Monday, July 20, 2009

Global warming: Our best guess is likely wrong

Unknown processes account for much of warming in ancient hot spell

Rice University, July 14, 2009

No one knows exactly how much Earth's climate will warm due to carbon emissions, but a new study this week suggests scientists' best predictions about global warming might be incorrect.

The study, which appears in Nature Geoscience, found that climate models explain only about half of the heating that occurred during a well-documented period of rapid global warming in Earth's ancient past. The study, which was published online today, contains an analysis of published records from a period of rapid climatic warming about 55 million years ago known as the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum, or PETM.

"In a nutshell, theoretical models cannot explain what we observe in the geological record," said oceanographer Gerald Dickens, a co-author of the study and professor of Earth science at Rice University. "There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models."

During the PETM, for reasons that are still unknown, the amount of carbon in Earth's atmosphere rose rapidly. For this reason, the PETM, which has been identified in hundreds of sediment core samples worldwide, is probably the best ancient climate analogue for present-day Earth.

In addition to rapidly rising levels of atmospheric carbon, global surface temperatures rose dramatically during the PETM. Average temperatures worldwide rose by about 7 degrees Celsius -- about 13 degrees Fahrenheit -- in the relatively short geological span of about 10,000 years.

Many of the findings come from studies of core samples drilled from the deep seafloor over the past two decades. When oceanographers study these samples, they can see changes in the carbon cycle during the PETM.

"You go along a core and everything's the same, the same, the same, and then suddenly you pass this time line and the carbon chemistry is completely different," Dickens said. "This has been documented time and again at sites all over the world."

Based on findings related to oceanic acidity levels during the PETM and on calculations about the cycling of carbon among the oceans, air, plants and soil, Dickens and co-authors Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii and James Zachos of the University of California-Santa Cruz determined that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by about 70 percent during the PETM.

That's significant because it does not represent a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Since the start of the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels are believed to have risen by about one-third, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. If present rates of fossil-fuel consumption continue, the doubling of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels will occur sometime within the next century or two.

Doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide is an oft-talked-about threshold, and today's climate models include accepted values for the climate's sensitivity to doubling. Using these accepted values and the PETM carbon data, the researchers found that the models could only explain about half of the warming that Earth experienced 55 million years ago.

The conclusion, Dickens said, is that something other than carbon dioxide caused much of the heating during the PETM. "Some feedback loop or other processes that aren't accounted for in these models -- the same ones used by the IPCC for current best estimates of 21st Century warming -- caused a substantial portion of the warming that occurred during the PETM."


I found this interesting. Much of the scepticism about global warming comes from sources with little credibility. Despite the claim that thousands of scientist discount global warming theory, a close look at those "scientist" reveals that many of them are scientist in fields not related to the study of climate change and many of them have a weak claim to being called scientist. A "climatologist" may be nothing more than a TV weather man.

Rice University is a highly respected institution with a very high level of research activity. Nature Geoscience is peer reviewed journal. Recently there have been more and more legitimate, credentialed, scientist questioning the theory and modeling that produced the conclusions regarding global warming. I do not think all sceptics of global warming theory can be dismissed as quacks and politically motivated hacks.

I was once a global warming sceptic myself and then a few years ago I was persuaded by the preponderance of the evidence that the majority scientific opinion was correct. (See my post, My Conversion on Global Warming.) Despite the constant drumbeat from the right that global warming is nothing more than a convenient excuse to destroy free enterprise, individual liberty, and expand government , I have not been persuaded that the scientific consensus was not correct. The majority scientific opinion is still that global warming is a reality and is man made. That is the view that I accept. However, I am less sure in my conviction than I was six months ago. If new evidence presents itself, my mind is not closed to new information. Opinions about global warming should not be a matter of faith or ideology for the believers or the sceptics.

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  1. Very good article, but I think the conclusion to draw is 1) no one can predict the future with certainty, so you have to go with the best guess and 2) there are more things at work in climate change than CO2. The EPA knows this -- they have named six greenhouse gases, and there is also the influence of the sun and volcanoes, etc., but statistically, the sun and volcanoes emit a very small percentage of greenhouse gases. Most emissions come from human activity, that part has not changed.

  2. Very good article. I was not a believer of global warming until the recent years where the place I usually go ski during the winter is filled with greenery and little signs of snow.

  3. I have to say that I am not a believer in the global warming theories.
    I remember some 20 years ago when we were discussing the hole in the ozone, that scientists told us to pump different gasses into the air to help seal the hole. I read a few days ago that that plan has created gasses that increase the greenhouse effect.
    Science can only guess as to what is happening, and I am not ready to commit myself to a guess

  4. Science, unlike philosophy, is devoted to finding truth through hypothesis testing. That is, propose a hypothesis, develop a rigorous method to test it, test it, and then report the results. Don't slant the results to fit your beliefs. Many scientists have been and are continuing to test various aspects of climate change. The results of these tests, if reported accurately should allow us to eventually develop a picture of what is happening and what will happen to our climate--if--and that is a big if--the tests are conceived fairly and conducted and reported accurately.

  5. They can tell you all they want about "facts" and what not, but the people ain't buying it.