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This is Part 2 of my thoughts on the state of sea-level research. Here is Part 1.
A topic that keeps coming up in the literature is the discussion on a (roughly) 60-year cycle in sea level data; a nice recent paper on this is Chambers et al. in GRL (2012). One thing I like about this paper is its careful discussion of the sampling issue of the tide gauges, which means that variability in the tide gauges is not necessarily variability in the true global mean sea level (see Part 1 of this post). I want to add some thoughts on the interpretation of this variability. Consider this graph from my Response to Comments in Science (2007):
Fig. 1: Fifteen-year averages of the global mean temperature (blue, °C, GISS data) and rate of sea level rise (red, cm/year, Church&white data), both detrended.
D.P. Chambers, M.A. Merrifield, and R.S. Nerem, "Is there a 60-year oscillation in global mean sea level?", Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 39, pp. n/a-n/a, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2012GL052885
S. Rahmstorf, "Response to Comments on "A Semi-Empirical Approach to Projecting Future Sea-Level Rise"", Science, vol. 317, pp. 1866d-1866d, 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1141283
Progress has been made in recent years in understanding the observed past sea-level rise. As a result, process-based projections of future sea-level rise have become dramatically higher and are now closer to semi-empirical projections. However, process-based models still underestimate past sea-level rise, and they still project a smaller rise than semi-empirical models.
Sea-level projections were probably the most controversial aspect of the 4th IPCC report, published in 2007. As an author of the paleoclimate chapter, I was involved in some of the sea-level discussions during preparation of the report, but I was not part of the writing team for the projections. At the core of the controversy were the IPCC-projections which are based on process models (i.e. models that aim to simulate individual processes like thermal expansion or glacier melt). Many scientists felt that these models were not mature and understated the sea-level rise to be expected in future, and the IPCC report itself documented the fact that the models seriously underestimated past sea-level rise. (See our in-depth discussion published after the 4th IPCC report appeared.) That was confirmed again with the most recent data in Rahmstorf et al. 2012.
S. Rahmstorf, G. Foster, and A. Cazenave, "Comparing climate projections to observations up to 2011", Environmental Research Letters, vol. 7, pp. 044035, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/7/4/044035
Guest Commentary by Karen M. Shell, Oregon State University
Link to Part I.
Clouds are very pesky for climate scientists. Due to their high spatial and temporal variability, as well as the many processes involved in cloud droplet formation, clouds are difficult to model. Furthermore, clouds have competing effects on solar and terrestrial radiation. Increases in clouds increase reflected sunlight (a cooling effect) but also increase the greenhouse effect (a warming effect). The net effect of clouds at a given location depends the kind of clouds (stratus, cumulus etc.), their distribution in the vertical and on which radiative effect dominates.
Not only is it difficult to correctly represent clouds in climate models, but estimating how clouds and their radiative effects will change with global warming (i.e., the cloud feedback) is very difficult. Other physical feedbacks have more obvious links between temperature and the climate variable. For example, we expect and have strong evidence for the increase in water vapor in a warmer climate due to the increased saturation specific humidity, or the reduced reflection of sunlight due to the melting of snow and ice at higher temperature. However, there isn’t a simple thermodynamic relationship between temperature and cloud amount, and the complexities in the radiative impacts of clouds mean that an increase in clouds in one location may result in net heating, but would correspond to a cooling elsewhere. Thus, most of the uncertainty in the response of climate models to increases in CO2 is due to the uncertainty of the cloud feedback.
So how cool is it then that the recent paper by Fasullo and Trenberth estimates the net climate sensitivity without getting into the details of the cloud feedback then? Quite cool.
J.T. Fasullo, and K.E. Trenberth, "A Less Cloudy Future: The Role of Subtropical Subsidence in Climate Sensitivity", Science, vol. 338, pp. 792-794, 2012. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1227465
Climate sensitivity is a perennial topic here, so the multiple new papers and discussions around the issue, each with different perspectives, are worth discussing. Since this can be a complicated topic, I’ll focus in this post on the credible work being published. There’ll be a second part from Karen Shell, and in a follow-on post I’ll comment on some of the recent games being played in and around the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages.
A new year… so comments reflecting the past year in climate science, or looking forward to the next are particularly apropos.
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