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AMOC slowdown: Connecting the dots

Filed under: — stefan @ 19 May 2016

I want to revisit a fascinating study that recently came from (mainly) the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab in Princeton. It looks at the response of the Atlantic Ocean circulation to global warming, in the highest model resolution that I have seen so far. That is in the CM2.6 coupled climate model, with 0.1° x 0.1° degrees ocean resolution, roughly 10km x 10km. Here is a really cool animation.

When this model is run with a standard, idealised global warming scenario you get the following result for global sea surface temperature changes.


Fig. 1. Sea surface temperature change after doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration in a scenario where CO2 increases by 1% every year. From Saba et al. 2016.

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Recycling Carbon?

Filed under: — stefan @ 9 May 2016

Guest commentary by Tony Patt, ETH Zürich

This morning I was doing my standard reading of the New York Times, which is generally on the good side with climate reporting, and saw the same old thing: an article about a potential solution, which just got the story wrong, at least incomplete. The particular article was about new technologies for converting CO2 into liquid fuels. These could be important if they are coupled with air capture of CO2, and if the energy that fuels them is renewable: this could be the only realistic way of producing large quantities of liquid fuel with no net CO2 emissions, large enough (for example) to supply the aviation sector. But the article suggested that this technology could make coal-fired power plants sustainable, because it would recycle the carbon. Of course that is wrong: to achieve the 2°C target we need to reduce the carbon intensity of the energy system by 100% in about 50 years, and yet the absolute best that a one-time recycling of carbon can do is to reduce the carbon intensity of the associated systems by 50%.

The fact is, there is a huge amount of uncritical, often misleading media coverage of the technological pathways and government policies for climate mitigation. As with the above story, the most common are those suggesting that approaches that result in a marginal reduction of emissions will solve the problem, and fail to ask whether those approaches also help us on the pathway towards 100% emissions reduction, or whether they take us down a dead-end that stops well short of 100%. There are also countless articles suggesting that the one key policy instrument that we need to solve the problem is a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. We know, from two decades of social-science research, that these instruments do work to bring about marginal reductions in emissions, largely by stimulating improvements in efficiency. We also know that, at least so far, they have done virtually nothing to stimulate investment in the more sweeping changes in energy infrastructure that are needed to eliminate reliance on fossil fuels as the backbone of our system, and hence reduce emissions by 100%. We also know that other policy instruments have worked to stimulate these kinds of changes, at least to a limited extent. One thing we don’t know is what combination of policies could work to bring about the changes fast enough in the future. That is why this is an area of vigorous social science research. Just as there are large uncertainties in the climate system, there are large uncertainties in the climate solution system, and misreporting on these uncertainties can easily mislead us.

It’s fantastic that web sites like Real Climate and Climate Feedback re out there to clear some of the popular misconceptions about how the climate system functions. But if we care about actually solving the problem of climate change, then we also need to work continuously to clear the misconceptions, arising every day, about the strategies to take us there.

Anthony Patt is professor at the ETH in Zurich; his research focuses on climate policy

What drives uncertainties in adapting to sea-level rise?

Filed under: — stefan @ 17 March 2016

Guest article by Sally Brown, University of Southampton

Let me get this off my chest – I sometimes get frustrated at climate scientists as they love to talk about uncertainties! To be sure, their work thrives on it. I’m someone who researches the projected impacts and adaptation to sea-level rise and gets passed ‘uncertain’ climate data projections to add to other ‘uncertain’ data projections in my impact modellers work bag. But climate scientists do a good job. Without exploring uncertainties, science loses robustness, but uncertainties in combination can become unbounded and unhelpful to end users.

Let’s take an adaptation to sea-level rise as an example: With increasing scientific knowledge, acceptance and mechanisms that would allow adaptation to potentially occur, one would think that adaptation would be straight forward to implement. Not so. Instead of hard and fast numbers, policy makers are faced with wide ranges of uncertainties from different sources, making decision making challenging. So what uncertainties are there in the drivers of change, and can understanding these uncertainties enable better decisions for adaptation?

Prior to considering adaptation in global or regional models, or implementation at local level, drivers of change and their impacts (and thus uncertainties) require analysis – here are a few examples. More »

Millennia of sea-level change

How has global sea level changed in the past millennia? And how will it change in this century and in the coming millennia? What part do humans play? Several new papers provide new insights.

2500 years of past sea level variations

This week, a paper will appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) with the first global statistical analysis of numerous individual studies of the history of sea level over the last 2500 years (Kopp et al. 2016 – I am one of the authors). Such data on past sea level changes before the start of tide gauge measurements can be obtained from drill cores in coastal sediments. By now there are enough local data curves from different parts of the world to create a global sea level curve.

Let’s right away look at the main result. The new global sea level history looks like this:


Fig. 1 Reconstruction of the global sea-level evolution based on proxy data from different parts of the world. The red line at the end (not included in the paper) illustrates the further global increase since 2000 by 5-6 cm from satellite data. More »


  1. R.E. Kopp, A.C. Kemp, K. Bittermann, B.P. Horton, J.P. Donnelly, W.R. Gehrels, C.C. Hay, J.X. Mitrovica, E.D. Morrow, and S. Rahmstorf, "Temperature-driven global sea-level variability in the Common Era", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 113, pp. E1434-E1441, 2016.

Blizzard Jonas and the slowdown of the Gulf Stream System

Filed under: — stefan @ 24 January 2016

Blizzard Jonas on the US east coast has just shattered snowfall records. Both weather forecasters and climate experts have linked the high snowfall amounts to the exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures off the east coast. In this post I will examine a related question: why are sea surface temperatures so high there, as shown in the snapshot from Climate Reanalyzer below?



I will argue that this warmth (as well as the cold blob in the subpolar Atlantic) is partly due to a slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), sometimes referred to as the Gulf Stream System, in response to global warming. There are two points to this argument:

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