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 change science anyone can play with

It’s all very well to read about climate change – but you can probably get a better understanding from actually exploring the data and underlying physics yourself. That’s been driven home by some recent comments on this blog by non-scientist readers wanting to do just this, or recommending that I do. Inspired by them, in this week’s blog entry I’m bringing together various different ways we can all do this. Don’t worry, I won’t tax any weary brain cells any more than they want to be. I’m organising the blog entry in order of increasing effort/difficulty – just bail out or take a break whenever you need to.

The volume occupied by the average yearly CO2 emitted by someone in the UK is as big as a building. Credit: Carbon Quilt

The volume occupied by the average yearly CO2 emitted by someone in the UK is as big as a building. Credit: Carbon Quilt

As a simple starter, try the Carbon Quilt tool that lets you see your CO2 emissions. If you click on this link or the image above you should first see the size of a ‘quilt’ or ‘patch’. That represents the average amount of CO2 people in your country emit, overlaid on a map. Try out the sphere and cube options, and the different options in the drop-down menu to see how big your carbon footprint really is.

Click here to see how hot the Earth's predicted to get in your lifetime, and the lifetimes of children born today. Credit: The Guardian

Click here to see how hot the Earth’s predicted to get in your lifetime, and the lifetimes of children born today. Credit: The Guardian

Another simple but powerful demonstration is the Guardian interactive guide to how warm it will get in our lifetimes pictured above.

Click here to see how unusual current CO2 levels are, and how much worse they're set to get. Credit: The Guardian

Click here to see how unusual current CO2 levels are, and how much worse they’re set to get. Credit: The Guardian

Still more powerful, I think, is this guide showing the significance of CO2 levels in the air hitting 400 parts per million last year. Read the rest of this entry »

Fighting for useful climate models

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.
Princeton University's Suki Manabe published his latest paper in March this year, 58 years after his first one. Credit: Princeton University

Princeton University’s Suki Manabe published his latest paper in March this year, 58 years after his first one. Credit: Princeton University

When Princeton University’s Syukuro Manabe first studied global warming with general circulation models (GCMs), few other researchers approved. It was the 1970s, computing power was scarce, and the GCMs had grown out of mathematical weather forecasting to become the most complex models available. “Most people thought that it was premature to use a GCM,” ‘Suki’ Manabe told interviewer Paul Edwards in 1998. But over following decades Suki would exploit GCMs widely to examine climate changes ancient and modern, helping make them the vital research tool they are today.

In the 1970s, the world’s weather and climate scientists were building international research links, meeting up to share the latest knowledge and plan their next experiments. Suki’s computer modelling work at Princeton’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) had made his mark on this community, including two notably big steps. He had used dramatically simplified GCMs to simulate the greenhouse effect for the first time, and developed the first such models linking the atmosphere and ocean. And when pioneering climate research organiser Bert Bolin invited Suki to a meeting in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1974, he had already brought these successes together.

Suki and his GFDL teammate Richard Weatherald had worked out how to push their global warming study onto whole world-scale ocean-coupled GCMs. They could now consider geographical differences and indirect effects, for example those due to changes of the distribution of snow and sea ice. Though the oceans in the world they simulated resembled a swamp, shallow and unmoving, they got a reasonably realistic picture of the difference between land and sea temperatures. Their model predicted the Earth’s surface would warm 2.9°C if the amount of CO2 in the air doubled, a figure known as climate sensitivity. That’s right in the middle of today’s very latest 1.5-4.5°C range estimate.

Comparison between the measured sea surface temperature in degrees C calculated by the GFDL ocean-coupled GCM, from a 1975 GARP report chapter Suki wrote - see below for reference.

Comparison between the measured sea surface temperature in degrees C calculated by the GFDL ocean-coupled GCM, from a 1975 GARP report chapter Suki wrote – see below for reference.

At the time no-one else had the computer facilities to run this GCM, and so they focussed on simpler models, and fine details within them. Scientists model climate by splitting Earth’s surface into 3D, grids reaching up into the air. They can then calculate what happens inside each cube and how it affects the surrounding cubes. But some processes are too complex or happen on scales that are too small to simulate completely, and must be replaced by ‘parameterisations’ based on measured data. To get his GCMs to work Suki had made some very simple parameterisations, and that was another worry for other scientists. Read the rest of this entry »

Temperature patterns produce perplexing Pliocene puzzle

Lafayette College's Kira Lawrence and her teammates have used ocean bed sediment cores, like this one, to produce a 5 million year climate record. © Intergrated Ocean Drilling Program

Lafayette College’s Kira Lawrence and her teammates have used ocean bed sediment cores, like this one, to produce a 5 million year climate record. © Intergrated Ocean Drilling Program

US, UK and Hong Kong Researchers have produce a unique ‘movie’ of climate reaching back 5 million years, by bringing together data drilled from ocean beds. It reveals three important temperature patterns during the warm early part of the Pliocene period that they couldn’t recreate together in climate models using existing explanations. That’s important because scientists hope the Pliocene could help us know what the future of a warmer Earth might be like. And having uncovered another layer to the Pliocene puzzle, team member Kira Lawrence from Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, underlined the value of finding its solution.

“Our community of scientists think of the Pliocene as though it was about 3°C warmer than modern temperatures with CO2 concentration about where we are right now,” Kira told me. “But we haven’t recognised before that the pattern of temperature was a lot different. If that’s where we’re headed in the not too distant future, if the temperature and precipitation patterns change in that way, we should have some significant things to think about.”

The Pliocene period started 5.3 million years ago, during which primates made important evolutionary steps towards humanity. Since 2000, there has been a climate data explosion reaching back through this era. Around the world, international drilling expeditions have pierced ocean beds kilometres below sea level, reaching hundreds of metres into sediment to bring back ‘core’ samples. Tiny fossils within that rock and mud can tell scientists temperatures through history, which can give climate scientists real data to test their models against.

Read the rest of this entry »