Posts Tagged ‘Paleoclimate’

Earth’s temperature over the past two million years

October 6, 2016

A new reconstruction of global average temperature over the past two million years has recently appeared in Nature (Snyder, 2016). That is quite a feat and a first for this duration. The figure below, made by Jos Hagelaars, shows Snyder’s temperature reconstruction, combined with the observed warming since 1880 and projected warming until the year 3000 for two IPCC scenarios, RCP6.0 and RCP8.5.

snyder-et-al-2016-rcp8-5-rcp6-0-nr3

The RCP8.5 can be viewed as a “no mitigation” scenario, whereas RCP6.0 would be a “limited mitigation” scenario. It is clear that in both scenarios global warming over the next centuries will take us out of the temperature realm of the past two million years. A similar figure (which I tweeted yesterday) but then with temperature projections stopping in the year 2100 can be found here.

Even though lauded as a very valuable and novel contribution to the field, Snyder’s reconstruction has also been criticized because the temperature amplitude between glacial and interglacial states appears relatively large (~6 degrees) compared to other recent reconstructions, e.g. by Shakun et al (2012) (~4 degrees). Somewhat related, Snyder estimates the global average temperature during the previous interglacial (Eemian) to be warmer than now, whereas e.g. Hansen et al (2016, under review) argue that they are similarly warm. By the way, sea levels were 6 to 9 metres higher in the Eemian than now. Sea level responds very slowly to a change in temperature, yet another sign of the vast inertia in the climate system.

Shakun_Marcott_HadCRUT4_A1B_Eng

Somewhat overshadowing the actual temperature reconstruction that Snyder presented was her calculation of an earth system sensitivity (ESS) based on a correlation between temperature and CO2 over the past few glacial cycles. The earth system sensitivity denotes the long-term temperature response to a doubling in CO2 concentrations, including e.g. the response of ice sheets (which is typically excluded from the more often used equilibrium climate sensitivity, ECS). She then applied the ESS value of a whopping 9 degrees, obtained from this simple correlation, to the current warming, stating in the abstract:

This result suggests that stabilization at today’s greenhouse gas levels may already commit Earth to an eventual total warming of 5 degrees Celsius (range 3 to 7 degrees Celsius, 95 per cent credible interval) over the next few millennia as ice sheets, vegetation and atmospheric dust continue to respond to global warming.

Where “commit” means that this level of warming would be eventually expected based on current CO2 concentrations.

As Gavin Schmidt wrote, this is simply wrong.

The reason why I think it’s wrong is that in her calculation of ESS she takes the radiative forcing caused by albedo changes (resulting from the massive change in ice coverage between a glacial and interglacial state) and assumes it to be a feedback on the CO2 induced temperature-change.

There are two issues with this:

1) In reality both the changes in albedo (reflectivity) and CO2 concentration are feedbacks on the orbital forcing, and the relation in the one direction (a change in earth’s orbit causing a temperature change which in turn causes albedo and CO2 levels to change) is not necessarily the same as the relation in the reverse direction, as is currently happening with human-induced increases in CO2. Gavin Schmidt makes this point in two consecutive posts at RealClimate (here and here), though you might also want to read Hansen’s take, who has used a similar approach as Snyder did).

2) The ESS value obtained would (ignoring the more complex first point) perhaps be applicable to a glacial-interglacial transition, but decidedly not to an interglacial-‘hyperinterglacial’ transition, where the ice-albedo feedback would of course be much smaller because of the much smaller ice-covered surface area.

This second point was also made by James Annan in response to Hansen’s 2008 Target CO2 paper, where he essentially used the same method as Snyder is using (but came to a smaller ESS value of 6 degrees, because Snyder uses a greater temperature-amplitude between glacial-interglacial). Hansen noted in his paper though that “The 6°C sensitivity reduces to 3°C when the planet has become warm enough to lose its ice sheets.”

In other words, using Snyder’s very (and probably too) high ESS value to project future warming is unwarranted and wrong.

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Tipping points in the climate: Melting ice

January 7, 2009

(Dutch version here)

 

James Hansen has put the concept of ‘tipping points’ on the agenda. It is not a strictly defined term, but at a tipping point, a relatively small change has a relatively large consequence, and the climate could end up in a different equilibrium state than before. (Compare it with the concept of meta-stability, with the classical example of a ball on a hill, which needs only a minor push to end up in the valley – the new equilibrium state.)

 

Ice-albedo feedback

Large scale melting of ice could cause such a tipping point. Ice reflects a much larger part of the incoming solar radiation (i.e. it has a higher albedo) than land or water surfaces do. Therefore, when ice melts and the underlying land or water surfaces become exposed, much more sunlight will be absorbed than was previously the case. This causes more warming, which causes more melting, and the circle is closed.

 

Sea ice

The amount of Arctic sea ice at the end of summer has dramatically decreased over the last 30 years. The last two summers (2007 and 2008) ended with even smaller amounts of ice than would be expected based on the long term downward trend. It is too early to tell whether this means that the trend has changed (i.e. having passed a ‘tipping point’). Melting sea ice has no direct consequence for sea level, and if the warming trend is halted or reversed, the sea ice is expected to return to its ‘normal’ state. It is therefore a reversible tipping point.

 

arctic-sea-ice-trend-nsidc1 

Decrease of Arctic sea ice extent over the last 30 years. Data are for September, when the ice extent reaches its minimum. Source: NSIDC

 

Land ice

The melting of land ice, on the other hand, does lead to sea level rise, and is practically irreversible on human time scales. The melting of Greenland would lead to a globally averaged sea level rise of about 6 meters. The West Antarctic ice sheet is good for about 7 meters, whereas the remainder of Antarctica has enough ice for over 50 meters global sea level rise. But that’s not gonna happen any time soon, is the expectation. No major changes are happening in the Antarctic, and in some places in the interior ice mass even seems to be increasing, due to increased snowfall. This is a predicted consequence of slight warming, because it leads to more water vapor in the air. As warming continues, melting will at some point start to outperform the effects of increased snowfall.

 

Sea level rise

According to Hansen et al, “equilibrium sea level rise for today’s 385 ppm CO2 is at least several meters, judging from paleoclimate history.” This seems predominantly based on the fact that in the previous interglacial, 125,000 years ago, sea level was about 6 metres higher than now, while the average temperature was about 1 degree higher. Even when the CO2 concentration would stop increasing, the Earth would still continue to warm up by another 0.5 degrees, mainly due to the thermal inertia of the oceans. So we’ll approach the same global average temperature of 125,000 years ago, even with current CO2 levels.

 

It’s not evident to what extent the relation between temperature and sea level is linear. Over ‘short’ timescales, when thermal expansion is the main influencing factor, it is probably close to linear. Several equilibrium situations from the distant past also show a strong relation over longer timescales, mainly influenced by the amount of land ice. The whole idea of ‘tipping points’ is of course that changes happen stepwise, rather than smoothly.

 

sealevel_vs_temp_paleo 

Relation between sea level (relative to today) and global average temperature based on different epochs. LGM stands for Last Glacial Maximum, Eocene is also known as PETM (Pleitocene-Eocene thermal maximum), Eemian is the previous interglacial. YBP stands for years before present. Numbers are from multiple sources and are associated with a ‘certain’ degree of uncertainty.

 

To what extent can we translate relations between climate variables from the past to the current situation? Melting of polar ice mainly depends on the regional temperature, and its relation with the global average temperature is not necessarily constant. We know relatively little about dynamical processes that influence the breaking up and melting of land ice. But apparently large changes in sea level are possible if the temperature remains long enough above (or below) a certain value. The examples from the past may give a sense of what order of magnitude sea level rise we could eventually expect for a given temperature increase. The rate of sea level rise is the most uncertain. Most scientific literature concludes that sea level rise won’t be more than one or at most two meters by 2100 (but it will continue to rise thereafter). That is quite a strong increase for large parts of the world to adapt to, and uncertainty in the rate and level of the rise is not really comforting. The examples from the past are even less so.

 


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