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Perspectives from China

Filed under: — gavin @ 26 September 2007

I spent the last three weeks in China partly for a conference, partly for a vacation, and partly for a rest. In catching up over the last couple of days, I notice that the break has given me a slightly different perspective on a couple of issues that are relevant here.

First off, the conference I attended was on paleoceanography and there were was a lot of great new science presented, particularly concerning the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (around 55 million years ago), and on past changes to tropical rainfall patterns (see this week’s Nature) – two issues where there is a lot of relevance for climate change and its impacts today. I’ll discuss the new data in separate posts over the next few weeks, but for now I’ll just mention a topic that came up repeatedly in conversations over the week – that was how to improve the flow of information from the paleo community to the wider climate community, as represented by the IPCC for instance.

There was a palpable sense that insights from paleo-climate (in this case referring mainly to the ocean sediment record rather than ice cores or records from the last millennium) were not being given their due, and in fact were frequently being misused. In a panel discussion (hosted by Stefan), people lamented the lack of ‘synthesis’ that would be useful for the outside community, while others stressed (correctly) that synthesis is hard and frankly not well regarded within the community or their funders. I think this is a general problem; many of the incentives for success within an academic field – the push for novel techniques, the ownership of specific slices of data, the desire to emulate the paths to success of the previous generation – actually discourage work across the field that pulls together disparate sources of information.

In the paleo-oceanography case, this exhibits itself in the overwhelming focus on downcore records (the patterns of change at a single point through time) and the relative lack of integrated products that either show spatial patterns of change at a single time, or that try to extract common elements from multiple events in the past. There are of course numerous exceptions – the MARGO project that compiled records from the peak of the last ice age, or the work of PMIP for the mid-Holocene – but their visibility makes their uniqueness all the more obvious. There were no ideas presented that would fix this overnight, but the discussions showed that the community realises that there is a problem – even if the solutions are elusive.

My second thought on China came from travelling through some of the most polluted cites in the world. Aerosol haze that appeared continuous from Beijing to Hong Kong is such an obvious sign of human industrial activity that it simply takes your breath away (literally). In places, even on a clear day, you cannot see the sun – even if there is no cloud in the sky. Only in the mountains or in deeply rural parts of the country was blue sky in evidence. This is clearly an unsustainable situation (even if you are only thinking about the human health impacts) and it points the way, I think, to how China can be engaged on the climate change front. If reducing aerosol emissions can be done at the same time that greenhouse gases can be cut, the Chinese will likely jump at the chance. As an aside, I noticed that Compact Florescent Light bulbs were being used almost everywhere you looked, and that the majority of Shanghai’s motorbikes and scooters were electric rather than gasoline powered. These efforts clearly help, but they are just as clearly not sufficient on their own.

Finally, the limited access to the Internet that one gets in China (through a combination of having better things to do with one’s time and the sometimes capricious nature of what gets through the Great Firewall) allowed me to take a bit of break from the constant back and forth on the climate blogs. In getting back into it, one appreciates just how much time is wasted dealing with the most ridiculous of issues (Hansen’s imagined endorsement of a paper he didn’t write thirty six years ago, the debunking of papers that even E&E won’t publish, and the non-impact of the current fad for amateur photography) at the expense of anything substantive. In effect, if possibly not in intention, this wastes a huge amount of people’s time and diverts attention from more significant issues (at least in the various sections of the blogosphere). Serious climate bloggers might all benefit from not getting too caught up in it, and keeping an closer eye on the bigger picture. We will continue to try and do so here.

Aerosols: The Last Frontier?

Filed under: — group @ 21 February 2007 - (Português)

Guest commentary from Juliane Fry, UC Berkeley

The recently released IPCC 2007 Fourth Assessment Report Summary for Policymakers reminds us that aerosols remain the least understood component of the climate system. Aerosols are solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere, consisting of (in rough order of abundance): sea salt, mineral dust, inorganic salts such as ammonium sulfate (which has natural as well as anthropogenic sources from e.g. coal burning), and carbonaceous aerosol such as soot, plant emissions, and incompletely combusted fossil fuel. As should be apparent from this list, there are many natural sources of aerosol, but changes have been observed in particular, in the atmospheric loading of carbonaceous aerosol and sulphates, which originate in part from fossil fuel burning. While a relatively minor part of the overall aerosol mass, changes in the anthropogenic portion of aerosols since 1750 have resulted in a globally averaged net radiative forcing of roughly -1.2 W/m2, in comparison to the overall average CO2 forcing of +1.66 W/m2.
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Taking Cosmic Rays for a spin

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 October 2006 - (Español)

In 1859, John Tyndall’s laboratory experiments showed that water vapour and carbon dioxide absorb infra-red radiation and that they could therefore affect the climate of the Earth. As soon as his paper was published (1861) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, he put out a press release for the London newspapers explaining that this result implied that all past climate changes were now understood and all future climate changes could be predicted simply from a knowledge of the concentrations of these ‘greenhouse’ gases…

Fast forward to 2006: Svensmark and colleagues’ laboratory experiments show that highly ionizing radiation can create ultra-small aerosol particles. As soon as the paper is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, they put out a press release for the world’s newspapers explaining that this result implied that all past climate changes were now understood and all future climate changes could be predicted simply from a knowledge of the intensity of these ‘cosmic rays’….

History repeating itself? Well, not exactly. Tyndall actually restricted himself to describing his experiments and simply linking it to the work of Fourier a few decades earlier. It took more than another century before the credible quantitative estimates of these effects and their influence on past and possibly future climate were made, along with good enough observations of the gases to know that they have (and continue) to change significantly. However, Svensmark and colleagues, not wanting to wait for the credible quantitative results to come in, instead short circuited all of that tedious follow-up work, scaling up to realistic conditions, theoretical and modelling studies demonstrating that their effect was indeed viable, and simply declared in their press materials that the team had ‘discovered that cosmic rays play a big part in the everyday weather’ and ‘brings to a climax a scientific quest that has lasted two centuries’. Nobel prizes all round then.

Alas! if only it were that simple….

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Geo-engineering in vogue…

Filed under: — gavin @ 28 June 2006

There was an interesting article in the NY Times this week on possible geo-engineering solutions to the global warming problem. The story revolves around a paper that Paul Crutzen (Nobel Prize winner for chemistry related to the CFC/ozone depletion link) has written about deliberately adding sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere to increase the albedo and cool the planet – analogous to the natural effects of volcanoes. The paper is being published in Climatic Change, but unusually, with a suite of commentary articles by other scientists. This is because geo-engineering solutions do not have a good pedigree and, regardless of their merit or true potential, are often seized upon by people who for various reasons do not want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, these ideas keep popping up naturally since significant emission cuts continue to be seen as difficult to achieve, and so should be considered fairly. After all, if there was a cheaper way to deal with the CO2 problem, or even a way to buy time, shouldn’t we take it? More »

Current volcanic activity and climate?

Filed under: — gavin @ 16 May 2006

There has been a lot in the news recently about current volcanic activity – Merapi in Indonesia and Bezymianny in the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, but while most reports have focussed on the very real dangers to the local populace and air traffic, volcanoes can have important impacts on climate as well. However, there are a number of conditions that need to be fulfilled before an eruption will show up in the climate record. More »


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