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Mercury, the other geologically persistent planetary poison

Filed under: — david @ 29 October 2018

The thing that really gets me in the gut about global warming from fossil fuel combustion is how long it will last. Carbon mined from the deep Earth and injected into the “fast carbon cycle” of the atmosphere, ocean, and land surface will continue to affect atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and climate, for hundreds of thousands of years into the future, unless we clean up the atmosphere ourselves.

It turns out that human emissions of the element mercury (Hg) will elevate mercury concentrations in the environment, and in upper trophic-level seafood, for thousands of years into the future. There are a lot of parallels to the carbon cycle. But, unlike the carbon cycle, the mercury cycle would be impossible to clean up.
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Cracking the Climate Change Case

I have an op-ed in the New York Times this week:

How Scientists Cracked the Climate Change Case
The biggest crime scene on the planet is the planet. We know the earth is warming, but who or what is causing it?
Emilia Miękisz

Many of you will recognise the metaphor from previous Realclimate pieces (this is earliest one I think, from 2007), and indeed, the working title was “CSI: Planet Earth”. The process description and conclusions are drawn from multiple sources on the attribution of recent climate trends (here, here etc.), as well the data visualization for surface temperature trends at Bloomberg News.

There have been many comments about this on Twitter – most appreciative, some expected, and a few interesting. The expected criticisms come from people who mostly appear not to have read the piece at all (“Climate has changed before!” – a claim that no-one disputes), and a lot of pointless counter-arguments by assertion. Of the more interesting comment threads, was one started by Ted Nordhaus who asked

My response is basically that it might be old hat for him (and maybe many readers here), but I am constantly surprised at the number of people – even those concerned about climate – who are unaware of how we do attribution and how solid the science behind the IPCC statements is. And judging by many of the comments, it certainly isn’t the case that these pieces are only read by the already convinced. But asking how many people are helped to be persuaded by articles like this is a valid question, and I don’t really know the answer. Anyone?

Climate without Borders: putting changing climate into a new perspective

Filed under: — rasmus @ 14 October 2018

Guest post by Mike Favetta

The goal of “Climate without Borders” (CwB) is to unite TV weather presenters from all over the world and bring scientific knowledge to a broader public. This, in turn, creates climate awareness and creates support for the urgent climate action needed. Although the name suggests a kind of connection with Doctors without Borders, members of Climate without Borders won’t be traveling to island nations about to be submerged, like Tuvalu, or areas sub and physically volunteering in the refugee efforts. Rather, Climate without Borders is a network of TV weathercasters around the world who aim to communicate the science, and impact of climate change, and give warnings to their local viewing populations. This makes the organization unique in the world. TV weathercasters are trusted sources of information, and they know the nuances of their audience’s cultures to make messages more understandable. Exploiting this relationship is an effective way of sharing climate information that people will listen to and comprehend.

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Pre-industrial anthropogenic CO2 emissions: How large?

Filed under: — mike @ 11 October 2018

Guest article by William Ruddiman

Fifteen years after publication of Ruddiman (2003), the early anthropogenic hypothesis is still debated, with relevant evidence from many disciplines continuing to emerge. Recent findings summarized here lend support to the claim that greenhouse-gas emissions from early agriculture (before 1850) were large enough to alter atmospheric composition and global climate substantially.

Marine isotopic stage (MIS) 19 is the closest orbital analog to the current MIS 1 interglaciation (Tzedakis et al., 2012), with similarly small changes in precession (εsinω) and nearly synchronous peaks in sin and obliquity (Fig. 1a, b). MIS 11 was once claimed to be the closest MIS 1 analog (for example, Broecker and Stocker, 2006), but that claim is now rejected because obliquity and precession peaks in MIS 11 were far offset.

Figure 1 Comparison of (a) obliquity and (b) precession (εsinω) trends during MIS19, (green), MIS11 (black) and MIS1 (red). Based on Tzedakis et al. (2012). (c) CO2 trends during MIS19 (black) and MIS1 (red). CO2 data for MIS 19 are from Dome C (Bereiter et al. 2015). CO2 data for MIS 1 are from Law Dome (MacFarling Meure et al. 2006) and Dome C (Monnin et al. 2001, 2004) for MIS1.


With MIS 11 eliminated as an analog, the focus is on MIS 19. The CO2 signals early in MIS 1 and MIS 19 (Fig. 1c) reached nearly identical peaks of 270 and 269 ppm, after which the MIS 1 value fell for 4000 years but then rose by 20 ppm to a late pre-industrial 280-285 ppm. In contrast, the MIS 19 CO2 trend continued downward for more than 10,000 years to 245-250 ppm by the time equivalent to the present day. This value is consistent with the 240-245 ppm level proposed in the early anthropogenic hypothesis for a natural Holocene world (with no human overprint). The 35-ppm difference between the two interglaciations is close to the 40-ppm Holocene anomaly inferred by Ruddiman (2003).

A GCM simulation of the MIS 19 time equivalent to today by Vavrus et al. (2018) indicates that the low CO2 values would have caused year-round snow cover (indicative of incipient glaciation) in the Canadian Archipelago and over Baffin Island (an area roughly the size of Greenland), as well as other Arctic regions (see also Ganopolski et al., 2014).

Ruddiman (2003) estimated pre-industrial carbon emissions of 300-320 Gt, based on a back-of-the-envelope compilation of the incomplete forest clearance histories then available (Table 1). [One Gt is one billion tons]. That estimate was for a while rejected as too high by a factor of 5 to 10 (Joos et al., 2004; Pongratz et al., 2008; Stocker et al., 2011. However, Kaplan et al. (2011) found that those estimates had been biased downward because they assumed much smaller early per-capita clearance than the large amounts shown by actual historical data. Those estimates also ignored areas that had been cleared and were not in active agricultural use, but had not yet reforested. Adjusting for these factors, Kaplan and colleagues estimated pre-industrial emissions of 343 GtC.

Erb et al. (2017) averaged 7 estimates of the amount of carbon that would currently be stored in Earth’s potential natural vegetation had there been no human activities (910 GtC) compared to the 460 GtC carbon actually stored there today. They attributed the difference of 450 GtC to cumulative vegetation removal by humans (mostly deforestation). With ~140 GtC of clearance having occurred during the industrial era, that left an estimated 310 GtC as the total removed and emitted to the atmosphere during pre-industrial time. In a similar analysis, Lorenz and Lal (2018) estimated pre-industrial carbon emissions of ‘up to’ 357 GtC.

Studies in other disciplines have begun adding direct ground-truth evidence about early clearance. Analyses of pollen in hundreds of European lake cores (Fyfe et al., 2014; Roberts et al, 2018) show that forest vegetation began to decrease after 6000 years ago and reached near-modern levels before the start of the industrial era (Fig. 2). In China, compilations of over 50,000 archaeological sites by Li et al. (2009) and Hosner et al. (2016) show major increases of farming settlements in previously forested areas beginning 7,000 years ago. These extensive compilations support the above estimates of large early anthropogenic clearance and C emissions.

Figure 2. Evidence of early forest clearance in Europe. (A) Locations of cores in the European pollen database. Cores used for pollen summary in B are shown in red (Fyfe et al., 2015). (B) Changes in forest, open, and semi-open (mixed forest and open) vegetation plotted as ‘pseudobiome’ sums.


As this wide-ranging multi-disciplinary evidence has emerged, some scientists continue to reject the early anthropogenic hypothesis. Most of the opposition is based on a geochemical index (δ13CO2) measured in CO2 contained in air bubbles trapped in ice cores. The δ13CO2 index shows the relative balance through time between the amount of 12C-rich terrestrial carbon from the land and 13C-neutral carbon from the ocean. The small 13C decrease in atmospheric CO2 during the last 7000 years has been interpreted as indicating minimal input of 12C-rich terrestrial carbon during that time (Broecker and Stocker, 2006; Elsig et al., 2009). In a July 20, 2018 post, Jeff Severinghaus estimated the early human contribution to the observed CO2 rise as “1 to 2 ppm at the most”, or just 5-10% of the recent estimates reviewed in Table 1.

Other scientists (Stocker et al., 2018; Ruddiman et al., 2016) have pointed out that the δ13CO2 index cannot be used to isolate the amount of deforestation carbon unless all significant carbon sources and sinks are well constrained. The compilation by Yu (2011) indicating that ~300 Gt of terrestrial (12C-rich) carbon were buried in boreal peats during the last 7000 years shows that this constraint had not been satisfied in previous studies. Burial of ~300 GtC in boreal peats requires a counter-balancing emission of more than 300 GtC of terrestrial carbon during the last 7000 years, and the discussion above summarizes evidence that pre-industrial deforestation can fill that deficit. Even now, however, carbon exchanges (whether sources or sinks) in non-peat permafrost areas and in river floodplains and deltas during the last 7000 years remain poorly known.

Scientists trying to make up their minds about this still-ongoing debate can now weigh wide-ranging multi-disciplinary evidence for large early forest clearance against reliance on the as-yet poorly constrained δ13CO2 index.


Bereiter, B., S. Eggleston, J. Schmitt, C. Nehrbass-Ahles, T. F. Stocker, et al. (2015), Revision of the EPICA Dome C CO2 record from 800 to 600 kyr before present, Geophys. Res. Lett., 42, 542–549.

Broecker, W. S. and T. L. Stocker (2006), The Holocene CO2 rise: Anthropogenic or natural? EOS Trans. Amer. Geophysical Union 87, 27.

Erb, K.-H., T. Kastner, C. Plutzar, C., A. L. S Bais, N. Carvalhai., et al. (2018), Unexpectedly large impact of forest management on global vegetation biomass. Nature 553, 73-76.

Elsig J., J. Schmitt, D. Leuenberger, R. Schneider, M. Eyer, et al. (2009), Stable isotope constraints on Holocene carbon cycle changes from an Antarctic ice core. Nature 461, 507-510.

Fyfe, R. M., J. Woodbridge, and N. Roberts (2015), From forest to farmland: pollen-inferred land cover changes across Europe using the pseudobiomization approach. Global Change Biology 20, 1197-1212.

Ganopolski, A., R. Winkelmann and H. J. Schellenhuber, (2014), Critical insolation-CO2 relation for diagnosing past and future glacial inception. Nature 529, 200-203.

Hosner, D., M. Wagner, P. E. Tarasov, X. Chen, and C. Leipe (2016), Spatiotemporal distribution patterns of archaeological sites in China during the Neolithic and Bronze Age: An overview. The Holocene 26, 1576-1583.

Joos F, Gerber S, Prentice IC, et al. (2004) Transient simulations of Holocene atmospheric carbon dioxide and terrestrial carbon since the last glacial maximum. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 18. DOI: 10.1029/2003GB002156.

Kaplan J. O, K. M. Krumhardt, E. C. Ellis, W. F. Ruddiman, C. Lemmen, et al. Goldewijk (2011), Holocene carbon emissions as a result of anthropogenic land cover change. The Holocene 21, 775-792.

Li, X., J. Dodson, J. Zhou, and X. Zhou (2008), Increases of population and expansion of rice agriculture in Asia, and anthropogenic methane emissions since 5000 BP. Quat. Int. 202, 41-50.

Lorenz, K. and R. Lal (2018), Agricultural land use and the global carbon cycle. In: Carbon sequestration in agricultural systems, p. 1-37.

MacFarling Meure, C., D. Etheridge, C. Trudinger, P. Steele, R. Langenfelds, et al. (2006), Law Dome CO2, CH4 and N2O ice core records extended to 2000 years BP. Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L14810, doi:10.1029/2006GL026152.

Monnin E., A. Indermühle, A. Dällenbach, J. Flückinger, B. Stauffer, et al. (2001), Atmospheric CO¬¬2 concentrations over the Last Glacial Termination. Science, 291, 112-114.

Pongratz, J., C. Reick, T. Raddatz, and M. A. Claussen (2008), A reconstruction of global agricultural areas and land cover for the last millennium. Global Geochemical Cycles 22, GB3018m doi:10.1029/2008GLO36394.

Roberts N, R. M. Fyfe, J. Woodbridge, et al. (2018), Europe’s forests: A pollen-based synthesis for the last 11,000 years. Nature Scientific Reports. DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-18646-7
Ruddiman, W. F. (2003), The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Climatic Change 61, 261-293.

Ruddiman, W. F., D. Q. Fuller, J. E Kutzbach, P. C. Tzedakis, J. O. Kaplan et al. (2016), Late Holocene climate: Natural or anthropogenic? Rev. of Geophys. 54, 93-118.

Stocker, B. D., K. Strassmann, and F. Joos (2011), Sensitivity of Holocene atmospheric CO2 and the modern carbon budget to early human land use: analyses with a process-base model. Biogeosciences 8, 69-88.

Stocker, B.D., Z. Yu, and F. Joos (2018), Constraining CO2 emissions from different Holocene land-use histories: does the carbon budget add up? PAGES 26, 6-7.

Tzedakis, P. C., J. E. T. Channell, D. A. Hodell, H. F. Kleiven, and L. K. Skinner (2012), Determining the length of the current interglacial. Nature Geoscience 5, 138-141.

Vavrus, S. J., F. He, J. E. Kutzbach, W. F. Ruddiman, and P. C. Tzedakis (2018), Glacial inception in marine isotope stage 19: An orbital analog for a
natural Holocene. Nature Scientific Reports 81, doi:10.1038/s41598-018-28419-5.

IPCC Special Report on 1.5ºC

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 October 2018

Responding to climate change is far more like a marathon than a sprint.

The IPCC 1.5ºC Special report (#SR15) has been released:

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Unforced variations: Oct 2018

Filed under: — group @ 1 October 2018

This month’s open thread on climate science topics. Dominant theme this month will probably be the release of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5ºC. The final report will be released later this week, and when it does we’ll give a brief summary. The hastag to follow on Twitter is #SR15.

European climate services take an important leap forward 

An important milestone was passed during the second general assembly of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, which took place in Berlin on Sept 24-28 (twitter hashtag '#C3SGA18'). The European climate service has become operational, hosted by the European Centre for Medium-Range Forecasts (ECMWF).

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A report from the European Meteorological Society’s annual meeting 2018

Filed under: — rasmus @ 7 September 2018

If you want to make a difference as a scientist, you need to make sure that people understand the importance of your work. Conferences give you one opportunity to explain what you’ve found out.

I sometimes wonder if the value of attending conferences is sufficiently appreciated. You can save time getting an overview over your field of research and catch up on the latest developments, which would take many weeks just from reading papers (and it gets harder these days to find the time reading papers).

Another benefit is being able to meet colleagues and discuss the latest findings and your results. In addition to sharing your thoughts, you represent your institution and enhance its visibility. Organisations pay a lot of money for increased visibility. 

This week, I have listened to many good and interesting talks at the European Meteorological Society’s (EMS) annual meeting in Budapest (#emsannual2018), a meeting place for weather and climate experts across Europe and the rest of the world.

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Forced responses: Sep 2018

Filed under: — group @ 3 September 2018

This thread is the bimonthly open thread for discussion of climate solutions. A good starting point might be this clear description from Glen Peters on the feasibility of staying below 2ºC. Please stick to substantive points and refrain from attacking other commenters (as opposed to their ideas). The open thread for climate science issues is here.

Unforced Variations: Sep 2018

Filed under: — group @ 3 September 2018

This month’s open thread on climate science topics. We are well into Arctic melt season (so keep track of Neven’s Arctic Sea Ice blog for more info). Another link is the NY Times Daily podcast on the interesting-yet-flawed NYTimes Magazine “Losing Earth” piece (which is useful if you didn’t get around to finishing the written article yet). Remember to please stick to climate science topics on this thread.