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Posts Tagged ‘el nino’

Since I last wrote, I finished my summer research at Andrew Weaver’s lab (more on that in the weeks and months to come, as our papers work through peer review). I moved back home to the Prairies, which seem unnaturally hot, flat and dry compared to BC. Perhaps what I miss most is the ocean – the knowledge that the nearest coastline is more than a thousand kilometres away gives me an uncomfortable feeling akin to claustrophobia.

During that time, the last story I covered has developed significantly. Before September even began, Arctic sea ice extent reached record low levels. It’s currently well below the previous record, held in 2007, and will continue to decline for two or three more weeks before it levels off:

Finally, El Niño conditions are beginning to emerge in the Pacific Ocean. In central Canada we are celebrating, because El Niño tends to produce warmer-than-average winters (although last winter was mysteriously warm despite the cooling influence of La Niña – not a day below -30 C!) The impacts of El Niño are different all over the world, but overall it tends to boost global surface temperatures. Combine this effect with the current ascent from a solar minimum and the stronger-than-ever greenhouse gas forcing, and it looks likely that 2013 will break global temperature records. That’s still a long way away, though, and who knows what will happen before then?

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This is what the last few days have taught me: even if the code for climate models can seem dense and confusing, the output is absolutely amazing.

Late yesterday I discovered a page of plots and animations from the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. The most recent coupled global model represented on that page is CGCM3, so I looked at those animations. I noticed something very interesting: the North Atlantic, independent of the emissions scenario, was projected to cool slightly, while the world around it warmed up. Here is an example, from the A1B scenario. Don’t worry if the animation is already at the end, it will loop:

It turns out that this slight cooling is due to the North Atlantic circulation slowing down, as is very likely to happen from large additions of freshwater that change the salinity and density of the ocean (IPCC AR4 WG1, FAQ 10.2). This freshwater could come from either increased precipitation due to climate change, or meltwater from the Arctic ending up in the North Atlantic. Of course, we hear about this all the time – the unlikely prospect of the Gulf Stream completely shutting down and Europe going into an ice age, as displayed in The Day After Tomorrow - but, until now, I hadn’t realized that even a slight slowing of the circulation could cool the North Atlantic, while Europe remained unaffected.

Then, in chapter 8 of the IPCC, I read something that surprised me: climate models generate their own El Ninos and La Ninas. Scientists don’t understand quite what triggers the circulation patterns leading to these phenomena, so how can they be in the models? It turns out that the modellers don’t have to parameterize the ENSO cycles at all: they have done such a good job of reproducing global circulation from first principles that ENSO arises by itself, even though we don’t know why. How cool is that? (Thanks to Jim Prall and Things Break for their help with this puzzle.)

Jim Prall also pointed me to an HD animation of output from the UK-Japan Climate Collaboration. I can’t seem to embed the QuickTime movie (WordPress strips out some of the necessary HTML tags) so you will have to click on the link to watch it. It’s pretty long – almost 17 minutes – as it represents an entire year of the world’s climate system, in one-hour time steps. It shows 1978-79, starting from observational data, but from there it simulates its own circulation.

I am struck by the beauty of this output – the swirling cyclonic precipitation, the steady prevailing westerlies and trade winds, the subtropical high pressure belt clear from the relative absence of cloud cover in these regions. You can see storms sprinkling across the Amazon Basin, monsoons pounding South Asia, and sea ice at both poles advancing and retreating with the seasons. Scientists didn’t explicitly tell their models to do any of this. It all appeared from first principles.

Take 17 minutes out of your day to watch it – it’s an amazing stress reliever, sort of like meditation. Or maybe that’s just me…

One more quick observation: most of you are probably familiar with the naming conventions of IPCC reports. The First Assessment Report was FAR, the second was SAR, and so on, until the acronyms started to repeat themselves, so the Fourth Assessment Report was AR4. They’ll have to follow this alternate convention until the Eighth Annual Report, which will be EAR. Maybe they’ll stick with AR8, but that would be substantially less entertaining.

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My second rebuttal for Skeptical Science. Thanks to all the folks who helped to review it! Further suggestions are welcome, as always. -Kate

“What if global warming is just a natural cycle?” This argument is, perhaps, one of the most common raised by the average person, rather than someone who makes a career out of denying climate change. Cyclical variations in climate are well-known to the public; we all studied the ice ages in school. However, climate isn’t inherently cyclical.

A common misunderstanding of the climate system characterizes it like a pendulum. The planet will warm up to “cancel out” a previous period of cooling, spurred by some internal equilibrium. This view of the climate is incorrect. Internal variability will move energy between the ocean and the atmosphere, causing short-term warming and cooling of the surface in events such as El Nino and La Nina, and longer-term changes when similar cycles operate on decadal scales. However, internal forces do not cause climate change. Appreciable changes in climate are the result of changes in the energy balance of the Earth, which requires “external” forcings, such as changes in solar output, albedo, and atmospheric greenhouse gases. These forcings can be cyclical, as they are in the ice ages, but they can come in different shapes entirely.

For this reason, “it’s just a natural cycle” is a bit of a cop-out argument. The Earth doesn’t warm up because it feels like it. It warms up because something forces it to. Scientists keep track of natural forcings, but the observed warming of the planet over the second half of the 20th century can only be explained by adding in anthropogenic radiative forcings, namely increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

Of course, it’s always possible that some natural cycle exists, unknown to scientists and their instruments, that is currently causing the planet to warm. There’s always a chance that we could be totally wrong. This omnipresent fact of science is called irreducible uncertainty, because it can never be entirely eliminated. However, it’s very unlikely that such a cycle exists.

Firstly, the hypothetical natural cycle would have to explain the observed “fingerprints” of greenhouse gas-induced warming. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to discount the direct measurements showing an increased greenhouse effect, other lines of evidence point to anthropogenic causes. For example, the troposphere (the lowest part of the atmosphere) is warming, but the levels above, from the stratosphere up, are cooling, as less radiation is escaping out to space. This rules out cycles related to the Sun, as solar influences would warm the entire atmosphere in a uniform fashion. The only explanation that makes sense is greenhouse gases.

What about an internal cycle, perhaps from volcanoes or the ocean, that releases massive amounts of greenhouse gases? This wouldn’t make sense either, not only because scientists keep track of volcanic and oceanic emissions of CO2 and know that they are small compared to anthropogenic emissions, but also because CO2 from fossil fuels has its own fingerprints. Its isotopic signature is depleted in the carbon-13 isotope, which explains why the atmospheric ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 has been going down as anthropogenic carbon dioxide goes up. Additionally, atmospheric oxygen (O2) is decreasing at the same rate that CO2 is increasing, because oxygen is consumed when fossil fuels combust.

A natural cycle that fits all these fingerprints is nearly unfathomable. However, that’s not all the cycle would have to explain. It would also have to tell us why anthropogenic greenhouse gases are not having an effect. Either a century of basic physics and chemistry studying the radiative properties of greenhouse gases would have to be proven wrong, or the natural cycle would have to be unbelievably complex to prevent such dramatic anthropogenic emissions from warming the planet.

It is indeed possible that multidecadal climate variabilityespecially cycles originating in the Atlantic, could be contributing to recent warming, particularly in the Arctic. However, the amplitude of the cycles simply can’t explain the observed temperature change. Internal variability has always been superimposed on top of global surface temperature trends, but the magnitude – as well as the fingerprints – of current warming clearly indicates that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are the dominant factor.

Despite all these lines of evidence, many known climatic cycles are often trumpeted to be the real cause, on the Internet and in the media. Many of these cycles have been debunked on Skeptical Science, and all of them either aren’t in the warming phases, don’t fit the fingerprints, or both.

For example, we are warming far too fast to be coming out of the last ice age, and the Milankovitch cycles that drive glaciation show that we should be, in fact, very slowly going into a new ice age (but anthropogenic warming is virtually certain to offset that influence).

The “1500-year cycle” that S. Fred Singer attributes warming to is, in fact, a change in distribution of thermal energy between the poles, not a net increase in global temperature, which is what we observe now.

The Little Ice Age following the Medieval Warm Period ended due to a slight increase in solar output (changes in both thermohaline circulation and volcanic activity also contributed), but that increase has since reversed, and global temperature and solar activity are now going in opposite directions. This also explains why the 11-year solar cycle could not be causing global warming.

ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) and PDO (Pacific Decadal Oscillation) help to explain short-term variations, but have no long-term trend, warming or otherwise. Additionally, these cycles simply move thermal energy between the ocean and the atmosphere, and do not change the energy balance of the Earth.

As we can see, “it’s just a natural cycle” isn’t just a cop-out argument – it’s something that scientists have considered, studied, and ruled out long before you and I even knew what global warming was.

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