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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Deciphering climate messages via the heart of the atom

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway, which Hans Suess advised on heavy water production, telling Nazi Germany it couldn't make heavy water quickly enough for military use. His expertise with heavy water was part of an interest in nuclear science that led him to become a pioneer in carbon dating.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway, which Hans Suess advised on heavy water production, telling Nazi Germany it couldn’t make heavy water quickly enough for military use. His expertise with heavy water was part of an interest in nuclear science that led him to become a pioneer in carbon dating.

When Hans Suess chose to study physical chemistry, he went nuclear, apparently overturning two generations of family tradition. Hans was born in 1909, just as his father Franz succeeded his grandfather Eduard as a geology professor at the University of Vienna. Hans got his PhD from the same university in 1936, but in studying heavy water he was set to aid the historic advances in nuclear science of the time. Yet a transatlantic scientific coincidence would bring him back to more environmental science, and see him help pioneer radiocarbon measurements. With that expertise, Hans showed humans were raising atmospheric CO2 levels, and revealed another surprising source of variations in climate.

The common theme to these achievements was how neutrons and protons combine in an atom’s nucleus. For example, hydrogen atoms found in conventional water have just a single proton in their nuclei. In heavy water, some of these atoms are replaced by a rarer form of hydrogen, known as deuterium, whose atoms have an extra neutron in their nuclei. That gives heavy water properties that can help nuclear reactors, which Nazi Germany notoriously hoped to exploit to make nuclear weapons.

With Hitler’s armies occupying Austria just two years after Hans finished his PhD, his expertise brought him to the attention of the Nazi regime. They called him in to advise a hydroelectric power plant in Vemork, Norway, that was making heavy water. Hans visited several times, reporting that it couldn’t make heavy water quickly enough for military use. Allied forces destroyed it in 1943 anyway, in audacious raids fictionalised in the film “Heroes of Telemark”.

Alongside working with heavy water, Hans studied why the chemical elements exist in the amounts that they do. The answer laid in how stable different numbers of protons and neutrons are when they come together in nuclei. He continued this work after the Second World War in West Germany, helping develop the “Nuclear Shell Theory” explanation, which other scientists won the Nobel Prize for Physics for in 1963. Suess missed out on this acclaim partly because two teams came up with the explanation at the same time. But when the other team, based at the University of Chicago, invited him to visit, Hans’ life changed course towards unravelling the secrets of Earth’s history. Read the rest of this entry »

Historical sea voyage sends manmade warming signal

The HMS Challenger sailed 69,000 miles, taking around 360 temperature soundings on the first global marine expedition from 1873-1876. This painting, by William Frederick Mitchell, is from  its earlier life as a warship, in 1858.

The HMS Challenger sailed 69,000 miles, taking around 360 temperature soundings on the first global marine expedition from 1873-1876. This painting, by William Frederick Mitchell, is from its earlier life as a warship, in 1858.

Data from a 19th century scientific mission, the first global marine research expedition, have provided strong evidence that humans have influenced climate throughout the entire 20th century. From 1873–1876 the HMS Challenger, a corvette of the British Royal Navy, sailed 69,000 miles and took hundreds of ocean temperature soundings. Last year, scientists used its measurements to show the top 700 metres of the ocean has warmed around 0.33°C since Challenger’s voyage. Understandably, seeing a global effect in the limited Challenger data is fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, Will Hobbs from the University of Tasmania, Australia, and Joshua Willis at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, have now checked if this warming is linked to humans. “Even accounting for all uncertainties and limitations, the temperature change could not be realistically explained by natural variability alone, implying a long-term human signal,” Will told me.

Having swapped cannons for labs, among HMS Challenger’s projects was a series of around 360 soundings for temperature. At each sounding, its scientists dropped pressure-protected thermometers into the ocean attached to a rope every 100 fathoms (182 m) down to 1000 fathoms depth. “The scientists kept detailed records of how each measurement was taken, problems encountered, and how accurate and precise their measurements were,” Will said. “All instruments were calibrated in a lab before and after the expedition. So we have a lot of information about what level of accuracy we can expect, in some ways more than from modern automated observing systems, which are usually left to their own devices after deployment.” Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

The climate scientist whose world spun on through war

A young Milutin Milanković as a student in Vienna,  where he became the first Serb to achieve a doctorate in technical sciences. Image via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons licence

A young Milutin Milanković as a student in Vienna, where he became the first Serb to achieve a doctorate in technical sciences. Image via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons licence

On 6 April 1941, a world war left its mark on Milutin Milanković’s life and climate research for a second time. Nazi bombs destroyed the print works where his new book, summarising 30 years’ work, sat half-complete. As German-led forces occupied Serbia a month later, Milutin still had just one finished copy of his “Canon of Insolation and the Ice-Age Problem”.  In it, he brought together his general astronomical theory of climate, which would explain how Earth’s motion in space drives ice sheet advance and retreat over tens of thousands of years.

And when two German officers came to visit the University of Belgrade maths professor, he might have feared no-one else would ever see all his ideas in a single volume. But the officers were geology students, bringing greetings from Wolfgang Soergel at the University of Freiburg, who had previously published studies supporting Milutin’s calculations. Amid the drama unfolding around them, Milutin gave them his only copy to send to Freiburg for safe-keeping. But both Milutin and his work escaped to ultimately make strides forward in understanding what controls Earth’s temperatures.

Milutin fixed his focus on climate after joining the University of Belgrade in 1909, while reading a paper about the Sun’s heat on the Earth’s surface, whose starting equation was wrong. To study how climate could produce dramatic changes like ice ages courted controversy even then because it was unclear the puzzle could ever be solved. So little was known that when Svante Arrhenius correctly identified CO2 in the air as an important factor his findings were ruled out by flawed experiments.

Using heat from the Sun, the incoming solar radiation also known as insolation, Milutin looked at climate both on the Earth and other planets in our solar system. “A connection should be found between planets’ insolation and their atmosphere and surface temperatures,” he wrote. And thanks to the many different complex sciences such an astronomical climate theory combined, Milutin was the only one trying to make that link. Read the rest of this entry »

Alternate histories back unique modern warmth claims

Tree rings have a light-colored band, or earlywood, that forms in the spring and a dark-colored band, or latewood, that forms in the summer. The width of the band tells how much the tree grew during that period and therefore can be used as a proxy for the climate during that season. That approach has some uncertainties, but Martin Tingley and Peter Huybers have reduced their impact on telling if any year is the warmest. Credit: thaths via Flickr Creative Commons license

Tree rings have a light-colored band, or earlywood, that forms in the spring and a dark-colored band, or latewood, that forms in the summer. The width of the band tells how much the tree grew during that period and therefore can be used as a proxy for the climate during that season. That approach has some uncertainties, but Martin Tingley and Peter Huybers have reduced their impact on telling if any year is the warmest. Credit: thaths via Flickr Creative Commons license

If you build a temperature record going back in time to judge modern warming against, how certain can you be of your answer? That’s a big question for scientists making such records from effects temperatures have had on the natural world. And figuring out if today’s heat is unique is too great a challenge for the methods scientists normally use to calculate uncertainty, according to Harvard University’s Martin Tingley.

But Martin and Peter Huybers have shown the precise chances that northern areas of the world are warmer than any time in rebuilt records reaching back to the year 1400. They have worked out that there’s less than one chance in 20 that 2005, 2007, 2010 and 2011’s northern summers weren’t the warmest in that time. They also find that summer 2010 has a 99% chance of being the warmest western Russia has seen. There have already been lots of claims made over the unusualness of recent warmth, Martin pointed out, but his and Peter’s are the most robust yet. “We put these estimates on a much sounder statistical footing,” he told me.

Saying one year’s summer is uniquely warm across a long period is difficult for subtle reasons that Martin explained through his height. “I’m a tall guy, 6 foot 4 inches,” he said. “I’ve never met you, but I’m going to bet I’m taller than you. What’s the intuition behind my bet? We have a sense of the distribution of heights. I’m aware I fall pretty far out on the tail, so the chances are if I meet an average person they don’t fall further out than I do. What if I’m in a room with 1,000 people I’ve never met before? Am I still likely to be the tallest in the room? Probably not.” Read the rest of this entry »

How cold hearts and ice ages kindled the science of warming

Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and also was the first to show that while water plays the largest role in the greenhouse effect, the smaller but forcing effect from CO2 can be important. Image via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US

Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, and also was the first to show that while water plays the largest role in the greenhouse effect, the smaller but forcing effect from CO2 can be important. Image via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US

In 1896, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius took off into the atmosphere. Or at least into an immense calculation about the atmosphere that might distract him from having divorced his wife Sofia, who had taken custody of their baby son Olof. He looked to the skies to settle a key argument: How can landscapes around the world show evidence of ice scraping over it?

At the time, the idea of an ice age was controversial, and the world’s great minds struggled to explain the mile-thick sheets clues suggested had existed. For months Svante laboured by hand to calculate how tiny reductions in a gas called carbon dioxide – CO2 – could team up with water vapour to cool down the world. He didn’t produce an immediate answer to the riddle of the ice age, and he may or may not have escaped the woes of his personal life. But Svante Arrhenius did lay a foundation that climate science still rests upon today.

The tools that Svante used had recently been forged in the furnace of scientific progress that was the 19th century. Until then, even an effect as seemingly basic as heat had been poorly understood. Only slowly had the idea that it was a kind of fluid or gas been replaced by the modern understanding that it’s a flow of energy. In the 1820s French mathematician Joseph Fourier helped drive that shift. He also mused on why, when the Sun heats the Earth, doesn’t the Earth get as hot as the Sun?
Read the rest of this entry »