Tundra plants show modern temperatures unmatched in over 44,000 years

Gifford Miller collects vegetation samples on Baffin Island. Credit: University of Colorado, Boulder.

Gifford Miller collects vegetation samples on Baffin Island. Credit: University of Colorado, Boulder.

Tiny plants in Arctic Canada have shown that average summer temperatures there over the last 100 years are higher than those during any century for over 44,000 years. Gifford Miller from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his teammates collected plants perfectly preserved but recently revealed by rapidly retreating ice sheets. The temperature findings are especially surprising as around 10% more energy from the sun fell on the Northern half of the planet 5,000 years ago than today.  And by looking at other scientists’ historical temperature records, they think the last time temperatures were as warm as today was likely around 120,000 years ago. “This adds to the growing consensus that the greenhouse gases we’ve added to the atmosphere have made a very large difference to the planet’s energy balance,” Gifford told me.

Scientists have known receding glaciers on Baffin Island are revealing well-preserved moss and lichen for almost 50 years. Gifford first read about it during his PhD, which he completed in 1975, in a paper written by a Canadian Department of Mines and Technical Surveys employee in 1966. “I had been to that site in 1981, found where he’d built a camp at the ice edge, measured how far the ice had disappeared and found plants coming out,” he recalled. “I’d repeated what he had done, but hadn’t done anything else with it. But as the ice is melting a lot right now we hypothesised that this wasn’t an isolated case.”

Glaciers don’t usually preserve what’s underneath them. “It’s almost counterintuitive to some people – you think of ice doing some damage to the landscape,” Gifford said. “But ice doesn’t move on its own, it’s driven by gravity. Where it’s flat, there’s not a whole lot of gravity pushing it, and if the ice is fairly thin and cold it’s an exquisite preservation agent. They’re frozen solid when they’re under the ice, which is very cold, like -14°C.” Sites like that can be hard to get to, as many are on plateaus high above Baffin Island. “You could mount climbing expeditions and spend a week getting to one site, so really there’s no practical way to get up there, except to have very good weather and a helicopter,” the scientist added. Read the rest of this entry »

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Braving African piracy reveals abrupt rainfall shifts

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Jessica Tierney has patiently produced a record of rainfall in East Africa reaching back 40,000 years, from sediment collected from pirate- and extremist-infested waters. Image copyright: Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Jessica Tierney has patiently produced a record of rainfall in East Africa reaching back 40,000 years, from sediment collected from pirate- and extremist-infested waters. Image copyright: Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Having dodged pirates and extremists, and slogged for two years to interpret the record collected, US scientists have shown how abruptly rainy climates in East Africa come and go. Jessica Tierney puzzled out a rainfall record back to the last ice age from mud collected in one of the last research cruises to brave the Horn of Africa. “The region goes from being pretty humid to very arid in hundreds of years,” Jessica, who works at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts, told me. “That’s important because there’s a threshold behaviour in its rainfall. We need to better understand what drives those thresholds, and when we’d expect to be pushed over one, as it has huge implications for predicting drought and famine in the region.”

Long interested in ancient East African climate, Jessica wanted to study the Horn of Africa area, which includes Ethiopia and Somalia, because the climate there is very sensitive and variable. But its dry conditions rule out many options scientists use to build historical records from ice, cave deposits, sediments from lake beds or tree rings. So in 2010, she started working with Peter deMenocal at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, who collected sea bed sediments from the area in April and May 2001.

“We boarded ship in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania and our cruise was to end in Port Said, in Egypt,” Peter told me. That took the team down the Somali coast and into the Gulf of Aden, where a few months earlier suicide bombers killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole. Though the scientists were worried, the captain of their Dutch research ship, R/V Pelagia was vigilant. “He had ordered radio silence, and we actually turned off all our lights on the ship at night, even navigation lights,” Peter recalled. “He had also put in orders for us to train on what to do in case we were boarded.”

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If we pass safe climate limits, it’s a long way back

University of Victoria's Andrew MacDougall in Canada's Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

University of Victoria’s Andrew MacDougall in Canada’s Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

If CO2 levels in the air pass the ‘safe’ limit, we’d have to take out up to four-fifths more than we originally emitted to get back under it. That’s the result from seemingly the first study to look at climate change’s reversibility with plausible scenarios, done by Andrew MacDougall from the University of Victoria (UVic), Canada. “With monumental effort and political will climate change is reversible within the millennium,” Andrew told me. “However, more carbon will need to be extracted from the atmosphere than was originally emitted to it. Meanwhile, changes in sea-level are effectively irreversible on the millennial time-scale.”

Andrew started looking at whether climate change could be undone in autumn 2012, after publishing a study showing that melting permafrost will speed up global warming. “The results were pretty grim,” Andrew said. “Combined with the failure of the political classes to implement controls on carbon emissions I began to wonder if there was a way to undo what humanity will do to the climate if we greatly exceeded the 450 parts per million (ppm) target.” That target comes because scientists say temperatures 2°C higher than the ‘pre-industrial’ average from 1850-1899 could become dangerous, and governments have agreed to keep warming below this level. Scientists also calculate that 450 CO2 molecules are allowable in every million air molecules to give us better than a 3/5 chance of temperature rises below 2°C.

After human emissions cease, current evidence suggests that natural processes would take tens of thousands of years to remove all of the fossil carbon from the atmosphere. Most of the warming will remain, even 10,000 years into the future. This sentence could be reduced by taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere, though this would be a huge effort, on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry according to one estimate. One method for doing that involves generating electricity by burning plants or trees that grew by absorbing CO2, and capturing and storing the CO2 from the burning. The other, known as air capture, uses machines to scrub CO2 right out of the air. However, this would need to be powered by clean energy and arguments over its cost are holding back research. Read the rest of this entry »

How ocean data helped reveal the climate beast

Wally Broecker's famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences.  Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Wally Broecker’s famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences. Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.

On the wall of Wally Broecker’s building at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory hangs a 16-foot long terry-cloth snake, blue with pink spots, that he calls the ‘climate beast’. Left in his office as a surprise by his workmates, its name refers to one of Wally’s most powerful quotes about the climate: “If you’re living with an angry beast, you shouldn’t poke it with a sharp stick.”

Today, the sharp stick is the CO2 we’re emitting by burning fossil fuels, which Wally was warning about by 1975. By that time he had also helped confirm that throughout history, changes in Earth’s orbit have given the climate beast regular kicks, triggering rapid exits from ice ages. He became obsessed with the idea that climate had changed abruptly in the past, and the idea we could provoke the ‘angry beast’ into doing it again.

Among the many samples that Wally was carbon dating, from the late 1950s onwards he was getting treasure from the oceans. Pouring sulphuric acid into seawater, he could convert dissolved carbonate back into CO2 gas that he could then carbon date. And though nuclear weapon tests had previously messed with Wally’s results, they actually turned out to help improved our knowledge of the oceans. The H-bomb tests produced more of the radioactive carbon-14 his technique counts, and as that spike moved through the oceans, Wally could track how fast they absorbed that CO2.

In the 1970s, as Wally and a large team of other scientists sailed on RV Melville and RV Knorr tracking such chemicals across the planet’s oceans, a debate raged. Was cutting down forests releasing more CO2 than burning fossil fuels? Dave Keeling’s measurements showed the amount of CO2 being added to the air was about half the amount produced by fossil fuels. But plants and the oceans could be taking up huge amounts, scientists argued. Thanks to the H-bomb carbon, Wally’s team found the CO2 going into the oceans was just 1/3 of what fossil fuels had emitted. Faster-growing plants therefore seemed to be balancing out the impact of deforestation, and taking up the remaining 1/6 portion of the fossil fuel emissions. Read the rest of this entry »