The joker who brought climate science out of the cold

Wally Broecker, when he registered for the Columbia University geology department in 1953. Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University

Wally Broecker, when he registered for the Columbia University geology department in 1953. Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University

In Los Angeles on September 1 1955, the day temperatures reached a new record of 43°C, Wally Broecker stood, sweating, giving the first scientific talk of his life. He could scarcely have guessed where the new method he was telling an audience of sleepy archaeologists about, called radiocarbon dating, would send him. But thanks in part to its messages from history he would help spawn the phrase ‘global warming’ and warn of its effects, which have today pushed temperatures even higher.

Wally grew up and started college on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois, good at maths, but largely uninterested in science. But college-mate Paul Gast steered his career sciencewards by helping get him a summer job at the new Lamont Geological Observatory that Paul had recently started working at. On June 15, 1952 Wally and pregnant wife Grace drove 800 miles to the Palisades, New York mansion Columbia University had inherited, and set up the observatory in. There, in the basement, Wally worked in and soon practically ran Laurence Kulp’s radiocarbon lab. Rather than lose him at the end of the summer Laurence organised for Wally to transfer to Columbia and stay working at Lamont, where he has remained ever since.

Taking advantage of the slow decay of a rare, radioactive form of carbon – carbon-14 – radiocarbon dating was in its infancy. The balance between carbon-14 and the usual form, carbon-12, is quite steady in CO2 in the air, and also in living plants that take up the gas as they grow. But when plants die, the carbon-14 they contain slowly decays to nitrogen. Measuring the ratio between the two forms of carbon, scientists can tell when the plants had died. But in 1952, Laurence’s lab was getting inconsistent readings, with carbon-14 counts sometimes coming out too high, even after Wally had fixed a problem with the equipment. Then Wally realised the problem came from outside the lab. The extra counts were coming from nuclear tests that had recently started over Nevada.

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How a beer bottle helped reveal rapid past climate change

According to Willi Dansgaard "A sophisticated experimental set-up on the lawn became the beginning of a new field in geophysics." Credit: Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

According to Willi Dansgaard “A sophisticated experimental set-up on the lawn became the beginning of a new field in geophysics.” Credit: Centre for Ice and Climate, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen.

On Saturday June 21, 1952, in a garden in Copenhagen, Denmark, raindrops fell through the slim neck of a beer bottle, splattering and splashing as they hit its bottom. But the bottle wasn’t carelessly left behind – Willi Dansgaard had inserted a funnel into its neck so he could use it for an experiment. He was watching it closely, collecting rain to later measure in his lab. Each drop brought Willi closer to revealing the secrets of Earth’s history, by giving scientists a way to work out temperature from ancient ice. In doing so, he would help show how climate can change much faster than experts had thought possible.

Willi was born in Copenhagen in 1922, living and studying physics and biology there until going to work for the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) in 1947. The DMI sent Willi and his wife Inge to Greenland, first to study the Earth’s magnetic fields, and then to help improve the reliability of weather forecasts. Their time there left the pair with ‘deep impressions of the course of Greenland nature, its forces, its bounty, its cruelty, and above all its beauty,’ Willi wrote in his autobiography. ‘We were both bitten with Greenland for life, but after a year the need for further education forced us to turn homeward.’

So in 1951, Willi took a job at the biophysics research lab at the University of Copenhagen, where his first job was to install a mass spectrometer. Able to distinguish between chemicals using weight differences, mass spectrometers are often described as atomic-level weighing scales. But they actually measure molecules’ weight by firing them through an electromagnetic field at a detector, similarly to how bulky old TVs fire electrons at their screens. Though mass spectrometers existed since the early 20th century, Second World War US efforts to produce uranium for an atomic bomb had boosted their power. Willi set up the type of machine that had been invented in the course of that work, so his department could detect tracers used in medicine and biology.

By 1952, Willi knew that his mass spectrometer could separate forms of the same chemical elements – or isotopes – that could differ in weight by as little as a single neutron. And faced with a wet weekend in June, he wondered whether the amount of these isotopes in rainwater could change from one shower to the next. ‘Now when I had an instrument that ought to be able to measure it, there was no harm in trying,’ he writes. ‘I placed an empty beer bottle with a funnel on the lawn and let it rain.’

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Arctic mission recovers record of surprising warmth

All cargo for the drilling operation on Lake El'gygytgyn in winter 2008/09 had to be transported to the lake from the nearest settlement, Pevek, located 360 km north across the frozen tundra with trucks supported by bulldozers. Credit: Pavel Minyuk

All cargo for the drilling operation on Lake El’gygytgyn in winter 2008/09 had to be transported to the lake from the nearest settlement, Pevek, located 360 km north across the frozen tundra with trucks supported by bulldozers. Credit: Pavel Minyuk

A warm climate with CO2 levels similar to today delayed ice sheets from forming over land in the Arctic until less than 2 million years ago. That’s the latest instalment in a climate history scientists are building using sediment from a lake created by a giant meteorite impact around 3.6 million years ago. The international team has found that 3-3.2 million years ago, summer temperatures in the region were about 8°C warmer than they are today.

Julie Brigham-Grette from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explained that other scientists have estimated CO2 levels in the Pliocene period from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago. “Though the estimates are quite broad, most scientists suggest that 2-3 million years ago CO2 levels may have been similar to today,” she told me. “Our data are consistent with that – the world today could be headed toward a Pliocene-like world.” And as well as pointing to the warmer future, these findings could also help unpick climate puzzles from our past.

These insights are the prize Julie and her team-mates sought on an epic trek to North-East Russia’s frozen wilderness in 2009. She was chief scientist for the US side of the team, leading the expedition alongside Martin Melles and Pavel Minyuk, chief scientists for the German and Russian sides. Their goal lay at the bottom of Lake El’gygytgyn, or Lake E. A 13 km wide crater blasted by a meteorite up to a kilometre in diameter that filled with water, Lake E has slowly collected sediment ever since. It’s unusual because it largely escaped damage from the creep of ice sheets, meaning scientists can use its sediment to rebuild conditions further back in time.

And to get there, Julie, Martin and Pavel had to pave political, financial, logistical, and actual physical paths, Julie explained. “This lake sits in an area that has no roads,” she said. “It was an amazing logistical feat to gather the drillers and equipment and get there, without damaging the environment. It was the most difficult scientific project I’ve ever undertaken.” Read the rest of this entry »

2012’s record events put climate in mind

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. In the image, the areas classified as “probable melt” (light pink) correspond to those sites where at least one satellite detected surface melting. The areas classified as “melt” (dark pink) correspond to sites where two or three satellites detected surface melting. The satellites are measuring different physical properties at different scales and are passing over Greenland at different times. As a whole, they provide a picture of an extreme melt event about which scientists are very confident. Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. In the image, the areas classified as “probable melt” (light pink) correspond to those sites where at least one satellite detected surface melting. The areas classified as “melt” (dark pink) correspond to sites where two or three satellites detected surface melting. The satellites are measuring different physical properties at different scales and are passing over Greenland at different times. As a whole, they provide a picture of an extreme melt event about which scientists are very confident. Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

This has been another year of striking climate events and records – but they seem to be happening so much more often today that their effect on me has weakened. That’s pretty cold-hearted, I admit. ‘Extreme weather’ is having terrible effects on peoples’ lives all around the world. But the truth is that we can only handle so many problems before becoming too numbed and overwhelmed to act. And last year, Stefan Rahmstorf and coworkers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research showed temperature records are much more likely today than in a stable climate. “I don’t think many people appreciate how much the odds for such extremes have increased due to global warming,” he told me at the time. “I certainly didn’t until we had performed this study.” So it’s hardly surprising if we begin to get complacent when records are flowing thick and fast. But when I actually faced up to what’s happened in the climate this year, it was intriguing how well you could see global warming’s fingerprint.

Warming’s most dramatic effects have long been obvious in the Arctic, and 2012 was no different. Images from three satellites showed that almost Greenland’s entire ice sheet surface was temporarily melted by July 12. That’s the largest area in over 30 years of satellite observations. Then, on September 16, sea ice in the Arctic reached a record annual minimum area of 1.32 million square miles, approximately half the size of the average annual minimum for 1979 to 2000. Just two weeks later, Antarctic sea ice covered its highest area on record at the peak of winter, at 7.49 million square miles. In case you think that’s a natural balance that shows the planet isn’t warming, it’s worth noticing the scale of the changes. The Antarctic record is 193,000 square miles higher than its average maximum area for the last 30 years. That’s much less than the 1.32 million square miles the Arctic lost compared to its long-term average. Read the rest of this entry »

Space agencies pinpoint polar ice sheet damage

The midnight sun casts a golden glow on an iceberg and its reflection in Disko Bay, Greenland, where ice sheet mass loss was five times higher in 2011 than it was in 1992. Much of Greenland’s annual mass loss occurs through 'calving' of icebergs such as this. Credit: Ian Joughin.

The midnight sun casts a golden glow on an iceberg and its reflection in Disko Bay, Greenland, where ice sheet mass loss was five times higher in 2011 than it was in 1992. Much of Greenland’s annual mass loss occurs through ‘calving’ of icebergs such as this. Credit: Ian Joughin.

47 scientists from 26 key laboratories across the world. 10 satellite missions flown over a period of 20 years, whose data adds up to 51 years’ worth. This giant effort looks to have squashed stubborn uncertainty surrounding one key climate question: How quickly are ice sheets resting on land masses at the North and South Poles shrinking? The international team has now found that Greenland’s mass loss is five times as fast as it was in 1992. Overall loss rates in Antarctica are roughly constant in this period, though the east of the continent is actually gaining ice. Over the past 20 years, the polar ice sheets have added 11 mm to sea level rise across the world, one-fifth of the total rise seen in that time.

“Our new estimates are the most reliable to date and they provide the clearest evidence yet of polar ice sheet losses,” said Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds, UK, co-leader of the project. “They also end 20 years of uncertainty concerning changes in the mass of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets and they’re intended to become the benchmark dataset for climate scientists to use from now on.”

Until the early 1990s, climate researchers expected that mass lost by ice sheets in Greenland as the planet warmed would be balanced by that gained by Antarctica. But measurements showed that both melting and ‘calving’ of icebergs could be speeding up at both poles. This meant the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) couldn’t put an upper limit on what ice sheets might add to sea levels in its last major report on global warming in 2007. And the overall picture has been confused, as efforts to measure whether ice sheets are shrinking or growing have given differing results. Since 1998, there have been 29 different estimates of changes in ice sheet mass. “Taken all of the past studies together, the recent global sea level contribution due to Antarctica and Greenland may have been anywhere between a 2 mm per year rise and a 0.4 mm per year fall,” Andrew told a press conference yesterday. At a workshop in 2010, the IPCC said it was concerned that no further progress would be made by its next report, due in 2014. Read the rest of this entry »

Thick ice decline could advance watery Arctic summers

NASA's shipborne ICESCAPE mission cuts a path through multiyear Arctic ice last year. This thicker form of ice is declining fastest, NASA's Joey Comiso has shown in a separate study. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

NASA's shipborne ICESCAPE mission cuts a path through multiyear Arctic ice last year. This thicker form of ice is declining fastest, NASA's Joey Comiso has shown in a separate study. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is vanishing the fastest, data studied by NASA scientist Joey Comiso and published last month have shown. “This is alarming since it is usually the thick component that would survive the long summer melt period,” Joey told Simple Climate. “Since the thick component is declining more rapidly, the Arctic summer ice cover is more vulnerable to further decline. Assuming that the surface temperature continues to warm up as it has in the last several decades, this makes it more likely that we will have very little or no sea ice cover in the summer sooner than we previously expected.” And when the Arctic is ice-free in summer, dramatic environmental changes could follow that would speed warming further and limit the supply of fish for food.

Having long studied Arctic sea ice cover, Joey previously showed that 2007’s record smallest summer area was around one quarter smaller than the previous minimum in 2005. That “has been regarded as the event that could trigger an irreversible change in the Arctic sea ice cover”, Joey wrote in this latest research paper in the Journal of Climate. But after that low the area of thickest ice that can survive the summer melts, known as perennial ice, recovered slightly before dipping again this winter.

Intrigued by that recovery, Joey wanted to understand it. He therefore turned to data collected by tools called microwave radiometers that have been flying over the Arctic on satellites since 1979. These can collect information on the ability of different objects to emit microwave energy, or their microwave emissivity. Salt content, or salinity, influences this emissivity. As sea ice is initially around one-third as saline as sea water, microwave emissivity can be used to tell one from the other. It can also separate multiyear ice, which has survived at least two summer melt seasons, from thinner second year ice that has only survived one summer. Read the rest of this entry »