RealClimate logo

How do we know that recent CO2 increases are due to human activities?

Filed under: — eric @ 16 December 2004

An updated version of this post is now available.

The fact that CO2 increases in the past 150 years are due virtually entirely to human activities is so well established that one rarely sees it questioned. Yet is is quite reasonable to ask how we know this.

There are actually multiple, largely independent lines of reasoning, discussed in some detail in the IPCC TAR report, Chapter 3. One of the best illustrations of this point, however, is not given in IPCC. Indeed, it seems not all that well appreciated in the scientific community, and is worth making more widely known.

Carbon is composed of three different isotopes 14C, 13C and 12C of which 12C is the most common and 14C (used for dating purposes) is only about 1 in 1 trillion atoms. 13C is about 1% of the total.

Over the last few decades, isotope geochemists have worked together with tree rings experts to construct a time series of atmospheric 14C variations over the last 10,000 years. This work is motivated by a variety of questions, most having to do with increasing the accuracy of the radiocarbon dating method. A byproduct of this work is that we also have a very nice record of atmospheric 13C variations through time, and what we find is that at no time in the last 10,000 years are the 13C/12C ratios in the atmosphere as low as they are today. Furthermore, the 13C/12C ratios begin to decline dramatically just as the CO2 starts to increase — around 1850 AD. This is no surprise because fossil fuels have lower 13C/12C ratios than the atmosphere.

The total change is about 0.15%, which sounds very small but is actually very large relative to natural variability. Although it has proved quite challenging to do the analyses, there are a limited number of measurements of the 13C/12C ratio in ice cores. The results show that the full glacial-to-interglacial change in 13C/12C of the atmosphere — which took many thousand years — was about 0.03% 00 or about 5 times less than that observed in the last 150 years. The ice core data also agree quite well with the tree ring data where these data sets overlap.

I will put a couple of plots up when I get a chance. For those who are interested, some relevant references are: Stuiver, M., Burk, R. L. and Quay, P. D. 1984. 13C/12C ratios and the transfer of biospheric carbon to the atmosphere. J. Geophys. Res. 89, 1731�1748. for tree rings, and
Francey, R.J., Allison, C.E., Etheridge, D.M., Trudinger, C.M., Enting, I.G., Leuenberger, M., Langenfelds, R.L., Michel, E., Steele, L.P., 1999. A 1000-year high precision record of d 13Cin atmospheric CO. Tellus 51B, 170�193.

Why does the stratosphere cool when the troposphere warms?

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 December 2004 - (Français)

This post is obsolete and wrong in many respects. Please see this more recent post for links to the answer.

14/Jan/05: This post was updated in the light of my further education in radiation physics.
25/Feb/05: Groan…and again.

Recent discussions of climate change (MSU Temperature Record, ACIA) have highlighted the fact that the stratosphere is cooling while the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and surface appear to be warming. The stratosphere lies roughly 12 to 50 km above the surface and is marked by a temperature profile that increases with height. This is due to the absorbtion by ozone of the sun’s UV radiation and is in sharp contrast to the lower atmosphere. There it generally gets colder as you go higher due to the expansion of gases as the pressure decreases. Technically, the stratosphere has a negative ‘lapse rate’ (temperature increases with height), while the lower atmosphere’s lapse rate is positive.

More »