In a previous post entitled Worldwide Glacier Retreat, we highlighted the results of a study by J. Oerlemans, who compiled glacier data from around the world and used them to estimate temperature change over the last ~400 years. A question that arose in subsequent online discussion was to what extent Oerlemans had relied on glaciers from tropical regions (answer: he didn’t), and what the reasons are behind retreat of glaciers in these regions. Raymond Pierrehumbert, a climate dynamicist at the University of Chicago, kindly offered to write a guest editorial to further clarify what we do and don’t know about tropical glacier retreat. Pierrehumbert’s editorial follows below. –eric
The Tropics, loosely defined as the region from 30N to 30S latitude, make up nearly half the surface area of the Earth; they are home to 70% of its people, and the vast majority of its biological diversity. Moreover, the tropical region is the “accumulation zone” for the Earth’s energy balance, with a great deal of excess solar energy being exported to help warm the rest of the planet. Detection and characterization of climate change in the Tropics is therefore a matter of great concern. Assessing the ability of climate models to reproduce this change is an important part of determining the fidelity with which the models can be expected to forecast the way climate will change in response to future increases in greenhouse gas content.
Figure 1: The Qori Kallis Glacier in the Peruvian Andes
In a paper in Geoscience Canada, Veizer (2005) states that ‘the multitude of empirical observations favours celestial phenomena as the most important driver of terrestrial climate on most time scales‘. This paper was cited by a contributor to a debate on the website openDemocracy . In short, the argument is that the cosmic ray flux (CRF, also denoted as ‘GCR’ – galactic cosmic rays – in some papers) is the most important factor affecting our climate. Since this issue is likely to crop up from time to time, it is worth taking a closer look at the Veizer (2005) paper ( Here is a link to short summary, but the actual paper requires subscription). [Update: The actual paper is now available as supplemental material on the Geoscience Canada website.] I will try to show that CRF explanation for the recent global warming is easy to rule out.
A while ago, we wrote about Global Dimming – a reduction in downward solar radiation of about 4% or about 7W/m2 from 1961 to 1990 was found at stations worldwide. We said at the time that there were hints of a recovery underway post-1990; now research has been published showing this. From Dimming to Brightening: Decadal Changes in Solar Radiation at Earth’s Surface by Martin Wild et al. (Science 6 May 2005; 308: 847-850; subscription required for link) uses surface measurements; Do Satellites Detect Trends in Surface Solar Radiation? by Pinker et al., Science 2005 308: 850-854 uses satellites; both find a recovery of surface downward radiation since about 1990.