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On December 11, 2005, The New York Times ran a story on record drought conditions in the Amazonas region of Brasil, linking it to global warming, and specifically the warm ocean temperatures in the North Atlantic that have also been linked to the ferocity of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. This prompted a response from Chris Mooney, calling for a comment from RealClimate about whether such an assertion is valid, as we earlier made it very clear that it is impossible to say whether one single extreme event in a very noisy environment – such as Hurricane Katrina – is related to climate change. So we decided to take a look at this phenomena, and address why there might be a connection and what it takes to make an attribution. More »
Every so often a scientific paper comes out that truly surprises. The results of Keppler et al in Nature this week is clearly one of those. They showed that a heretofore unrecognised process causes living plant material to emit methane (CH4, the second most important trace greenhouse gas), in quantities that appear to be very significant globally. This is surprising in two ways – firstly, CH4 emission is normally associated with anaerobic (oxygen-limited) environments (like swamps or landfills) but chemistry in plants is generally thought of as ‘aerobic’ i.e. not oxygen-limited, and secondly, because although the total budget for methane has some significant uncertainty associated with it (see the IPCC assessment here), the initial estimates of this effect (between 62–236 Tg/yr out of a total source of 500+ Tg/yr!) give numbers that might be difficult to incorporate without some significant re-evaluations elsewhere.
Reactions so far have been guarded, and there will undoubtedly be a scramble to check and refine the estimates of this process’s importance. Once the dust settles though, the situation may not be so different to before – some emissions may turn out to have been mis-identified, this source may not be as large as these initial estimates (10-30% of total sources) suggest, or it might radically challenge our current understanding of methane’s sources and sinks. However, the process by which this is decided will demonstrate clearly that the scientific method is alive and well in the climate sciences. That is, as long as a work is careful and the conclusions sound, papers that upset the apple cart can appear in the major journals and have a good chance of ending up being accepted by the rest of the field (providing the conclusions hold up of course!).
Update 19 Jan: The authors of the study have released a clarification of their study to counter some of the misleading conclusions that had appeared in the press.
Guest commentary by Cecilia Bitz, University of Washington
“Polar amplification” usually refers to greater climate change near the pole compared to the rest of the hemisphere or globe in response to a change in global climate forcing, such as the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHGs) or solar output (see e.g. Moritz et al 2002). Polar amplification is thought to result primarily from positive feedbacks from the retreat of ice and snow. There are a host of other lesser reasons that are associated with the atmospheric temperature profile at the poles, temperature dependence of global feedbacks, moisture transport, etc. Observations and models indicate that the equilibrium temperature change poleward of 70N or 70S can be a factor of two or more greater than the global average. More »