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 »

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 »

Results show quick CO2 ‘fix’ feasibility – but its future rests in government hands

The CarbFix project is trapping natural CO2 emissions underground as Iceland seeks to offset emissions from other sources. Image credit: Reykjavik Energy

The CarbFix project is trapping natural CO2 emissions underground as Iceland seeks to offset emissions from other sources. Image credit: Reykjavik Energy

Although CO2 can stay in the atmosphere, trapping heat, for thousands of years scientists think they have turned it into rock in just a few months. Juerg Matter from the University of Southampton, UK, and his colleagues in the CarbFix project have injected 170 tons of pure CO2 into the reactive basalt underneath Iceland. Their findings suggest around 85% of it reacted with the rock over the short distance between injection and monitoring boreholes in less than one year.

“We think that was because all that CO2 precipitated out as carbonate minerals in the reservoir,” Juerg, who’s also an adjunct scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, told me. “To really prove it this summer we will drill a borehole into the injection reservoir to retrieve rock core samples.” But the CarbFix team has also emphasised this week that it will take higher carbon prices for this and other carbon capture and storage technology to fulfil their potential.

The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the cheapest way to avoid dangerous climate change is to stop using fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. However time’s running out on that option, and the IPCC report therefore highlights the probable need to suck CO2 from the air. But before we capture CO2 straight out of the air, or even from the chimneys of power stations, we need somewhere to put it. Currently captured CO2 is simply pumped and stored underground as a gas, meaning care is needed to choose reservoirs that won’t leak. “Storage options right now are mainly in depleted gas and oil fields, in sedimentary rocks,” Juerg said.

In the air, CO2 eventually reacts with basalt naturally, but that process is far too slow to balance out what humans are emitting. Since 2007 the CarbFix team has been working to see if they can speed that process up by forcing CO2 underground. Not only would this quickly turn the gas into minerals and prevent leak worries, it would also greatly expand the number of places it could be stored. “The storage potential is just huge, there’s billions of tons of reservoir, because basically all the ocean floor is basalt,” Juerg highlighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Real-world grounding could cool 21st century outlook

The world's surface air temperature change ("anomaly"), relative to the world's mean temperature of 58° F or 14.5° C, averaged over land and oceans from 1975 to 2008. Inset are two periods of no warming or cooling within this overall warming trend. Copyright 2009 American Geophysical Union. Reproduced/modified by permission of American Geophysical Union.

The world’s surface air temperature change (“anomaly”), relative to the world’s mean temperature of 58° F or 14.5° C, averaged over land and oceans from 1975 to 2008. Inset are two periods of no warming or cooling within this overall warming trend. Copyright 2009 American Geophysical Union. Reproduced/modified by permission of Wiley/American Geophysical Union, see citation below.

Starting climate models from measured data helps simulate the early-2000s global warming hiatus better, and reduces projections for warming through to 2035. Jerry Meehl and Haiyan Teng have compared such ‘initialised’ model runs against more common ‘uninitialised’ ones starting without real-life conditions. The scientists, from the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, find initialised runs get closer to modelling that hiatus and surprisingly rapid warming in the 1970s. Using the same approach, admittedly rough 30-year predictions for Earth’s surface air temperature initialised in 2006 are about one-sixth less than uninitialised projections. “We have evidence that if we would have had this methodology in the 1990s, we could have predicted the early-2000s hiatus,” Jerry told me.

The hiatus Jerry and Haiyan studied – an easing off in the rate of global warming since 1998 – is perhaps the aspect of climate change most hotly debated today. But hiatus is a slippery word, whose meaning depends on who is highlighting what points on which graph. Climate skeptics will often infer that it’s evidence that global warming is not a problem, or that it shows we know too little to act on climate change. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it in plain numbers: the rate of warming from 1998-2012 was 0.05°C per decade; from 1951 to 2012, it was 0.12°C per decade. “In addition to robust multi-decadal warming, global mean surface temperature exhibits substantial decadal and interannual variability,” it adds.  “Due to natural variability, trends based on short records are very sensitive to the beginning and end dates and do not in general reflect long-term climate trends.”

In a paper published online in the journal Geophysical Research Letters last week, Jerry and Haiyan touch on the current best explanations of the let-up. These include the chilling effect of recent volcano eruptions, but mostly focus on cooling in the Pacific as part of a natural cycle. Called the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO), this regular wobble in sea surface temperatures has likely partly masked greenhouse-gas driven warming. The IPO has also been linked to a larger warming than might have been expected from greenhouse gases alone in the 1970s, the NCAR researchers add. 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 »

Continuing the fight for CO2 monitoring

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.
Dave Keeling had to balance his work measuring CO2's rise in the air and tracking its movements through the Earth's systems with fighting to get the money to fund his work. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Dave Keeling had to balance his work measuring CO2’s rise in the air and tracking its movements through the Earth’s systems with fighting to get the money to fund his work. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

By 1963, having directly measured a steady increase in CO2 levels over five years, Dave Keeling felt he had clearly shown the value of such non-stop monitoring. But that message hadn’t reached government decision makers. And so Dave swung into the first battle in the war to continue tracking the key greenhouse gas that has flared up repeatedly in the following decades.

Thanks to four new instruments called spectrophotometers, Dave had been able to use the same molecular movements that allow CO2 to absorb heat to measure it. Though his most famous site was at Mauna Loa in Hawaii, one was also installed in Antarctica. Another sailed on a ship and the final one stayed at Dave’s lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography analysing samples collected in vacuum-filled five litre flasks from aircraft and elsewhere. Thanks to funds from 1957-1958’s International Geophysical Year a team of scientists was busy collecting a “snapshot” of CO2 data that Dave’s boss at Scripps, Roger Revelle, wanted.

So in 1961, Dave moved his family to Sweden for a year to work out exactly what the measurements were showing. He took a fellowship at the Meteorological Institute, University of Stockholm working with its new director Bert Bolin, who had earlier worked on the first computerised weather forecast. With measurements ongoing, annual ‘breathing’ cycles of rising and falling CO2 and the increasing trend underlying them became ever clearer.

Together, Dave and Bert found CO2 concentrations were going up by 0.06 ppm per month on average. Bert also undertook a series of complex calculations by hand to work out CO2 movement and cycles in its levels. In doing so he was showing how oceans, plants on land, and human fossil fuel burning contributed to the patterns that would later need computer models for fuller analysis. This, Dave felt, clearly showed why non-stop CO2 monitoring was needed rather than just snapshots. But by 1963 the shipboard spectrophotometer had come home, and Dave had also called back the one in Antarctica. And with funding cuts biting at the Weather Bureau, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the staff at Mauna Loa fell from eight to three. And soon afterwards, a problem with Dave’s equipment proved too much for the overstretched team to fix.

“Suddenly there were no precise measurements being made of atmospheric CO2 anywhere,” he recalled. “I had seen the budget cut coming early in 1963 and had tried to prevent its terminating the CO2 program at Mauna Loa Observatory. I even went to Washington to plead for supplemental funding. This had no tangible effect, however, until the cessation of measurements actually occurred. The National Science Foundation (NSF) then found funds to pay for an additional technician at Mauna Loa. I learned a lesson that environmental time-series programs have no particular priority in the funding world, even if their main value lies in maintaining long-term continuity of measurements.” Read the rest of this entry »

Warming weakens deep freeze on Arctic islands

Pictures from William D'Andrea's August 2012 expedition to Svalbard. There are 24 slides in this series - apologies for the poor formatting. Credit: The Earth Institute/Columbia University

Normally 6°C wouldn’t be very warm – but in the Norwegian islands of Svalbard it’s a sultry modern summer, unlike anything seen for at least 1,800 years. That’s what sediments taken from an Arctic lake have told William D’Andrea from Columbia University in New York and a US team. It’s even warmer than a medieval warm period when parts of the northern half of the planet were as hot as, or hotter, than today. And while the record they’ve made reflects just this one site, it adds to the picture showing how unique today’s climate is. It’s also another step towards understanding how climate has changed through history, William told me.

Climate dynamics are extremely complex, and cooling in some locations can happen at the same time as warming in others, or increased precipitation in some places along with drought in other places,” he said. “These are the fingerprints we are trying to map and understand by generating such reconstructions.”

The fingerprints slowly become clearer as scientists collect more historical records, often as tubes of ice drilled from glaciers, or of mud and rock drilled from sea and lake beds. The tubes, or cores, cut through layers of mud or ice built up year after year. Scientists can then use fossils and chemicals to date and work out what conditions were like when they were laid down.

Read the rest of this entry »

Economy-CO2 link reveals GDP weakness

The key US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site where CO2 concentrations in the air are monitored, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Unlike CO2 emissions, these CO2 concentrations can be readily measured directly, so Edward Ionides, José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero used them to study their link with global GDP. Credit NOAA

The key US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) site where CO2 concentrations in the air are monitored, at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. Unlike CO2 emissions, these CO2 concentrations can be readily measured directly, so Edward Ionides, José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero used them to study their link with global GDP. Credit NOAA

Researchers have confirmed a relationship that is making climate change tough to fight: economic growth and atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been tightly linked for the past 50 years. That’s what the University of Michigan‘s Edward Ionides and co-workers found by looking at levels of the greenhouse gas and gross domestic product (GDP), an important measure of countries’ financial performance, at a worldwide level. “GDP growth is like a proxy for CO2 concentration growth,” Edward told Simple Climate. “Under business-as-usual conditions, these two quantities are measuring essentially the same thing. This highlights a problem with using GDP as a measure of progress.”

Until now, much research on the link between CO2 and economic growth has looked at figures for each country. Some think using each country’s CO2 emissions separately “should be more informative”, Edward said. But there are problems with recording emissions accurately, plus goods or services used in one country often result in CO2 emissions in another. So, with Michigan colleague José Tapia Granados, and Óscar Carpintero from the University of Valladolid, Spain, Ionides went to the worldwide level for “a new and simpler perspective”.

As well as the total of all countries’ GDP, they used precisely measured atmospheric CO2 levels, rather than the more uncertain emission figures. “In addition, concentration of CO2, rather than the level of emissions, is the variable directly determining the global climate,” Óscar said. “Change in the atmospheric concentration is the result of emissions – mainly from burning fossil fuels, since natural emissions from volcanoes are estimated as a tiny fraction of man-made emissions – minus removals by natural sinks.”

Atmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. The graph is often known as the Keeling curve. Credit: University of Michigan

Atmospheric CO2 (monthly average) as measured in air samples collected at Mauna Loa, Hawaii from Feburary 1958 to Februrary 2012. Units are parts per million by volume. Estimated preindustrial concentrations, at levels between 200 and 300 ppm, would be far out of the graph. The graph is often known as the Keeling curve. Credit: University of Michigan

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Volcano cloud over tree-ring temperatures clears

Pennsylvania State University's Michael Mann thinks he has found the reason behind key outstanding disagreements between the historical temperature record based on tree rings and climate models for the same period. Credit: Pennylvania State University

Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann thinks he has found the reason behind key outstanding disagreements between the historical temperature record based on tree rings and climate models for the same period. Credit: Pennylvania State University

The sudden chills violent volcano eruptions cast over the world centuries ago effectively erased themselves from the historical climate record produced by examining tree-rings. So suggests a team led by Michael Mann from Pennsylvania State University, who famously used 1,000 years of tree-ring measurements in the “hockey stick” graph showing how unusual today’s temperatures are. Michael warns the skipped years could affect scientists’ estimates of how much the world warms in response to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, known as its climate sensitivity. But other than the volcano years, the scientist notes that tree-ring data is a remarkably accurate match with the climate models they used for comparison. “Interestingly, the effect has little influence on long-term trends, including conclusions about how previous temperatures compares to modern ones,” he told me. “Instead, it appears only to have implications for how strong past short-term cooling events were.”

A tree’s age can usually be told from the rings that form across its trunk representing each year’s growth. How thick each ring is shows how much the tree grew in the year in question, which is influenced by the temperatures that tree experienced. That means examining the thickness of rings in old trees can provide a way to tell temperatures back through history. Many challenges have already been overcome in turning this simple-sounding idea into a history of the world’s temperature, but Michael was still troubled by one particular detail. Read the rest of this entry »

Fighting sea rise with mirrors and mock volcanoes

To fight sea level rise it might take pumping suphur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere equivalent to 1991's Mount Pinatubo eruption (shown here) every 18 months. Credit: USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory

To fight sea level rise it might take pumping suphur dioxide emissions into the atmosphere equivalent to 1991's Mount Pinatubo eruption (shown here) every 18 months. Credit: USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory

If CO2 emissions can’t be cut, simulating volcanoes could help the 150 million people across the world threatened by rising sea levels, scientists said this week. But the UK, Denmark and China-based researchers who reach these conclusions also warn such ‘geo-engineering’ measures could be dangerous in other ways. “Substituting geo-engineering for greenhouse gas emission control would be to burden future generations with enormous risk,” said Svetlana Jevrejeva of the UK’s National Oceanography Centre.

150 million people worldwide are thought to live within 1 metre of high tide, Jevrejeva’s team notes. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that by 2100 the sea level would rise by 0.18–0.59 metres. However, since then several researchers have suggested a rise of 1-1.5 metres would be more likely. Read the rest of this entry »