Weather extremes take twin crop and disease toll

Using MODIS data of red and infra-red emissions from the Earth's surface Assaf Anyamba and his colleagues can track conditions including temperature and levels of plant growth. In this shot the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for southeast Australia from September to November 2010 shows that plants were thriving after a bout of extremely cool, wet weather. Image copyright: PLOSone, used via Creative Commons license, see reference below.

Using MODIS data of red and infra-red emissions from the Earth’s surface Assaf Anyamba and his colleagues can track conditions including temperature and levels of plant growth. In this shot the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for southeast Australia from September to November 2010 shows that plants were thriving after a bout of extremely cool, wet weather. Image copyright: PLOSone, used via Creative Commons license, see reference below.

The wet and dry weather extremes the world felt between 2010 and 2012 caused wild variations in farm output and encouraged serious diseases spread by insects like mosquitoes. That’s according to scientists from NASA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) who studied severe droughts and rainfall that happened in six places during this period. Harvests in the four drought-stricken regions fell to as little as one-fifth of normal levels, but grew dramatically in the two rain-soaked areas, almost doubling in one case. But wet or dry, extreme conditions favoured certain species of mosquitoes (also known as vectors) that went on to cause outbreaks of illnesses like the potentially-fatal Rift Valley Fever. “Extreme weather events can have both negative and positive impacts,” observed NASA’s Assaf Anyamba. “For example eastern Australia and South Africa had bumper harvests of some crops but at the same time had outbreaks of vector-borne disease.”

Assaf and his coworkers help provide ways for the US government to closely monitor the whole world to see where droughts or wet periods might be happening. One way Assaf does this is with a pair of ‘eyes in the sky’ – NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. Each carries a Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, which precisely records the colours of the Earth’s atmosphere and surface, including those we can see and reaching far beyond. Scientists use the infra-red data it collects to track surface temperatures, while a combination of red and infra-red can tell them how leafy places are. From these, NASA makes this awesome ‘NDVI’ map of how well vegetated crop-growing regions across the world are, while the USDA includes them in monthly Rift Valley Fever risk reports.

While it’s important to know the impacts of extreme weather, not all countries are able to measure them. But from 2010 to 2012, the MODIS records captured the most intense set of weather they had recorded since Terra’s launch in 1999. The US, Russia, east Africa and southwest Australia endured droughts, and rain drenched South Africa and southeast Australia. Assaf and his team noticed that this weather was influencing both farming and disease in these cases, and decided to look at ‘the big picture’. “We wanted to showcase this connectedness as an example of the mixed bag of impacts anomalous weather conditions impose on society at large,” he explained. 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 »

Twin rainfall effects strengthen human climate impact case

While existing studies of rainfall changes rely on data collected on land, by switching to satellite data LLNL's Kate Marvel and Céline Bonfils could include changes in rainfall at sea. Image copyright snoboard1010 used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

While existing studies of rainfall changes rely on data collected on land, by switching to satellite data LLNL’s Kate Marvel and Céline Bonfils could include changes in rainfall at sea. Image copyright snoboard1010 used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

The way we humans are affecting the climate is changing rainfall patterns over land and sea, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California have found. Kate Marvel and Céline Bonfils compared precipitation ‘fingerprints’ in satellite data against what climate models showed would result from actions like adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. “Everyone knows that temperatures are rising, but figuring out how that affects other aspects of the climate is tricky,” Kate told me. “We’ve shown that global precipitation is changing in the way climate scientists expect it to. The odds of the observed trends being due to natural climate variability are very low.”

Changes to rain, snow and all the other forms of falling wetness collectively known as precipitation are undeniably important, given their power to bring floods and droughts. Scientists have already shown that, over land, wet areas are getting wetter and dry areas are getting drier. These studies rely on data measured directly on land, reaching back almost a century. The long record gives scientists a lot of data to test, making it easier to tell human influences from the many natural rainfall patterns. Yet Kate and Céline wanted to use satellite data instead. Though these have only been recorded since 1979, each measurement is more reliable, and the satellites also cover the oceans.

“With such a short record, it’s often difficult to identify the ‘signal’ of climate change against the background of completely natural variability,” Kate explained. For example, the wet-gets-wetter, dry-gets-dryer strengthening of the Earth’s water cycle happens because warmer air can hold more water vapour. But that can be caused by the El Niño climate pattern, as well as by increasing greenhouse gases. Our activities can also change how air circulates above the planet, pushing dry regions and storm tracks toward the poles – but so can the La Niña pattern.

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 »

Enhanced fingerprinting strengthens evidence for human warming role

Microwave sounding units, like the AMSU units on the Aqua satellite, shown here, can be used to take temperature measurements from different layers in the atmosphere. Ben Santer and his colleagues use this information to find a 'fingerprint' of human impact on recent climate changes. Credit: NASA

Microwave sounding units, like the AMSU units on the Aqua satellite, shown here, can be used to take temperature measurements from different layers in the atmosphere. Ben Santer and his colleagues use this information to find a ‘fingerprint’ of human impact on recent climate changes. Credit: NASA

We have left a clear climate change ‘fingerprint’ in the atmosphere, through CO2 emissions that have made air near the Earth’s surface warmer and caused cooling higher up. That’s according to Ben Santer from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California, who started studying this fingerprint in the mid-1990s, and his expert team. They have strengthened the case by comparing satellite-recorded temperature data against the latest climate models including natural variations within Earth’s climate system, and from the sun and volcanic eruptions. Ben hopes that in the process their results will finally answer ill-tempered criticism his earlier work attracted, and lingering doubts over what causes global warming.

“There are folks out there even today that posit that the entire observed surface warming since 1950 is due to a slight uptick in the Sun’s energy output,” Ben told me. “That’s a testable hypothesis.  In this paper we look at whether changes in the sun plausibly explain the observed changes that we’ve monitored from space since 1979. The very clear answer is that they cannot. Natural influences alone, the sun, volcanoes, internal variability, either individually or in combination, cannot explain this very distinctive pattern of warming.”

That pattern emerged when scientists in the 1960s did some of the first computer modelling experiments looking at what would happen on an Earth with higher CO2 levels in the air. “They got back this very curious warming in the lower atmosphere and cooling of the upper levels of the atmosphere,” Ben explained. The effect happens because most of the gas molecules in the atmosphere, including CO2, sit relatively near to Earth’s surface. CO2’s greenhouse effect lets heat energy from the Sun reach the Earth, but interrupts some of it getting back to the upper atmosphere and outer space. Adding more CO2 by burning fossil fuels therefore warms the lower atmosphere, or troposphere, and cools the stratosphere, 6-30 miles above the Earth’s surface.  Read the rest of this entry »

Bouncing lasers off satellites backs faster Greenland melt

NASA's Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory in Greenbelt, Maryland, routinely bounces lasers off satellites, to perform Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR). This facility works with other SLR telescopes around the world. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Goddard Geophysical and Astronomical Observatory in Greenbelt, Maryland, routinely bounces lasers off satellites, to perform Satellite Laser Ranging (SLR). This facility works with other SLR telescopes around the world. Credit: NASA

Japanese and Taiwanese researchers have used old satellite technology to add a decade onto modern gravity-based measurements of Greenland’s ice loss. They used measurements gained by tracking satellites with lasers, getting ‘rough data’ compared to more modern technology, but still confirming an acceleration already seen between the 1990s and 2000s. “There was no mass loss in the 1990s, but there was an acceleration after the year 2000,” says Kosuke Heki from Hokkaido University in Japan.

Though we don’t notice it, Earth’s gravity changes slightly across its surface, because mass isn’t shared equally over it. The link Isaac Newton famously discovered between mass and gravity means that where there’s more mass – for example, where ice sheets sit – gravity is stronger. Since their launch in 2002, twin satellites called Tom and Jerry have been chasing each other around the planet in a game of orbital cat-and-mouse to track these changes. They bounce microwaves from one to the other that scientists can use, among other methods, to track hair’s-breadth changes in the distance between them caused by changes in gravity.

Using Tom and Jerry, also known as the GRACE experiment, scientists have already shown the severity of global warming’s impact on Greenland. They found evidence that Greenland’s ice mass loss is now five times faster than it was in 1992. But for the data from the 1990s there were no gravity measurements. Instead, the researchers worked out the ice mass using laser or radar signals that had been bounced off the glaciers to record their shape, which is known as altimetry . Read the rest of this entry »

Missed Greenland melt cause raises sea level concern

A team of scientists (the tiny figures in the foreground) at the southwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Almost all of the surface of the sheet melted in July 2012 - and there's a lot more ice benath the surface, that's why faster melting could be so serious for sea level rise. Credit: University of Sheffield

A team of scientists (the tiny figures in the foreground) at the southwest margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Almost all of the surface of the sheet melted in July 2012 – and there’s a lot more ice benath the surface, that’s why faster melting could be so serious for sea level rise. Credit: University of Sheffield

The almost complete melting of Greenland’s ice sheet surface on July 11-12 2012 was caused by climate processes not projected by models. That’s according to an international team led by Edward Hanna from the University of Sheffield, UK that has looked at what might have driven the melt. “The models used to predict future climate change are clearly deficient in simulating some of the recent jet stream changes that we have shown to be responsible for enhanced warming and ice melt over Greenland,” Edward told me. And the world needs to pay attention when Greenland defrosts, as the water it produces is a major part of sea level rise.

Having long studied the Greenland ice sheet, or GrIS, Edward was perhaps one of the people least amazed by 2012’s events. “Last year’s record melt was a bit of a surprise, but perhaps not so startling in retrospect, given strong recent warming of the ice sheet area since the early-mid 1990s,” he said. With other scientists he has also found a clear change since 2007 in early summer Arctic wind patterns relative to previous decades that has led to warm Greenland summers. In particular, jet stream patterns of winds weaving north and south in drunken circles around the pole have changed to drive warm winds over Greenland. That study also linked these changes to cool, wet summers in the UK since 2007, whose unusual wetness in 2012 is seemingly the other face of the GrIS melt coin. Read the rest of this entry »

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