Unique and unnatural: modern warming from an historical viewpoint

A Roman altar with the Sun in its chariot on the left, and Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanoes on the right. The climate gods long favoured the Roman Empire, with wobbles in Earth's orbit credited for increasing the amount of solar energy falling on Earth at the time. Image copyright: Nick Thompson, used via Flickr Creative Commons License.

A Roman altar with the Sun in its chariot on the left, and Vulcan, the god of fire and volcanoes on the right. The climate gods long favoured the Roman Empire, with Earth’s orbital dance credited for increasing the amount of solar energy falling on Earth at the time. Image copyright: Nick Thompson, used via Flickr Creative Commons License.

Our climate has changed before. It’s something most of us realise and can agree on and, according to Skeptical Science, it’s currently the most used argument against human-caused warming. If such changes have happened naturally before, the argument goes, then surely today’s warming must also be natural. It’s an appealing idea, with an instinctively ‘right’ feel. Nature is so huge compared to us puny humans, how can we alter its course? The warming we’re measuring today must just be a natural fluctuation.

It’s such an appealing argument that at the beginning of the 20th century that’s just what many scientists thought – that humans couldn’t alter Earth’s climate. In the time since, our knowledge has come a long way. We’ve explored space, become able to build the electronics that are letting you read this, and climate science has likewise advanced and benefited from these advances.

So what do we know today that might convince the sceptical scientists of 115 years ago that we’re warming the planet? Recently, Richard Mallett, one of my Twitter friends who describes himself as sceptical about mainstream climate science, made a point that serves as an excellent test of our current knowledge:

Of the historical warmings he’s referring to, perhaps the least familiar is the Holocene, which is ironic, as the Holocene is now. It’s the current period of geological time that started at the end of the last ice age, 11,700 years ago. By 1900 scientists would have known the term, but they couldn’t explain why it wasn’t as icey as before.

Three variables of the Earth’s orbit—eccentricity, obliquity, and precession—affect global climate. Changes in eccentricity (the amount the orbit diverges from a perfect circle) vary the distance of Earth from the Sun. Changes in obliquity (tilt of Earth’s axis) vary the strength of the seasons. Precession (wobble in Earth’s axis) varies the timing of the seasons. For more complete descriptions, read Milutin Milankovitch: Orbital Variations Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmon.

Three variables of the Earth’s orbit—eccentricity, obliquity, and precession—affect global climate. Changes in eccentricity (the amount the orbit diverges from a perfect circle) vary the distance of Earth from the Sun. Changes in obliquity (tilt of Earth’s axis) vary the strength of the seasons. Precession (wobble in Earth’s axis) varies the timing of the seasons. For more complete descriptions, read Milutin Milankovitch: Orbital Variations. Image credit: NASA/Robert Simmon.

The explanation we have today comes thanks to the calculations Milutin Milanković worked out by hand between 1909 and 1941. Milutin showed that thanks to the gravitational pull of the Moon, Jupiter and Saturn, Earth’s orbit around the Sun varies in three ways. Over a cycle of roughly 96,000 years our path varies between more circular and more oval shapes. The other two ways come because Earth’s poles are slightly tilted relative to the Sun’s axis, which is why we have seasons. The angle of that tilt shifts over a roughly 41,000 year cycle. Earth also revolves around that tilted axis, like a spinning top does when it slows down, every 23,000 years.

Together these three cycles change how much of the Sun’s energy falls on and warms the Earth, in regular repeating patterns. Though that idea would be the subject of much controversy, by the 1960s data measured from cylinders of ancient ice and mud would resolve any doubt. The slow descent into ice ages and more abrupt warmings out of them – like the one that ushered in the Holocene – come from Earth’s shimmies in space. Read the rest of this entry »

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The urgent voice who refused to be silenced on climate danger

  • This is part three of this profile. Read part one here and part two here.
In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

By December 6, 2005, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies’ (GISS) temperature record was already sending a clear message: worldwide, 2005 would likely be the warmest year so far. For GISS director Jim Hansen, speaking to the annual American Geophysical Union conference, arguably the world’s largest environmental research meeting, it seemed fair to reveal. For several listening journalists it was newsworthy enough for them to cover Jim’s talk. But it would anger some of Jim’s colleagues at NASA headquarters enough to try to stop him talking to the media. In the process they’d drag him outside the world of pure research he was most comfortable in. “The undue influence of special interests and government greenwash pose formidable barriers to a well-informed public,” Jim would later write about the situation. “Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.”

The comments came during a lecture in honour of Dave Keeling, the CO2 tracking pioneer, who’d died of a heart attack in June that year. Soothing Jim’s hesitation, Dave’s son Ralph stressed he was continuing the work of his father, who had even been discussing one of Jim’s papers minutes before his death. And so Jim had brought together evidence showing that Earth’s climate was nearing a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be impossible to avoid dangerous changes. However, warming from 2000 onwards might still be kept below the 1°C level that Jim at that time considered hazardous if CO2 levels in the air were held at about 450 parts per million (ppm). Emissions of other greenhouse gases would also need to be significantly reduced. The message was clear: how we get our energy would must change, mainly by shifting away from coal and the vast volumes of CO2 burning it produces.

NASA headquarters was already reviewing all publicity on climate change research, but the latest coverage would force it into even more severe action. The following week it laid out new restrictions on Jim’s ability to comment publicly, and the global GISS temperature record was temporarily taken off the internet. Prominent amongst those setting the new conditions was NASA’s new head of public affairs, appointed by George Bush’s administration, David Mould. His previous jobs included a senior media relations role at the Southern Company of Atlanta, the second largest holding company of coal-burning power stations in the US. Only one company had donated more to the Republican Party than the Southern Company during George Bush’s 2000 election campaign: Enron. Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.”

Read the rest of this entry »