing average temperatures worldwide. “Extreme cold weather events can occur in a particular region and short time period in a warming global climate,” Xiangdong pointed out. “This may highly disrupt daily life, damage infrastructure, and impact ecosystems and environment.”

Xiangdong started thinking about extreme cold events because climate studies usually use monthly temperature averages, which overlook them. “This cannot reflect extreme cold temperatures occurring on a particular day because daily temperature changes are filtered out by the average,” he told me. “For example, the monthly averaged temperature in February 2012 was -4.9°C in Berlin. But the coldest daily temperature in the same month at the same location was -19.6°C. We don’t directly feel the monthly average temperature in our daily life. What we feel is day-by-day changes in temperature. But if we can understand mechanisms of daily temperature changes, we would be able to better understand why there is colder or warmer monthly average temperature.”

Outside of tropical areas weather patterns known as cyclones, which would be called low pressure on a weather forecast, and anticyclones, or high pressure, drive those daily temperature changes. Xiangdong had previously been part of a team that adapted an automated cyclone spotting method to look at each one separately. Last year, with researchers from Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in China, he used that method to study records from across Europe and Asia between 1978-2012. They brought together sea level pressure data recorded every six hours by a global collection network, and daily minimum air temperatures recorded at 1337 meteorological stations.

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Mild winters raise risk of flu epidemics

Arizona State University mathematician Sherry Towers has found links between a warm winters with little flu to epidemics the following year. Credit: Arizona State University

Arizona State University mathematician Sherry Towers has found links between a warm winters with little flu to epidemics the following year. Credit: Arizona State University

In 2012/13 the US flu season started especially early for two strains for the first time since the government started tracking it in 1997. Sherry Towers at Arizona State University has put this down to the unusually warm winter the country saw in 2011/2012, after showing such a link can be seen in previous years. She hopes that her findings can help health services prepare as winters get yet milder with continuing climate change.

“Until now, it had not been noticed that the dynamics of the current season depend not only on the temperature of the current season and vaccine match, but also on what had occurred the year before,” Sherry told me. “If there has been a mild flu season during a mild winter, public health authorities know several months in advance that a severe season with early onset is much more likely to occur the next season. This allows them to expedite the manufacture and distribution of vaccines to the population.”

As a mathematician looking at how climate affects the spread of infectious diseases, Sherry follows influenza data collected by the US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) closely. The CDC tracks the various influenza virus types in circulation. These include letter and number combinations you might have heard, like H1N1 and H3N2, which together are classed as influenza A, plus the single type of influenza B virus. Scientists had previously shown that high temperatures reduce transmission of the virus, which alone would make mild flu seasons more common in warm winters. Though this suggests less of a threat from flu in a warmer world, this season’s data made her wonder if there could be a downside.

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