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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


How the IPCC Underestimated Climate Change – Scientific American article

Scientific American published an article summarizing what I’ve written about for a couple of years: the IPCC’s projections aren’t 100% correct.  Gasp – the horror!  But, contrary to what skeptics think, the direction the IPCC’s reports were wrong are opposite of what they claim.  The projections time and again underestimated future changes.  I think a valid complaint, and one I’ve made many times myself, is that the IPCC process is too conservative – it takes too long to get the kind of consensus they’re looking for.  Rapidly changing conditions are not well handled by the IPCC process.  When there is conflicting evidence of something, the IPCC has tended to say nothing in an effort not to upset anybody.  The good news is there are indications this is changing.  The list:

1. Emissions

This is the biggest one.  Too many studies focused on moderate emission pathways, when yearly updates showed our actual emissions were on the high range of those considered by the IPCC.  I actually posted on this two days ago: CO2 Emissions Continue to Track At Top of IPCC Range.  This has implications for every other process that follows.

2. Temperature

More accurately, energy in the climate system is the variable of interest.  It is easy to point out that temperatures since 2000 haven’t increased as much as projected.  It is also easy to compare observed trends since 1980 and claim AR4 models over-predicted temperature rise.  This conflates a couple of issues: the AR4 wasn’t used to project since 1980.  More importantly, the difference between observed trends since 1980 and projected temperatures from half of the AR4 models was less than 0.04°C (0.072°F).  That’s pretty darned small.  With respect to the trend since 2000, the real issue is energy gain.  The vast majority of energy has accumulated in the oceans:


More specifically, if the heat is transported quickly to the deep ocean (>2000ft), the sea surface temperature doesn’t increase rapidly.  Nor does atmosphere or land temperatures change.  This is true at least in the short-term.  When the ocean transports this heat from the deep back to the surface, we should be able to more easily measure that heat.  Put simply, the temporary hiatus of temperature rise is just that: temporary.  Are we prepared for when that hiatus ends?

The relatively small increase in near-surface air and land temperatures is thus explained.  The IPCC never claimed the 4.3° to 11.5°F temperature rise (AR4 projection) would happen by 2020 – it is likely to happen by 2100.  Expect more synergy between projected temperatures and observed temperatures in the coming years.  Also remember that climate is made up of long-term weather observations.

Additionally, aerosols emitted by developing nations have been observed to reflect some of the incoming solar radiation back to space.  Once these aerosols precipitate out of the atmosphere or are not emitted at some point in the future, the absorption of longwave radiation by the remaining greenhouse gases will be more prominent.  The higher the concentration of gases, the more radiation will be absorbed and the faster the future temperature rise is likely to be.  These aerosols are thus masking the signal that would otherwise be measured if they weren’t present.

3. Arctic Meltdown

This is the big story of 2012.  The Arctic sea ice melted in summer 2012 to a new record low: an area the size of the United States melted this year!  Even as late as 2007 (prior to the previous record-low melt), the IPCC projected that Arctic ice wouldn’t decrease much until at least 2050.  Instead, we’re decades ahead of this projection – despite only a relatively small global temperature increase in the past 25 years (0.15°C or so).  What will happen when temperatures increase by multiple degrees Centigrade?

4. Ice sheets

These are the land-based sheets, which are melting up to 100 years faster than the IPCC’s first three reports.  2007’s report was the first to identify more rapid ice sheet melt.  The problem is complex cryospheric dynamics.  Understandably, the most remote and inhospitable regions on Earth are the least studied.  Duh.  That’s changing, with efforts like the fourth International Polar Year, the results of which are still being studied and published.  Needless to say, modern instrumentation and larger field campaigns have resulted in advances in polar knowledge.

5. Sea Level Rise

It’s nice being relevant.  I just posted something new on this yesterday: NOAA Sea-Level Rise Report Issued – Dec 2012.  The 3.3mm of sea-level rise per year is higher than the 2001 report’s projection of 2mm per year.  Integrated over 100 years, that 1mm difference results in 4″ more SLR.  But again, with emission and energy underestimates, the 3.3mm rate of SLR is expected to increase in future decades, according to the latest research.  Again, another mm per year results in another 4″ 100 years from now.  Factors affecting SLR that the IPCC didn’t address in 2007 includes global ocean warming (warmer water takes up more volume), faster ice sheet melt, and faster glacial melt.  Additionally, feedback mechanisms are still poorly understood and therefore not well represented in today’s state-of-the-art models.

6. Ocean Acidification

The first 3 IPCC reports didn’t even mention this effect.  In the past 250 years, ocean acidity has increased by 30% – not a trivial amount!  As the article points out, research on this didn’t even start until after 2000.

7. Thawing Tundra

Another area that is not well-studied and therefore not well understood.  The mechanics and processes need to be observed so they can be modeled more effectively.  1.5 trillion tons of carbon are locked away in the currently frozen tundra.  If these regions thaw, as is likely since the Arctic has observed the most warming to date, methane could be released to the atmosphere.  Since methane acts as a more efficient GHG over short time frames, this could accelerate short-term warming much more quickly than projected (See temperatures above).  The SciAm article points out the AR5, to be released next year, will once again not include projections on this topic.

8. Tipping Points

This is probably the most controversial aspect of this list.  Put simply, no one knows where potential tipping points exist, if they do at all.  The only way we’re likely to find out about tipping points is by looking in the past some day in the future.  By then, of course, moving back to other side of the tipping point will be all but impossible on any time-frame relevant to people alive then.


There are plenty of problems with the UNFCCC’s IPCC process.  Underestimation of critical variables is but one problem plaguing it.  Blame it on scientists who, by training, are very conservative in their projections and language.  They also didn’t think policymakers would fail to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.  Do policymakers relying on the IPCC projections know of and/or understand this nuance?  If not, how robust will their decisions be?  The IPCC process needs to be more transparent, including allowing more viewpoints to be expressed, say in an Appendix compendium.  The risks associated with underestimating future change are higher than the opposite.


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Globe’s Oceans At Risk Of Mass Extinction

To many who have paid attention to the developing climate change crisis, the news that a mass extinction could occur in the world’s oceans shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise.  Climate change isn’t just about higher surface temperatures and slightly different precipitation patterns.  No, a set of issues are currently unfolding.  That set is getting more complex and more pertinent to our daily lives.  A preliminary report, issued by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), begins to detail just how dangerous our actions are to the oceans.  Among other things, the report’s findings are of critical importance because the panel found that ocean degeneration is already occurring at a much faster rate than has been previously projected.

“The findings are shocking,” Dr. Alex Rogers, IPSO’s scientific director, said in a statement released by the group. “This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime, and worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”

Indeed, recent research shows that the ocean’s temperature won’t recover to pre-Industrial Age levels for thousands of years.  The same thing goes for acidification and sea level rise.  If a mass extinction occurs, sea life won’t recover for hundreds of thousands to millions of years.  Since a majority of the world’s population is dependent on sea life for their daily sustenance, a mass extinction would have enormous ramifications for our species for longer than we’ve been a species.

So, what’s the problem?  Or better yet, what are the problems?  An increase of both hypoxia (low oxygen) and anoxia (lack of oxygen that creates “dead zones”) in the oceans, warming, and acidification are the causal factors of previous mass extinctions.  Guess what’s going on today?  Record-sized dead zones are occurring across the planet; the oceans have warmed and will continue to do so for at least hundreds of years; and the oceans are acidifying.  Both the warming and acidification are likely occurring at rates that are multiple times faster than what occurred naturally in the geologic past.

What needs to be done?

The IPSO report calls for such changes, recommending actions in key areas: immediate reduction of CO2 emissions, coordinated efforts to restore marine ecosystems, and universal implementation of the precautionary principle so “activities proceed only if they are shown not to harm the ocean singly or in combination with other activities.” The panel also calls for the UN to swiftly introduce an “effective governance of the High Seas.”

We hold the fate of global ecosystems in our hands.  It is solely up to the decisions of our species whether mass extinctions occur and the planet becomes uninhabitable by modern societies.  Will this report join the growing body that have been largely ignored in the past?  This report has received more attention in the corporate media than most reports of similar importance.  That’s a good thing.  But it means little if policy makers continue to drag their feet while enjoying their access to power.  That such a frivolous thing could spell the end of today’s ecosystems…

Cross-posted at myFDL and SquareState.

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New Arctic Ice Assessment: Faster Melt = Faster Sea Level Rise

Most of the projections in the science portion of the IPCC’s 2007 4th Assessment Report have been shown many times since its issuance to be too conservative.  Temperatures have risen faster; ice (sea- and land-based) has melted faster; ocean acidification and warming has happened faster, the number of extreme weather events has increased faster, etc.

I’ve written before about most of these.  I will take this space to write once again about polar ice melting faster than projected (according to observations) and the impact that will have on global coastlines.

According to the executive summary of a new assessment of Arctic climate, the international Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) reports that Arctic temperatures in the past six years were higher than at any time since measurements began in 1880.  Moreover, feedback mechanisms have already started.

What this means is the arctic sea ice area and global sea level projections made by the IPCC just 4 years ago underestimate this year’s conditions, which means they also very likely underestimate future conditions too.  In an updated projection that has deep significance for billions of people worldwide:

The melting of Arctic glaciers and ice caps, including Greenland’s massive ice sheet, are projected to help raise global sea levels by 35 to 63 inches (90-160 centimeters) by 2100, AMAP said, though it noted that the estimate was highly uncertain.

That’s up from a 2007 projection of 7 to 23 inches (19-59 centimeters) by the U.N. panel, which didn’t consider the dynamics of ice caps in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Is the difference between one-half to 2 feet and 3 feet to 5 feet significant?  Only those of us who are sane seem to think so.  This is but one effect of oil corporations continuing to post record profits quarter after quarter, year after year.  How much infrastructure exists near 5ft above sea level worldwide?  How much is that infrastructure worth?  How much cropland exists at those low altitudes?  How many miles of ruined cropland from rising seas only will occur before widespread food shortages occur?  How much is our lifestyles worth; how much do they really cost?

AMAP scientists will discuss their findings in Copenhagen, Denmark starting tomorrow.

My most recent `State of the Poles` post discussed shorter-term influences on sea ice conditions (monthly to seasonal effects).  I’ve stated in that series that a new regime now exists for the Arctic.  Findings like these support that assessment.

For the hard-core curious, the key findings of the report are reprinted below the fold (h/t ClimateProgress)

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CO2 Acidifying Oceans Faster Than Oceans Can Adapt

The Earth’s oceans are taking quite the pounding.  As a direct result of people’s activities, most of the accumulated warmth has been absorbed by the oceans.  CO2 also presents a problem: chemical reactions involving CO2 work to make the oceans more acidic.  It doesn’t take too much of a difference from long-term pH values for life-forms to be negatively impacted.  The world’s oceans are currently acidifying at a rate that hasn’t been seen for at least 800,000 years.  That acidifying rate is projected to further increase during the remainder of this century.

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Ocean Acidification: 100X Faster Than Last Similar Event

Last week, I wrote about a study that had found warmer waters reaching the glaciers of Greenland, helping to melt those glaciers from below while warm temperatures melt them from above.  This scenario presents numerous dangers for societies around the world.  Faster melting glaciers means faster rising sea levels, which means more impacts sooner.

Today, I will write about a scenario that is potentially more threatening than glaciers melting faster than expected.  New research demonstrates that the oceans are acidifying more quickly than has happened naturally for tens of millions of years.  The threat that presents is when the last similar acidification event occurred, upwards of 50% of marine life went extinct.  It took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to recover from this catastrophe.  It is known as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, and it happened 55 million years ago.  The event saw global temperatures rise by around 6°C (11°F) over 20,000 years, with a corresponding rise in sea level as the whole of the oceans warmed.  To put that warming in context, climatologists are warning that global temperatures could rise by a similar amount over ~200 years.  That’s 100 times faster than the last rapid global warming event of similar magnitude.

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2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit News 12/14/09 – AP:Science Not Faked & More Background

The Associated Press assigned a team to look through more than 1000 e-mails that were illegally hacked from a U.K. University server (something that the corporate media keeps overlooking: the hack was illegal, not the contents of the e-mails).  What did the AP find?  That the actual science surrounding climate change is very much real.  Nothing was faked, nothing was doctored, no Grand Conspiracy exists.  Which, in the fevered minds of denialists, means that the AP must be part of the Grand Conspiracy.
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EPA and Climate Change News

Two very big news stories broke this week regarding the EPA.  In the first, the EPA, under direction from the pro-science Obama administration, will look into whether CO2 should be regulated according to the Clean Water Act.  Back in January, the EPA determined that CO2 should be regulated according to the Clean Air Act (ending years of delay under the Bush “administration”).  Now, they will look into how much more acidic CO2 emissions are making the oceans.  As CO2 dissolves in the oceans in increasing quantities, the chemisty of ocean water is altered.  More acidic water doesn’t allow organisms at the bottom of the ecosystem to form their external shells.  If that happens on a large enough scale, the world’s oceanic ecosystems could collapse.  Since a majority of the world’s people live off of the oceans’ bounty, that would have a deleterious effect on global society’s.  Getting the EPA to regulate these pollutants based on scientific information (and not pre-conceived ideological answers) is good, overdue policy.

This morning, the second piece of big news came out: the EPA is expected to announce today that six greenhouse gases are pollutants and harmful to human health.  Doing so would allow the EPA to regulate CO2 emissions, but the article states that the Obama administration is going to use the announcement instead as leverage to get Congress to pass legislation to regulate the emissions and set up a cap-and-trade system instead.  Before I get into the policy stance and what I think the consequences will be, I want to set the stage with the following:

Potential health impacts from warming, EPA scientists said in their recommendations, include:

  • longer and more severe heat waves;
  • increased smog in some areas;
  • dangerous flooding caused by stronger storms;
  • and diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, related to flooding and warmer weather.

Look, it sounds really good that Obama wants to increase leverage on Congress.  But I honestly don’t see how this convinces ConservaDems or Cons to change their stance on the subject.  They’re still going to be under tremendous pressure from corporate lobbyists to gut cap-and-trade – either by setting the cap way too high or by allowing far too many allowances to the heaviest polluters.  The only way I see CO2 being regulated to the degree it needs to be to alleviate future impacts after a flawed cap-and-trade plan is established is for the EPA to assume the responsibility it’s been given.  Unfortunately, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has now gone on record as saying her agency would not act alone.  Would they act after a flawed bill is enacted, since technically Congress would have acted?  I don’t know.

Congress, especially the Senate, is filled with climate change deniers.  They’re going to trot out their tired talking points about how the EPA is going to base their decision on junk-science and liberals are running around like Chicken Little trying to destroy our economy.  I will of course keep watch for a Republican like Snowe to publicly support and vote for a good cap-and-trade, but that doesn’t account for Sens. Bayh, Landrieu, Nelson(s) or Sen. Specter from joining their science-hating colleagues.  How much will they give away to the Cons in return for what will be a no-vote anyway?

There remains a great deal of work to do on everybody’s part.  This problem won’t be solved today, despite the urgency many of us feel to do so.  Two very good steps were taken this week.  I applaud the Obama administration and the EPA for them.

Cross-posted at SquareState.