How lessons from space put the greenhouse effect on the front page

Normally during a total lunar eclipse, like this one on April 15, 2014, you can still see the moon, but in 1963 Normally during a total lunar eclipse, like this one on April 15, 2014, you can still see the moon, but in 1963

Normally during a total lunar eclipse, like this one on April 15, 2014, you can still see the moon, but in 1963 Jim Hansen saw it disappear completely. Explaining why would send him on a scientific journey to Venus, before coming back down to Earth. Image credit: NASA

Jim Hansen’s life changed on the evening the moon disappeared completely. In a building in a cornfield Jim and fellow University of Iowa students Andy Lacis and John Zink, and their professor Satoshi Matsushima, peered in surprise through a small telescope into the wintry sky. It was December 1963, and they had seen the moon replaced by a black, starless circle during a lunar eclipse. The moon always passes into Earth’s shadow during such eclipses, but usually you can still see it.

At first they were confused, but then they remembered that in March there had been a big volcanic eruption. Mount Agung in Indonesia had thrown tonnes of dust and chemicals into the air: perhaps that was blocking out the little light they’d normally have seen? With a spectrometer attached to their telescope they measured the moon’s brightness, data Jim would then base his first scientific research on. Using this record to work out the amount of ‘sulphate aerosol’ particles needed to make the moon disappear, Jim began a lifelong interest in planets’ atmospheres. That would lead him to become director of the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), where he has led the way in exposing the threat from human CO2 emissions.

Jim was born in Iowa in 1941, the fifth of seven children of a farmer, who had left school at 14, and his wife. As he grew up they moved into the town of Denison, his father becoming a bartender and his mother a waitress, and Jim spending his time playing pool and basketball. Jim claims he wasn’t academic, but found maths and science the easiest subjects, always getting the best grades in them in his school. Though his parents divorced when he was young, public college wasn’t expensive at the time, meaning Jim could save enough money to go to the University of Iowa.

The university had an especially strong astronomy department, headed by James Van Allen, after whom brackets of space surrounding the Earth are named. These ‘Van Allen Belts’ are layers of particles that he discovered, held in place by the planet’s magnetic field. Satoshi Matsushima, a member of Van Allen’s department, could see Jim and Andy’s potential and convinced them to take exams to qualify for PhD degrees a year early. Both passed, with Jim getting one of the highest scores, and were offered NASA funding that covered all their costs.

A few months later, it was Satoshi who suggested measuring the eclipse’s brightness, feeding Jim’s interest in atmospheres on other planets. “Observing the lunar eclipse in 1963 forced me to think about aerosols in our atmosphere,” Jim told me. “That led to thinking about Venus aerosols.” In an undergraduate seminar course Jim had given a talk about the atmospheres of outer planets, which James Van Allen had attended. The elder scientist told him that recently measured data was suggesting Venus’ surface was very hot. Aerosols stopped light reaching the Earth during the eclipse – could they be warming up Venus by stopping heat escaping, Jim wondered? That would become the subject of his PhD, and Satoshi and James Van Allen would be his advisors. Read the rest of this entry »

Climate sensitivity wrangles don’t change the big picture on emissions

The sources of data that scientists can use to determine climate sensitivity include ice cores, the cylinders these researchers are holding at the Vostok station in Antarctica. Image credit: Todd Sowers, Columbia University

The sources of data that scientists can use to determine climate sensitivity include ice cores, the cylinders these researchers are holding at the Vostok station in Antarctica. Image credit: Todd Sowers, Columbia University

How much does the world warm up in response to a certain amount of greenhouse gases like CO2 in the atmosphere? It’s a simple question, but its answer depends on whether you mean short-term or long-term warming, and estimates vary according to the methods used. Scientists are currently intensively debating long-term ‘climate sensitivity’, which begs prompts the question: might we be pushing too hard to cut climate CO2 emissions, if this is uncertain?

The answer is no, according to Joeri Rogelj from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, and his coworkers. They looked at how a range of climate sensitivity values affected their 21st century warming projections in a paper published in Environmental Research Letters last week. “When taking into account all available evidence, the big picture doesn’t change,” Joeri told me. The ‘carbon budget’ of greenhouse gases we could still emit today and in the future is very limited whatever the climate sensitivity, he explained. “Keeping the so-called carbon budget in line with warming below 2°C still requires a decarbonisation of  global society over the first half of this century.”

Climate sensitivity is the measure of how much the world will eventually warm when it reaches equilibrium after a doubling of CO2 in the air. Today, we have upset the normal equilibrium where the Sun’s energy flowing into the atmosphere matches the flow the Earth radiates back out of it. Now more is coming in than leaving, and that’s heating the planet up. Think of the atmosphere as a series of pipes, with energy flowing through them like a liquid. The Earth is a reservoir in the system, filled by an incoming pipe and drained by an outgoing one. CO2 acts like a blockage in the outgoing pipe – it slows the outward energy flow and causes a build-up in the reservoir. When the reservoir gets fuller it can put enough pressure on the blockage for the outward flow through it to again match the incoming flow. Then we’d be at equilibrium, but with a fuller reservoir – a warmer planet. The more CO2 we emit, the worse the blockage gets and the hotter we get before reaching equilibrium. Read the rest of this entry »

Volcano cloud over tree-ring temperatures clears

Pennsylvania State University's Michael Mann thinks he has found the reason behind key outstanding disagreements between the historical temperature record based on tree rings and climate models for the same period. Credit: Pennylvania State University

Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann thinks he has found the reason behind key outstanding disagreements between the historical temperature record based on tree rings and climate models for the same period. Credit: Pennylvania State University

The sudden chills violent volcano eruptions cast over the world centuries ago effectively erased themselves from the historical climate record produced by examining tree-rings. So suggests a team led by Michael Mann from Pennsylvania State University, who famously used 1,000 years of tree-ring measurements in the “hockey stick” graph showing how unusual today’s temperatures are. Michael warns the skipped years could affect scientists’ estimates of how much the world warms in response to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, known as its climate sensitivity. But other than the volcano years, the scientist notes that tree-ring data is a remarkably accurate match with the climate models they used for comparison. “Interestingly, the effect has little influence on long-term trends, including conclusions about how previous temperatures compares to modern ones,” he told me. “Instead, it appears only to have implications for how strong past short-term cooling events were.”

A tree’s age can usually be told from the rings that form across its trunk representing each year’s growth. How thick each ring is shows how much the tree grew in the year in question, which is influenced by the temperatures that tree experienced. That means examining the thickness of rings in old trees can provide a way to tell temperatures back through history. Many challenges have already been overcome in turning this simple-sounding idea into a history of the world’s temperature, but Michael was still troubled by one particular detail. Read the rest of this entry »