There is a new paper in Science this week on changes to atmospheric visibility. In clear sky conditions (no clouds), this is related mainly to the amount of aerosols (particulate matter) in the air (but is slightly dependent on the amount of water vapour as well, which is corrected for in this study). The authors report that the clear-sky visibility has decreased almost everywhere (particularly in Asia) from 1973 to 2007, with the exception of Europe where visibility has increased (consistent with the ‘brightening trend’ reported recently). Trends in North American stations seem relatively flat.
There is another story that didn’t get as much press when it came out late last year but that is highly relevant to this issue – whether any of the efforts that the Chinese authorities to reduce air pollution ahead of the Olympics last year had any impact. To the extent that they did, they might point the way to reducing aerosols and other pollutants across Asia, but it might also reveal how hard it is to do so.
Geoengineering is increasingly being discussed (not so sotto voce any more) in many forums. The current wave of interest has been piqued by Paul Crutzen’s 2005 editorial and a number of workshops (commentary) and high profile advocacy. But most of the discussion has occurred in almost total ignorance of the consequences of embarking on such a course.
A wider range of people have now started to publish relevant studies – showing clearly the value of continued research on the topic – and a key one came out this week in JGR-Atmospheres. Robock et al used a coupled GCM with interactive aerosols to see what would happen if they injected huge amounts of SO2 (the precursor of sulphate aerosols) into the tropical or Arctic stratosphere. This is the most talked about (and most feasible) geoengineering idea, based on the cooling impacts of large tropical volcanic eruptions (like Mt. Pinatubo in 1991). Bottom line? This is no panacea.
Everyone can probably agree that the climate system is complex. Not only do the vagaries of weather patterns and ocean currents make it hard to see climate changes, but the variability in what are often termed the Earth System components complicates the picture enormously. These components – specifically aerosols (particulates in the air – dust, soot, sulphates, nitrates, pollen etc.) and atmospheric chemistry (ozone, methane) – are both affected by climate and affect climate, since aerosols and ozone can interact, absorb, reflect or scatter solar and thermal radiation. This makes for a rich research environment, but can befuddle the unwary.
“during this year a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness… and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear.”
This quote from Procopius of Caesarea is matched by other sources from around the world pointing to something – often described as a ‘dry fog’ – and accompanied by a cold summer, crop failures and a host of other problems. There’s been a TV special, books and much newsprint speculating on its cause – volcanoes, comets and other catastrophes have been suggested. But this week there comes a new paper in GRL (Larsen et al, 2008) which may provide a definitive answer….
Readers might remember a minor kerfuffle in EOS (the AGU house journal) in February this year in which Gerald Stanhill claimed to find a paradox in the contemporaneous effects of global warming and global dimming (a long term reduction of surface solar radiation, mainly due to aerosols and clouds). The article attracted attention mainly because the paradox was claimed to “pose [a challenge] to the consensus explanation of climate change”.
Rather than point out the subtle confusions (between surface and tropospheric forcing, and local and global signals) here, I and two co-authors wrote a comment to the journal. After a number of avoidable and unavoidable delays, this comment (along with another one and a reply) have all now appeared in EOS (Nov 6 edition). By now of course, the original piece has been long forgotten and so the point in having the correspondence printed is unclear, but still…
For those that care, I’ll link our comment once it’s been posted on the GISS website (now available here), but the bottom line is clearly seen in the following figure:
That is, if you take all of the IPCC AR4 models (now called the CMIP3 ensemble), then over the twentieth century all of them show varying degrees of global warming, while at the same time they show significant global dimming. An earlier paper of ours had pointed to the aerosols (unsurprisingly) being the dominant cause for long term changes in dimming, but that changes in clouds on a decadal basis were responsible for much of the shorter term variability. Thus there doesn’t appear to be much ‘paradox’ left to worry about – both dimming and warming are seen in models and in observations.
Apologies for appearing to push my own papers here (not something we like to do particularly), but the published comment would have been better done as a blog post in February. There may be a lesson there….
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