Hello Weather & Climate News readers! This post will be the first (Part II) in what will be my ongoing education article series WxClimoEd. I hope to write educational posts on various topics related to weather and climate to help enhance your understanding of various phenomena and their impact on the environment, individuals and society. These posts will present key ideas and concepts and provide occasional linked sources to further, more detailed information.
Understanding Global Climate Change (Indicators)
In Part 2 of this article series on Global Climate Change, I’ll discuss the indicators of climate change in progress on Earth. Even without the global measurements of temperature, there are plenty of signs in the climate system that change toward a warmer world is in progress.
Earth Undergoing Abrupt Climate Change
While global warming is considered to be detectable since the First Industrial Revolution (after 1750), since the latter half of the 20th century, the environment has begun to exhibit what could be considered “abrupt” changes. Among scientists who study natural abrupt change in the paleoclimate records have had some common thought on what “abrupt” means: 1) Changes in climate which can be witnessed within a human lifetime and 2) the change is very nonlinear; it far exceeds the mechanism which initiated the change in the first place (See this video presentation by Dr. White at the American Geophysical Union Annual Meeting discussing past abrupt climate change in the paleoclimate record). In the past, abrupt change usually occurred as a result of the advance or recession of ice sheets, leading to rapid change in local temperature or regional circulations (or even global distributions of precipitation or temperature patterns). Today, abrupt change is being increasingly witnessed as a result of an already unnaturally fast mechanism (rapid rise in carbon dioxide concentration, resulting in rapid rise in global temperatures relative to natural variability…multi-decadal to centennial scales vs. multi-millennial).
Here are just some of the abrupt changes resulting from the changing climate happening now:
- Decline in sea ice over the Arctic Ocean
2. Rapid increase in air temperature of the Arctic.
The Arctic (64-90N) has warmed around 3-4 degrees C since the 1881-1910 period (based on NASA data). 2-3 degrees C of warming has occurred just since the 1951-1980 period with notable warming since the year 2000. This has led to not only the rapid decline in Arctic sea ice, but the beginning the melting of land permafrost.
Addendum: The rise in the average temperature of Earth as a whole can count as abrupt, as seen in the earlier graph (farther back up). Most warming has occurred since the 1970s. The top ten warmest years on record going back to 1880 have occurred since 1998 (with 1998 now the last year in the top ten from the 20th century). 2017 is expected to be the 2nd warmest year on record just slightly behind 2016.
The average sea-surface temperature of the global ocean from 60S-60N has risen around one degree C since the 1881-1910 period. 0.5 degrees C warming has occurred since 1980. Like the global air temperature, SSTs have been most of their record warm years since the turn of the 21st century, with an accelerated pace of warming since 2000 (1.62 degrees C/century currently, compared to 1 degree C/century 1950-2000). 2017 sea surface temperatures are currently running the 2nd warmest on record (NOAA data).
As far as oceanic heat content, the oceans have accumulated over 100 zetajoules (1 x 10^23 joules) of heat energy in the upper 700 meters of the global ocean since 1993. An incredible amount of energy, with increasingly accelerated warming in the deep ocean below 700 meters since 1993.
4. Acidification of the Global Ocean.
Earth’s seawater is slightly basic (basic is ph > 7). The global average ph of the oceans has decreased from 8.25 to 8.069 since the 1750s (ph was 8.104 in the 1990s). This is caused by the oceans dissolving carbon dioxide (30-40% of carbon dioxide released by humans dissolves in the oceans). This interaction forms carbonic acid, with further chemical reactions leading to increasing concentrations of the hydronium ion (H+). This leads to a lowering of the ph. The rate of acidifcation is faster than at anytime in the past 300 million years! The rapid acidification has been more pronounced in the Arctic Ocean because of very cold water (colder water can absorb more dissolved gases). When ph falls under 8 in the coming decades (assuming no mitigation), marine life which depend on carbonate structures (shellfish, sea snails, corals, some types of plankton, etc) begin to suffer from the corrosive effects of less basic waters.
5. Sea Level Rise
Sea levels are rising as a result of meltwater from land and thermal expansion as oceans warm. As the atmosphere and oceans continue to warm and weaken the Arctic and Antarctic Ice Sheets, sea levels will continue to rise, with possible nonlinear positive feedbacks accelerating it. It has already accelerated since the end of the 20th century. “King Tides” have become an increasing problem because of sea level rise in the 21st century.
6. Increase in Extreme Weather and Climate Events
The end of the 20th century into the early 21st century has featured a statistical increase in extreme weather events. Climatologists usually classify “extreme” as being 4-5+ standard deviations from the mean of all events. Such increase in extreme events over the course of years means that natural variability is being dominated by global warming, and causing a continuously shifting climate pattern.
Extreme events include heat, flooding, rainfall rates, drought, and wildfires. All of these occurrences have been increasing the frequency and severity around the world because of climate change. In addition, there is evidence that because of the high rate of warming of the Arctic, the mid-latitude jet stream has become weaker with increased amplitude extremes, leading to short-term and longer-term patterns favorable for extreme conditions at the surface. For example, high amplitude ridges of high pressure which do not move much or reform constantly can lead to extended periods of drought and extreme heat (while other areas downstream may receive cooler temps but heavy rainfall and flooding. This is actually something that is observable on meteorological timescales. Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf discusses the increases in extreme events from climate change in a lecture HERE.
One thing I must emphasize with understanding the impacts of global climate change is that it is impacting the environments of our world now and continue to accelerate in the coming years and decades (assuming no major changes are done). Global warming…the primary force of climate change, caused by our immense release of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuels…is the dominate force behind the rate of change in climate behavior. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in their 5th assessment, the world should actually be experiencing anomalous COOLING right now, but instead we have warmed Earth above and beyond natural long term global temperature variability. So when people ask “Did global warming cause (insert extreme weather event)?”, it is the wrong question. Climate looks at a collection of events for a trend. What is clear is that global warming is NOW causing a statistically significant increase in extreme events and will continue to do so. There is no “new normal” but only a continuous “ramping up” of the Earth’s natural variability toward greater extremes relative to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with greater impacts as humanity leaves the stable global climate in existence since the beginning of civilization.
This may be something many do not appreciate, but it is factual. Human civilization has changed Earth’s climate system to the point that we as humans are turning up the “thermostat” and started a multi-centennial experiment in geoengineering. Heat, drought, flooding, rainfall rates, wildfire events, and jet stream amplitudes, as a result, have all increased significantly in just the past 30 yrs.
If the climate were a piece of music…think of Earth’s relatively short-term natural cycles as the melody and global warming as the dominating background harmony from which the melody plays over. If the harmony changes keys, the melody will respond and shift accordingly.
In Part 3, I’ll discuss the projected future impacts of climate change being actively researched (and some already happening) such as food security, human health and living space.