Climate Crisis: The Pacific Ocean’s Cooling Effect

pacific1Climatologists and environmental scientists have been cataloging the global warming trend for decades, examining multiple fields of data that show fluctuations over a period of eons. And despite what appears to be a consistent trend warming that has been taking place since the 18th century – when levels of atmospheric CO2 began to climb steadily – there have been anomalies in the data.

One period was the three decades that fall between the 1940’s and 1970’s when no significant terrestrial warming took place, and the Pacific Ocean was anomalously cold. The Pacific is somewhat of a wild card when it comes to our climate, since it is responsible for the weather patterns known as El Niño and La Niña that can swing global average temperatures by as much as 0.3 degree Celsius.

Global_Temperature_Anomaly_1880-2012.svgFor the past decade or so the tropical Pacific has again gone cold and a new study suggests that it may once again be related to the recent “pause” in global warming of average temperatures. Although the past decade also qualifies as the hottest on record, the trend has been milder than expected, with average surface temperatures plateauing for many years.

This is in stark contrast to the end of the 20th century, when rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere accelerated warming to new heights. To explain this, climate scientists Shang-Ping Xie and Yu Kosaka of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California looked to the Pacific Ocean, using observable data and an advanced computer model.

NASA_global_warming_predThe latter came from the US Department of Commerce’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory computer model of the oceans and atmosphere. By adding in sea-surface temperatures of an oceanic area covering roughly 8 percent of the globe, the researchers were able to mimic the recent hiatus in global warming as well as weather phenomena like the prolonged drought in the southern US.

The results were published in the Aug. 29th edition of Nature Magazine. In it, Xie observed that the “tropical Pacific is the engine that drives the global atmosphere and climate. There were epochs of accelerated and stalled warming in the past.” This included the pause in a global warming trend between the 1940s and 1970s, which has often been attributed to sunlight-blocking air pollution from Europe, the Soviet Union and the US.

Pollution over Mexico CityOther factors have also been considered – volcanoes, an unusually weak solar cycle, air pollution from China – when looking at restraining trends in global warming. Some of the observed climate effects may also stem from other ocean dynamics such as variations in the mixing of surface and deep ocean waters. And the meltdown of significant ice from Greenland or Antarctica might even cool oceans enough to offset the extra heat trapped by rising levels of greenhouse gases for a time.

What is less clear at this point is what is driving cycles of cooling and heating of tropical Pacific Ocean waters. But it is clear that the cool Pacific pattern cannot persist forever to cancel out the extra heat trapped by rising CO2 concentrations, Xie notes. As climate modeler Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies recently stated:

We need updates to the forcings and a proper exploration of all the different mechanisms together. This has taken time but will happen soon-ish.

global-warming-trends_lrgAnd despite any pause in the trend toward hotter temperatures, the first decade of the 21st century was still the hottest recorded decade since the 1880s, and it included record heat waves in Russia and the US as well as a precipitous meltdown of Arctic sea ice and surging sea level rise. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 touched 400 parts per million on Mauna Loa in May, a first in the time line of human existence.

A cooler Pacific due to prolonged La Niña activity may have restrained global warming for the past decade or so, but it is unlikely to last. As Xie noted:

This effect of natural variability will be averaged out over a period of 100 years. and cannot argue away the threat of persistent anthropogenic warming that is occurring now.

These warnings are key since any changes or anomalous readings are often seized upon by Climate Change deniers as evidence that the problem does not exist, is not man-made, or is at least not as severe as otherwise predicted. But in the coming decades, even the most benign scenarios are still fraught with peril. If the worst is to be averted, extensive and positive changes need to be made now.

Source: news.cnet.com, nature.com

Environment Alert: Atmospheric CO2 Reaches Record High

airpollutionIt’s no secret that humanity, like all terrestrial organisms, has a symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s environment. And whereas the fortunes of entire civilizations and species once depended upon the natural warming and cooling cycle, for the past few centuries, human agency has an increasingly deterministic effect on this cycle. In fact, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, just 250 years ago, human industry increased the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent.

And now, it seems that humanity has reached a rather ignominious and worrisome milestone. Working at the Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric research facility, scientists announced Friday that for the first time in millions of years, the level of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million on average over the course of a full 24-hour day. The last time there were these kinds of CO2 levels was approximately 3 million years ago, and that has many worried.

co2_levelsFor some time now, climatological scientists have warned of the dangers of reaching this limit, mainly because of the ecological effects it would have. The Kyoto Protocol, an attempt during the late-90s to curb fossil fuel emissions on behalf of the industrialized nations of world, specifically set this concentration as a target that was not to be surpassed. However, with nations such as Canada, the US and China expressing criticism or pulling out entirely, it was clear for some time that this target would not be met.

And as mentioned already, the planet has not seen these kind of CO2 levels since the Pliocene Era, a time of warmer temperatures, less polar ice, and sea levels as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than current levels. If conditions of this nature are permitted to return, the human race could be looking at some very serious problems in the near future.

trafficFor starters, much of the world’s population and heavy industry is built along coastlines. With sea levels reaching an additional 60-80 feet, several million people will be displaced over the course of the next few decades. What’s worse, inland areas that have river systems connected to the sea are likely to experience severe flooding, leading to more displacement and property damage.

Those areas that find themselves far from the coast are likely to experience the opposite effects, increased heat and dryness due to increased temperatures and the loss of cloud cover and precipitation. This in turn will result in widespread drought, wildfires, and a downturn in food production. And let’s not forget that rising temperatures also mean the spread of disease and parasites, ones that are typically confined to the tropical areas of the world.

china smog 2013 TV bldgIf any of this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because that is precisely what has been happening for the past few decades, and with increasing frequency. Record hot summers, food shortages in several parts of the world, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, the West Nile Virus, Avian Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, rising sea levels – these are all symptoms of a world where increasing output of Greenhouse Gases mean increasing temperatures and ecological effects.

But of course, before anyone feels like the situation is hopeless, this news does come with a silver lining. For one, the confirmation that we have now reached 400 ppm is likely to spur governments into greater action. Clearly, our current means are not working for us, and cannot be counted on to see us into the future. What’s more, a number of clean energy concerns are well under way, providing us with viable and cost effective alternatives.

solar_array1

The growth in solar energy in just the last few years has been staggering, and carbon capture technology has been growing by leaps and bounds. What’s more, upstarts and clean energy labs no longer need government support, though public pressure has yeilded several positive returns in that area. Even so, crowd-funding is ensuring that growth and innovation that would not be possible a few years ago is now happening, so we can expect the current rate of progress to continue here as well.

And of course, geoengineering remains a viable possibility for buying our planet some time. In addition to clean energy (putting less CO2 in the air), and carbon capture (removing the CO2 there), there are also a number of possibilities for Global Dimming – the opposite of Global Warming – to slow down the process of transformation until we can get our act together. These include evaporating oceanic water to lower sea levels and ensure more cloud cover, triggering algae blooms to metabolize more CO2, and dumping sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the air to combat the warming effect.

But in the end, nothing short of serious and immediate changes will ensure that decades and centuries from now, the ecological balance – upon which all species depend – is maintained. Regardless of whether you think of humanity as the masters or the children of this planet, it’s clear we’ve done a pretty shitty job in both capacities! It’s time for a change, or the greatest natural resource in our corner of the universe, Earth itself, is likely to die out!

Source: fastcoexist.com