Thursday, 31 August 2017

Climate Change - What does 'climate' actually mean?

Lots of people discuss 'climate change'.

Some people confuse 'climate' with 'weather' - but if 'climate' and 'weather' are the same, why would there be two words?

Other people say "We call climate change 'winter' and 'summer'...."  

What does the word 'climate' mean?

It normally means the average of conditions over 30 years.


Climate normally means 'an average over 3 conventional decades'.

conventional decade is, for example, 2001-2010, or 1961-1970.

So ..... 3 full, conventional decades......such as 1981 to 2010.

For example .... rainfall in Ireland.


And another example - 'Average temperature 1951-1980'

The definition of 'climate' goes back at least 100 years.

So if we are discussing climate change, that is what 'climate' means.

But in recent times, there has been a lot of variation in global temperatures.

So it can be useful to look at single conventional decades.


Chart from the World Meteorological Organisation.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Climate Change - Charting the rising levels of carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are rising.


The small up-and-down pattern is caused by changes during each year - in the summer in the northern hemisphere, there is more photosynthesis which causes CO2 levels to fall.

The Keeling Curve is named after the scientist who first produced accurate measurements of carbon dioxide in the air - Charles David Keeling.  


Charles David Keeling in the lab.

Keeling's collection of data began in 1958.

Concentration is measured in parts per million (ppm)

Ice core data shows humans have never breathed air containing so much CO2.


Since Keeling began recording, CO2 has risen from 318 ppm to 400 ppm... a rise of around 25%. 

The fastest rise of CO2 in the air seen in the ice core record (800,000 years) is 20 ppm in 1000 years.

There is evidence that CO2 has never risen so fast since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The CO2 level in the atmosphere is now rising at around 20 ppm per decade.

Carbon reacts with oxygen when fossil fuels are burned.


Each carbon atom joins with two oxygen atoms to make a carbon dioxide molecule

Measurements show that this is reducing the oxygen in the air as time passes.
Several scientific organisations measure the gases in the air.

One major set of measurements are from a laboratory in Hawaii.

This is all evidence that extra carbon dioxide in the air comes from burning fossil fuels. 

We are time-warping vast amounts of ancient carbon (which we are combining with current oxygen) into the modern atmosphere.

In 2010 about 9 Gigatonnes of Carbon (GtC) were emitted from burning fossil fuels, as 33 Gigatonnes of CO2 gas.

How much is 33 Gigatonnes? 
33 billion tonnes or 33,000,000,000,000,000 grams.
9 Gigatonnes of carbon weighs about the same as 132 billion people. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Climate Change - The Long-Term Effects


According to the Royal Society.......

If human emissions of CO2 stopped altogether...


.... it would take thousands of years for atmospheric CO2 to return to ‘pre-industrial’ levels.

"The climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge," says University of Chicago oceanographer David Archer.

"Longer than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilization so far."

Why is that?

It takes a long time for deep oceans to bury the carbon dioxide in ocean sediments. 


abyssal sea floor life

Lifee on the abyssal sea floor (depths ranging from 4000-6000 m) near the Hudson Canyon off the coast of New Jersey. Photo taken using the Deep Submersible Research Vessel (DSRV) Alvin'scamera system. Image courtesy of Deep East 2001, NOAA/OER.

Surface temperatures would stay high for at least a thousand years.


Humans would face a warmer planet due to past and current emissions.


Ice would still be melting from places like Antarctica and Greenland.



So sea level would continue to rise for many centuries, even after temperature stopped increasing.

new study published in Nature Climate Change looks at the next 10,000 years.
The researchers found that the catastrophic impact of another three centuries of carbon pollution will persist for thousands of years after the carbon dioxide releases cease.

The current warming of the Earth can't be reversed on a human timescale. 


But if fossil fuels are not phased out soon, the situation will be far worse.



Research that investigated what would happen if all the fossil fuels are burned has come to some worrying conclusions:
“Burning all fossil fuels” would warm land areas on average about 20°C (36°F) and warm the poles a stunning 30°C (54°F). 
This “would make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.” 
Calculated warming over land areas averages approximately 20°C. 
Such temperatures would eliminate grain production in almost all agricultural regions in the world.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Climate Change - Arctic sea ice

The Arctic includes an ocean covered by sea ice.
The area of Arctic sea ice is largest in March each year, and at its lowest each September.




The NSIDC also publish this graph, which is normally updated every day.

More graphs and other data are also available from the Arctic Data Archive System, operated by the Japanese Arctic Environmental Observation Center.

The total volume of Arctic sea ice has declined dramatically over time.


New research shows the decline in Arctic sea ice area since 1850:

Research suggests the remarkable decline of  Arctic sea ice over the last century is far beyond anything seen for a long time. 



Sunday, 27 August 2017

Climate Change - Mammoths (and methane) from the permafrost

The permafrost of places like Siberia is not so permanently frozen any more.

As it slowly melts, wonderful things are emerging, some frozen for tens of thousands of years.

Baby mammoths are sometimes found in an extraordinary state of preservation.



"As the Earth warms, scientists worry that some of the carbon in permafrost could escape to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. 

Increasing the amount of these gases in the atmosphere could make Earth's climate warm up even more."

Arctic permafrost – ground that has been frozen for many thousands of years – is now thawing because of global climate change. 



There are many effects of global warming, including melting permafrost, discussed in this useful document: 



The results of melting permafrost could be disastrous and irreversible.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Climate Change - Measuring the Greenhouse Effect

Scientists have observed an increase in carbon dioxide’s greenhouse effect at the Earth’s surface.  



The graphs show carbon dioxide’s increasing greenhouse effect at two locations. 

The first graph shows COradiative forcing measurements obtained in Oklahoma

The second graph shows similar upward trends in Alaska. (Credit: Berkeley Lab)
The researchers link this to rising CO2 levels from fossil fuel emissions.

Radiative forcing measures how the planet’s energy balance is altered by atmospheric changes. 

Positive radiative forcing occurs when the Earth absorbs more energy from solar radiation than it emits as heat radiation back to space.

“We see, for the first time in the field, the amplification of the greenhouse effect because there’s more COin the atmosphere to absorb what the Earth emits in response to incoming solar radiation,” says Daniel Feldman.



Dr Feldman is a scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Earth Sciences Division and is lead author of the paper.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Climate Change - The Carbon Bubble

Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide.


Carbon dioxide emissions need to be limited. 

However, the potential carbon dioxide emissions contained in fossil fuel reserves are vast.



So it's not possible for all current fossil fuel reserves to be used, if the Earth's warming is to be kept below 2 °C. 

This huge excess quantity of fossil fuel is sometimes called the 'Carbon Bubble'.

Many say the number is simply too high.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out that a two-degree global average rise might result in Africa’s temperature rising as much as 3.5 degrees—a potentially disastrous change.

Various scientific research projects have looked at what would happen if all the fossil fuels were burned.

One project concluded:
The Antarctic Ice Sheet stores water equivalent to 58 metres in global sea-level rise.  
... burning the currently attainable fossil fuel resources is sufficient to eliminate the ice sheet. 
...........with an average contribution to sea-level rise exceeding 3 metres per century during the first millennium.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Climate Change - Climate prediction is not weather forecasting

The chaotic nature of weather makes it unpredictable beyond a few days. 
To predict the weather you need to know exactly what is happening in the atmosphere down to the smallest scale. 
Climate is the average weather pattern of a region over many years (usually a period of 30 years).

Weather forecasts depend on knowing exactly what is going on in the atmosphere, down to the smallest scales. 

Climate forecasts look for patterns over a longer time. 
Will it be generally wetter in winter? 
Will there be more heavy downpours?
A paper published in the journal Science in August 1981 made several projections regarding future climate change.

The projections were rather accurate — and their future is now our present.

"Potential effects on climate in the 21st century include the creation of drought-prone regions in North America and central Asia as part of a shifting of climate zones, erosion of the West Antarctic ice sheet with a consequent worldwide rise in sea level, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage.”
Their predictions have turned out to be correct.

"Drought-prone regions" are receiving less rainfall.

The West Antarctic ice sheet is melting.

Some ships are using the Northwest Passage as a polar short-cut. 

Projecting changes in climate due to changes in atmospheric composition or other factors is easier than predicting the weather.


It is impossible to predict the age at which any particular man will die, but we can say with high confidence what the average age of death for men is.

Similarly, a climate prediction might say that average summer rainfall over London is predicted to be 50% less by the 2080s.

It will not predict that it will be raining in London on the morning of 23rd August 2089.

Another way to predict the outcomes of climate change is to examine the geological record of ancient events.

Atmospheric CO2 is now around 400 parts per million (ppm).
It last reached similar levels during the Pliocene, 5.3-2.6 million years ago.


Global average temperatures were 2-3°C warmer than today.


Sea level rose by up to 20 metres in places.

In the middle Pliocene, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air ranged from about 380 to 450 parts per million. 

During this period, the area around the North Pole was much warmer and wetter than it is now.
Summer temperatures in the Arctic were around 15 degrees C, which is about 8 degrees C warmer than they are now.

There were no humans then, and no farming.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Climate Change - Farming, food, & possible mass migrations

Farmers can put up with some bad weather, but climate change will make unusual events more likely.

20-30% of plant and animal species will be more likely to become extinct if the temperature rises by more than 1.5-2.5C.

There will be big effects on farming from droughts and floods.

The biggest effects will be seen first near the Equator.

Just being near the Equator makes it more difficult for countries to make economic progress.

Hotter conditions affect how crops grow.

Our agriculture is heavily reliant on grasses from the temperate regions.

Corn, wheat, and rice are all types of grass.



People will try to leave places where they cannot produce enough food.

Countries where food prices rise rapidly tend to become unstable, making conflicts more likely.





People who are struggling to cope with their food supply will move to cities, or aim to move to other countries, where they may not be welcome.

Farming developed in the stable climate of the Holocene.

Humans were around from over 200,000 years ago, and it is likely reliable farming was not possible until the climate settled down, according to researchers:
"....the possibility of cultivation is not excluded for the late Pleistocene, however we argue that it did not become a reliable means of subsistence until the Holocene. 
 This period coincides with a decrease in the amplitude of climatic oscillations ........"

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Climate Change - Comparing the Polar Regions

Earth's poles are warming faster than the rest of the planet.

One reason is that energy is carried to the poles by large weather systems.


The Arctic includes an ocean covered by sea ice.

Arctic sea ice melts in Summer and then refreezes in Winter.

The area of Arctic sea ice is largest in March each year, and at its lowest each September.
It is reducing over time - the graph comes from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Research suggests the remarkable decline of  Arctic sea ice over the last century is far beyond anything seen for a long time. 


The Antarctic is a continent covered by ice, unlike the ocean in the Arctic.

The sea ice surrounding Antarctica melts almost to the coast each summer.



Ice shelves around Antarctica are also affected by global warming.

For a useful comparison of Antarctic and Arctic sea ice follow this link……

Arctic vs Antarctic




You can explore the Earth's melting ice using NASA's Global Ice Viewer.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Climate Change - "Weather on Steroids" in 2010

There were some very unusual weather events in 2010, which may be a warning of future effects of climate change.

Each time there are extreme weather events, people debate "Is there a link to climate change?"

It might be hard to prove in many cases.

Some recent events, however, are extraordinary.

The phrase 'weather on steroids' has been used to describe these events.


In 2010, China and Brazil had serious droughts, and in the first part of the year the Northern Hemisphere warmed fast, melting the winter snow cover very quickly.



The picture shows the dried-up River Negro in Brazil, with a bridge in the distance.  

But the biggest events were the heatwave in Russia and the flooding in Pakistan.

In PakistanGovernment officials said that from July 28 to Aug. 3, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province recorded almost 12 feet (3.6 metres) of rainfall in one week

The province normally averages slightly above 3 feet (around 1 metre) for an entire year.

        
       Pakistan Floods                                  Russian forest fire
In Russia, the heatwave went on for weeks, causing forest fires and destroying crops.

The Russian harvest was reduced in 2010, so the government stopped exports of grains.



Thanks to the Russian drought of 2010, global food prices in early 2011 were the highest since the food crisis of 1972 - 1974. 

This event has been linked to the "Arab Spring" of 2011.

The link between the floods and the heatwave was a blocked jet stream.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Climate Change - Glaciation in Antarctica

Around 34 million years ago, at the Eocene-Oligocene Transition (EOT), the Earth was undergoing a period of global cooling. 

Antarctica changed from a green forested continent to the land of ice we know today. 

The cooling was partly caused by declining atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, but it also coincides with changes in the geography of the Southern Ocean.

This is an image of how this ancient world might have looked, created recently by Alan Kennedy of the University of Bristol -



Around 55 million years ago, CO2 levels rose during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM).
Weathering of the newly-building Himalayas caused CO2 levels to begin to fall.
CO2 in rain makes a weak acid, which causes chemical weathering (especially of carbonate rocks like limestone, but of other rocks as well).
Rivers carry the carbon compounds down to the oceans, where various processes (such as the formation of calcareous shells by organisms) eventually deposit the material on the ocean floor.


Antarctic glaciation began when CO2 level fell to around around 750 ppmand spread more widely as the CO2 level continued to fall.

So...... what could be the future for Antarctica as global warming continues?

CO2 concentration in the atmosphere now is just over 400 ppm, but no one expects Antarctic ice sheets to melt entirely at any point soon.

If CO2 stopped rising now, ice would continue to melt from ice sheets and glaciers for a very long time.

There would still be a great deal of ice in Antarctica... the process would stabilise at a certain level of ice coverage.

Making Europe wild again
Even melting a fraction of Antarctica's ice would raise sea levels by a significant amount.
However, if CO2 levels get to over 750 ppm, eventually Antarctica could indeed be ice-free.

It would take time, as it takes a lot of energy to turn ice at zero degrees C into water at zero degrees C.... and the ice needs to warm up to zero degrees C before that.

Researchers have discovered this might take thousands of years, but would eventually happen if all the fossil fuels were to be burned.

Their analysis suggests that this would cause sea level to rise by 3 metres each century during the first thousand years.
Antarctica from space
If all of the Antarctic ice melted, sea levels around the world would rise about 58 metres.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Climate Change - Animals are moving

Animals are reacting to climate change very quickly.

Some move to higher places, others move north or south.

Dragonflies love warmer temperatures.

UK dragonflies have mainly stayed in the south of the country, until recently.


Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum)
That is over 2km per year..... nearly 6 metres per day.

For example, the ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) and the hairy dragonfly, (Brachytron pratense), have moved into north-west England. 

This is evidence that the UK’s climate is growing warmer.

"So much has happened to dragonflies in Britain since the 1990s that there is a most compelling case for the Government to adopt them as indicators of climate change", said Steve Brooks.
Mr Stephen Brooks

Scientists from the University of York  found that, on average, living things have "moved uphill" at 12.2 metres per decade.
  They are moving away from the equator at 17.6 kilometres per decade.
“These changes are equivalent to animals and plants shifting away from the Equator at around 20 cm per hour, for every hour of the day, for every day of the year. 
This has been going on for the last 40 years and is set to continue for at least the rest of this century.”
Dr I-Ching Chen said: 


“We have for the first time shown that the amount by which the distributions of species have changed is correlated with the amount the climate has changed in that region.”

I-Ching Chen and her colleagues discovered that moths had on average moved 67 metres uphill on Mount Kinabalu in Borneo.

Comma butterfly. Photo: Butterfly Conservation & Jim Asher
The Comma butterfly has moved 220 kilometres northwards from central     England to Edinburgh, in only two decades.