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. More »
by Rasmus Benestad, with contributions from Caspar & Eric
In a recent article in Climatic Change, D.G. Martinson and W.C. Pitman III discuss a new hypothesis explaining how the climate could change abruptly between ice ages and inter-glacial (warm) periods. They argue that the changes in Earth’s orbit around the Sun in isolation is not sufficient to explain the estimated high rate of change, and that there must be an amplifying feedback process kicking in. The necessity for a feedback is not new, as the Swedish Nobel Prize winner (Chemistry), Svante Arrhenius, suggested already in 1896 that CO2 could act as an amplification mechanism. In addition, there is the albedo feedback, where the amount of solar radiation that is reflected back into space, scales with the area of the ice- and snow-cover. And are clouds as well as other aspects playing a role.
The precise factors underlying the so-called “Little Ice Age” (LIA) have been intensely debated within the scientific community. One key metric in this debate is the spatial pattern of cooling which may provide a ‘fingerprint’ of the underlying climate change, whether that was externally forced (from solar or volcanic activity) or was part of an intrinsic mode of variability.
Surface temperatures in parts of Europe appear to have have averaged nearly 1°C below the 20th century mean during multidecadal intervals of the late 16th and late 17th century (and with even more extreme coolness for individual years), though most reconstructions indicate less than 0.5°C cooling relative to 20th century mean conditions for the Northern Hemisphere as a whole. There is much less data during these time intervals for the Southern Hemisphere, and that severely limits what conclusions can be drawn there. Just what combination of factors could explain this pattern of observations has remained somewhat enigmatic. A new ingredient in this debate comes with a recent paper in Nature by Lund et al. More »
Sometimes, I encounter arguments suggesting that since we cannot predict the weather beyond a couple of weeks, then it must be impossible to predict the climate in 100 years. Such statements tend to present themselves as a kind of revelation, often in social settings and parties after I have revealed for some of the guests that I’m a climatologist (if I say I work for the Meteorological Institute, I almost always get the question “so, what’s the weather going to be like tomorrow?”). Such occasions also tend to be times when I’m not too inclined to indulge in deep scientific or technical explanations. Or when talking to a journalist who wants an easy answer. In those cases I try to provide a short and simple, but convincing, explanation that is easy for most people to understand why climate can be predicted despite the chaotic nature of the weather (a more theoretical discussion is provided in the earlier post Chaos and Climate). One approach is to try to relate the topic to something with which they are familiar, such as to point to empirical observations which most accept (I suppose with hindsight it could be similar to the researchers in the early 20th century trying to convince that nuclear reactions were possible – just look at the Sun, and there is the proof! Or before that, the debate about whether atoms were real or not – just look at the blue sky, and you look at the proof…). I like to emphasised the words ‘weather‘ and ‘climate‘ above, because they mean different things.
In a sure-to-be widely publicized paper in the Dec. 1 Nature, Bryden et al. present results from oceanographic cruises at 25°N across the Atlantic showing a ~30% decline in the ocean overturning circulation. These cruises have been repeated every few years since 1957, and the last two cruises (in 1998 and 2004) show notable changes in the structure of the deep return circulation. In particular, the very deepest part of the return flow (at around 3000 to 5000 m) has reduced and moved up in the water column compared to previous decades. How solid is this result and what might it imply for climate? More »