21 January 2010
The Real Uncertainties About Climate Change (and why Antarctica may have the answers.)
Posted by Dan Satterfield
Two interesting articles out this week about Climate change and they both have connections to my visit to the South Pole last week.
Stephen Schwartz at Brookhaven Nat. Labs. has a paper coming out in the AMS Journal of Climate asking why we have not warmed as much as expected with the rapid rise in greenhouse gases over the last century. Most researchers in the field believe that the climate sensitivity is around 3.6C for a doubling of CO2.
This number isn’t certain though. Schwartz point out that it may very well be dirty air holding down the temperature. If so, the climate sensitivity may be even higher than thought. This would mean it’s already too late to stop a planet wide warming of over 2 degrees Celsius. That would be bad.
You can read an excellent summary in the press release here about the paper.
The measurement of the background carbon dioxide levels are in the Earth’s atmosphere is extremely important. How fast is it rising? What changes do we see from year to year ? Season to season? It was first measured by Charles Keeling and the trace of rising CO2 you see frequently is named the Keeling curve in his honor.
There are two spots on Earth where the air is thought clean enough to get a good background level of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane. Mauna Loa in Hawaii (Middle of the Pacific), and the South Pole.
NOAA has a clean air laboratory at the Pole and during my visit I was handed a vial of “the cleanest air on Earth”. Unfortunately that clean air has 385 parts per million of CO2 in it. 200 years ago it would have been around 250 ppm. There is virtually NO scientific doubt about where the extra carbon has come from.
You and me brother. You and me.
A look at some of the pics I took at the South Pole last week might make you ask some pertinent questions. Like “what about the planes landing and machines and generators running at the Pole?”
The answer is this: NOAA has put their clean air laboratory upwind and blocked the area off from any vehicles. Since the wind blows the same direction about 90% of the time at Amundsen Scott Station, they get what is likely the cleanest air in the World there. The sector where the clean air lab is located is called the clean air sector. They carefully keep it that way.
Another article in NATURE by Quirin Schiermeier is titled THE REAL HOLES IN CLIMATE SCIENCE.
What’s so striking about his piece is something that anyone who keeps up to date on climate science probably already knows. This being, the real unknowns bear little resemblance to the silliness you see written by so called skeptics online!
Almost everyday on twitter I see people posting this stuff. Claims along the line of “It’s the sun stupid!”, “It was warmer in medieval times”, or “you cannot trust the models”. Even accusations of outright fraud with “they are manipulating the data”.
I find it strange that some poeple can so easily convince themselves that every scientific organisation in the world is wrong or lying to them. If these people had any real background in climate science, I’d worry more about it. They usually have nearly none.
Pick up the January 21st edition of NATURE and read Schiermeier’s piece. There is no scandal here, the IPCC listed 54 unknowns in their last report accroding to the story.
Paleoclimate data is one of those unknowns. Just what are the mechanisms that cause the temperature to rise and then kick off the carbon dioxide increases in the deep past? No one really knows. This doesn’t mean you’re being fed lies about the seriousness of climate change. It just means that we still have a lot to learn.
Scientists in Antractica are currently drilling a very deep hole in the Antractic Ice Sheet to get an ice core that may very well answer that question. I had a chance to spend over an hour with one of the scientists who is deeply involved in it at McMurdo Stations in Antarctica last week. We may have some real answers in less than three or four years.
There are a lot of unanswered questions about our climate and scientists are working in very difficult conditions at the bottom of the World to get the answers. Just remember that the real questions are not the ones you hear about on junk science web sites, twitter or on certain cable news outlets.
That stuff is farcical. Take the time to read some real science instead. I have recommended a ton of books in previous posts. In several cases I can vouch for the authors directly ( I’m honored to know them.)
Thanks for getting to the “bottom” of all this.