Tag Archives: climate

Carbon emissions: It’s an ill wind…

The original saying emerged in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2 (Act 5, Scene 3) during a jocular exchange when Ancient Pistol brings news from Court to Sir John Falstaff and other old codgers at dinner in Gloucestershire. Falstaff: ‘What wind blew you hither, Pistol?’ Pistol: ‘Not the ill wind which blows no man to good’. In the present context it seems anthropogenic CO2 emissions have staved off the otherwise inevitable launch of another glacial epoch. Climate-change deniers will no doubt pounce on this in the manner of a leopard seizing a tasty young monkey.

Auyuittuq National Park: Penny Ice Cap

Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island ( credit: Wikipedia)

Climatologists at the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Potsdam, Germany, Potsdam University and the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, USA set out to develop a means for predicting the onset of ice ages (Ganopolski, A. et al. 2016. Critical insolation-CO2 relation for diagnosing past and future glacial inception. Nature, v. 529, p. 200-203) Many researchers have concluded from the oxygen isotope data in marine sediments, which tracks changes in the volume of glacial ice on land, that the end of previous interglacial periods by inception of prolonged climatic cooling may be attributed to reduction of solar heating in summer at high northern latitudes. This conclusion stems from Milankovic’s predictions from the Earth’s astronomically controlled orbital parameters and fits most of previous interglacial to glacial transitions. But summer insolation at 65°N is now more or less at one of these minima, with no signs of drastic global cooling; rather the opposite, as part of 7 thousand years of constant global sea level during the Holocene interglacial.

The latest supercomputer model of the Earth System (CLIMBER-2) has successfully ‘predicted’ the last eight ice ages from astronomical and other data derived from a variety of climate proxies. It also forecasts the next to have already begun, if atmospheric CO2 concentration was 240 parts per million; the level during earlier interglacials most similar to that in which we live. But the pre-industrial level was 280 ppm and the model suggests that would have put off the return of huge ice caps in the Northern Hemisphere for another 50 thousand years – partly because the present insolation minimum is not deep enough to launch a new ice age with that CO2 concentration – making the Holocene likely to be by far the longest interglacial since ice-age cycles began about 2.5 Ma ago. Based on current, industrially contaminated CO2 levels and a rapid curtailment of carbon emissions the model suggests no return to full glacial conditions within the next 100 ka and possibly longer; a consequence of the sluggishness of natural processes that draw-down CO2 from the atmosphere.

English: Ice age Earth at glacial maximum. Bas...

Simulation of the Earth at a glacial maximum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, does this indicate that unwittingly the Industrial Revolution and subsequent growth in the use of fossil fuels tipped the balance away from global cooling that would eventually have made vast tracts of both hemispheres uninhabitable? At first sight, that’s the way it looks. But the atmospheric carbon content of the 17th century would have resulted in much the same long drawn out Holocene interglacial; an unprecedented skipping of an ice age in the period covering most of the history of human evolution. This raises a question first posed by Bill Ruddiman in 2003: did human agriculture and associated CO2 emission begin the destabilisation of the Earth system shortly after Holocene warming and human ingenuity made farming and herding possible since about 10 thousand years ago?

But, consider this, the CLIMBER-2 Earth System model is said to be one of ‘intermediate complexity’ which is shorthand for one that relies on the ages-old scientific method of reductionism or basing each modelled scenario on modifying one parameter at a time. Moreover, for many parameters of the Earth’s climate system – clouds, dust, the cooling effect of increased winter precipitation as snow, and much else – scientists are pretty much in the dark (Crucifix, M. 2016. Earth’s narrow escape from a big freeze. Nature, v. 529, p. 162-163). Indeed it is still not certain whether CO2 levels have a naturally active or passive role in glacial-interglacial cycles, or something more complex than the simple cause-effect paradigm that still dominates much of science.

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Glacial cycles and sea-floor spreading

The London Review of Books recently published a lengthy review (Godfrey-Smith, P. 2015. The Ant and the Steam Engine. London Review of Books, v. 37, 19 February 2015 issue, p. 18-20) of the latest contribution to Earth System Science by James Lovelock, the man who almost singlehandedly created that popular paradigm through his Gaia concept of a self-regulating Earth (Lovelock, J. A Rough Ride to the Future. Allen Lane: London; ISBN 978 0 241 00476 0). Coincidentally, on 5 February 2015 Science published online a startling account of the inner-outer-inner synergism of Earth processes and climate (Crowley, J.W. et al. 2015. Glacial cycles drive variations in the production of oceanic crust. Science doi:10.1126/science.1261508). In fact serendipity struck twice: the following day a similar online article appeared in a leading geophysics journal (Tolstoy, M. 2015. Mid-ocean ridge eruptions as a climate valve. Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2014GL063015)

Both articles centred on the most common topographic features on the ocean floor, abyssal hills. These linear features trend parallel to seafloor spreading centres and the magnetic stripes, which chart the progressive additions to oceanic lithosphere at constructive margins. Abyssal hills are most common around intermediate- and fast-spreading ridges and have been widely regarded as fault-tilt blocks resulting from extensional forces where cooling of the lithosphere causes it to sag towards the abyssal plains. However, some have suggested a possible link with variations in magma production beneath ridge axes as pressure due to seawater depth varied with rising and falling sea level through repeated glacial cycles. Mantle melting beneath ridges results from depressurization of rising asthenosphere: so-called ‘adiabatic’ melting. Pressure changes equivalent to sea-level fluctuations of around 100-130 m should theoretically have an effect on magma productivity, falls resulting in additional volumes of lava erupted on the ocean floor and thus bathymetric highs.

English: A close-up showing mid-ocean ridge to...

Formation of mid-ocean ridge topography, including abyssal hills that parallel the ridge axis. (credit: Wikipedia)

A test of this hypothesis would be see how the elevation of the sea floor adjacent to spreading axes changes with the age of the underlying crust. John Crowley and colleagues from Oxford and Harvard Universities and the Korea Polar Research Institute analysed new bathymetry across the Australian-Antarctic Ridge, whereas Maya Tolstoy of Columbia University performed similar work across the Southern East Pacific Rise. In both studies frequency analysis of changes in bathymetry through time, as calibrated by local magnetic stripes, showed significant peaks at roughly 23, 41 and 100 ka in the first study and at 100 ka in the second. These correspond to the well known Milankovitch periods due to precession, changing axial tilt and orbital eccentricity: persuasive support for a glacial control over mid-ocean ridge magmatism.

Enlarged by 100% & sharpened file with IrfanView.

Periodicities of astronomical forcing and global climate over the last million years (credit: Wikipedia)

An interesting corollary of the observations may be that pulses in sea-floor eruption rates emit additional carbon dioxide, which eventually percolates through the ocean to add to its atmospheric concentration, which would result in climatic warming. The maximum effect would correspond to glacial maxima when sea level reached its lowest, the reduction in pressure stimulating the greatest magmatism. One of the puzzling features of glacial cycles over the last million years, when the 100 ka eccentricity signal dominates, is the marked asymmetry of the sea-level record; slowly declining to a glacial maximum and then a rapid rise due to warming and melting as the Earth changed to interglacial conditions. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations recorded by bubbles in polar ice cores show a close correlation with sea-level change indicated by oxygen isotope data from oceanic sediments. So it is possible that build-up of polar ice caps in a roundabout way eventually reverse cooling once they reach their greatest thickness and extents, by modulating ocean-ridge volcanism and thereby the greenhouse effect.

Dust: heating or cooling?

In the left image, thin martian clouds are vis...

Mars: with and without dust storms in 2001. Image via Wikipedia

Once every 13 years on average dust blots out most of the surface of Mars turning it into an orange ball. The last such planet-encircling dust storm occurred in 2001, but lesser storms spring up on a seasonal basis. Yet Martian seasons have very different weather from terrestrial ones because of the greater eccentricity of Mars’s orbit, as well as the fact that its ‘weather’ doesn’t involve water. When Mars is closest to the Sun solar heating is 20% greater than the average, for both hemispheres. The approach to that perihelion marks the start of the dust season which last a half the Martian year. Unsurprisingly, the sedimentary process that dominates Mars nowadays is the whipping up and deposition of sand and dust, though in the distant past catastrophic floods – probably when subsurface ice melted – sculpted a volcanic landscape pockmarked with impact craters up to several thousand kilometres across. Waterlain sediments on early Mars filled, at least in part, many of the earlier craters and probably blanketed the bulk of its northern hemisphere that is the lowest part of the planet and now devoid of large craters. Erosion and sedimentation since that eventful first billion years has largely been aeolian. Some areas having spectacular dunes of many shapes and sizes, whereas more rugged surfaces show streamlined linear ridges, or yardangs (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2011/05/08/winds-of-change/), formed by sand blasting. Most of the dust on Mars is raised by high winds in the thin atmosphere sweeping the great plains and basins, and, by virtue of Stokes’s law, the grains are very much smaller than on Earth.

The dustiest times on Earth, which might have blotted out sizeable areas from alien astronomers, in the last million years have been glacial maxima, roughly every 100 ka with the latest 20 ka ago. Layering in the Antarctic ice core records such dust-dominated frigid periods very precisely. Less intricate records formed away from the maximum extent of ice sheets as layers of fine sediment known as loess, whose thickness variations match other proxy records of palaeoclimate nicely. Loess, either in place or redeposited in alluvium by rivers, forms the most fertile soil known – when the climate is warm and moist. The vast cereal production of lowland China and the prairies of North America coincides with loess: it may seem strange but a large proportion of 7 billion living humans survive partly because of dust storms during glacial periods of the past.

Being derived from rock-forming minerals dust carries with it a diverse range of chemical elements, including a critical nutrient common on land but in short supply in ocean water far offshore: iron in the form of oxide and hydroxide coatings on dust particles – the dust coating your car after rain often has a yellow or pinkish hue because of its iron content. Even when the well-known ‘fertilizer’ elements potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus are abundant in surface ocean water, they can not encourage algal phytoplankton to multiply without iron. Today the most remote parts of the oceans have little living in their surface layers because of this iron deficiency. Yet oceanographers and climatologists are pretty sure that this wasn’t always the case. They are confident simply because reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide and its greenhouse effect to levels that would encourage climate cooling and glacial epochs needed more carbon to be buried on the ocean floors than happens nowadays, and lifeless ocean centres would not help in that.

Dust plume off the Sahara desert over the nort...

Saharan dust carried over the Atlantic Ocean by a tropical cyclone. Image via Wikipedia

At present, the greatest source of atmospheric dust is the Sahara Desert (bartholoet, J. 2012. Swept from Africa to the Sahara. Scientific American, v. 306 (February 2012), p. 34-39). Largely derived from palaeolakes dating from a Holocene pluvial episode, Saharan dust accounts for more than half the two billion metric tonnes of particulate atmospheric aerosols dispersed over the Earth each year. Located in the SE trade-wind belt, the Sahara vents dust clouds across the Atlantic Ocean, most to fall there and contribute dissolved material to the mid-ocean near-surface biome but an estimated 40 million t reaches the Amazon basin, contributing to fertilising the otherwise highly leached tropical rain-forest soils. While over the ocean the high albedo of dust adds a cooling effect to the otherwise absorbent sea surface. Over land the fine particles help nucleate water droplets in clouds and hence encourages rainfall. The climatic functions of clouds and dusts are probably the least known factors in the climatic system, a mere 5% uncertainty in their climatic forcing may mean the difference between unremitting global warming ahead or sufficient cooling by reflection of solar radiation to compensate for the cumulative effects of industrial CO2 emissions.

Recording amounts of dust from marine sediments quantitatively is very difficult and impossible in terrestrial sediments, but superb records tied accurately to time at annual precision exist in ice sheets. Low dust levels in Greenland and Antarctic ice tally well with the so-called ‘Medieval Climate Anomaly’ (a warm period) whereas through the 13th to 19th centuries (the ‘Little Ice Age’) more dust than average circulated in the atmosphere. Crucially, for climate change in the industrial era, there has been a massive spike in dust reaching near-polar latitudes since the close of the 18th century during the period associated with signs of global warming: a counterintuitive relationship, but one that is difficult to interpret. The additional dust may well be a result of massive changes in land use across the planet following industrialised agricultural practices and growing population. There are several  questions: does the additional dust also reflect global warming with which it is correlated, i.e. evaporation of the huge former lakes in the Sahara (e.g. Lake Chad); is the dust preventing additional greenhouse warming that would have taken place had the atmosphere been clearer; is it even the ‘wrong kind of dust’, which may well reflect short-wave solar radiation away but also absorbs the longer wavelength thermal radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, i.e. an aerosol form of greenhouse warming. Needless to say, neither clouds nor dust can be factored into climate prediction models with much confidence.