Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

Copenhagen // Sustainability, Climate Change, and Universities

By: RickyRood, 4:36 AM GMT on October 31, 2009

Copenhagen // Sustainability, Climate Change, and Universities

It’s been busy and I have been slow on the blogs. At the top of the list of busy is the Conference of Parties in Copenhagen in December. This is the fifteenth such meeting. It’s a show, where there is an attempt to build policy. The official focus of this will be beyond Kyoto. To some of us, it never really felt we got to Kyoto, but … Also every advocacy group in the world, both for and against, will be there.

The exciting thing is that through the efforts of Don Scavia and Drew Horning at the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, myself, and some ambitious students and former students, the University of Michigan will have observer status at this meeting. I will be leading a delegation of students, faculty and alumni. We’ve been trying to raise travel money for the students this week, and I am delighted the wunderground.com has made one of the first contributions. So I have been over busy in my extracurricular life.

Joining the group from University of Michigan will be a group of seven from Alma College. We are very excited, and we will make a group web site and will be providing daily blogs and updates from the conference for wunderground and all sponsoring institutions. Both super blogger Jeff Masters and I, Sideshow Ricky, are planning a set of blogs building up to the meeting.

So with that …. This week I am going to post something in the spirit of an essay. These are a few introductory paragraphs on a big picture view of sustainability, climate, global warming, and, ultimately perhaps, on the expanded role that I think educational institutions will have to take going forward.

Sustainability, Climate Change, and the Role of the University

Cultures, civilizations, and nations have evolved in the past 5000 years within a temperate climate with stable sea level. The accelerated growth of economies and population since the European Renaissance has relied on a ready sources of energy and the ability to discover and utilize new sources of minerals and ecosystems. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century, we have been able to change, on a global scale, the basic physical and biological characteristics of the land surface and the composition of atmosphere and the ocean. These anthropogenic changes are significant enough that we now influence the mean state of the environment on local, continental, and global scales. Air quality is a defined and managed resource. Decisions made in land use and land management influence local and regional temperature, precipitation, ground water replenishment and water runoff. The increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have and will warm the surface of the Earth; melt the abundance of fresh water held in snow, glaciers, and ice sheets; lead to rises in sea level that are unprecedented in human experience; and cause more violent storms, more flooding rains, and more severe droughts. Humans and the enterprise of humans are an integral part of the energy balance that is the Earth’s climate. Moving forward a sustainable planet will require us to take responsibility for managing the climate. No longer can we count on the discovery of new lands for resources – and no longer can we dispose of our waste into the atmosphere and ocean without regards to the consequences of our behavior.

Climate change, global warming, and changes in water resources sit in relation to energy use, societal success, energy security, food security, and population. Use of resources is an imperative of humans seeking to improve their lot. Therefore, we will not avoid global warming, and we will be required to adapt to the consequences of global warming. At the same time we must also work to mitigate the magnitude of global warming as, for example, sea level rise of several meters would be ruinous to individuals, cities, and nations. With unmitigated warming, ecosystems and agricultural productivity will change at a rate that will stretch and rip the fabric of the resource base that sustains us.

Energy security offers far more urgent challenges than those generally associated with global warming. Economic stability, de facto growth, always trumps efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, efforts to develop policies and strategies are conflated not only with many questions of the scientific investigation of climate change, but with complex political and business interests.

More efficient use of energy always is our best near-term strategy for increasing energy security, reducing costs, and lowering greenhouse gas emissions. New materials emerge as important in increasing efficiency, providing new sources of energy, managing urban temperature, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Urban design and policy rises as an essential method for scaling up the actions of individuals to have substantive consequences on global scales. This mix of long- and short- term mandates, local- and global- scale of actions and consequences, offers many complex problems that challenge our ability to organize, structure, rationalize and optimize solutions. Meeting these complex problems head on - at the same time defining what we can do and keeping in mind what we must do – meeting these problems head on is at the heart of sustainability.

When viewed as a whole, universities address this suite of problems. However, the university culture focuses on and rewards disciplinary research in reduced problems. This is necessary, but no longer sufficient. Looking forward, the consilience of knowledge and its application is necessary for sustainability and habitability of our planet. Universities need to address, formally, the trans-disciplinary nature of the problems, and develop the organizational units and incentive structures that promote careers of unified problem solving. The role of the university should be recognized as extending beyond one, primarily, of research and teaching, but as a place where complex problems are addressed for the benefits of all of society. (Here is a white paper by several of my colleagues and myself that look at this problem more deeply. Federal Climate Services and Academic Institutions )

Updated: 6:39 PM GMT on November 21, 2009


Still not getting warmer:

By: RickyRood, 9:32 PM GMT on October 18, 2009

Still not getting warmer:

In the previous blog I talked about a figure that has been floating around in blogworld making the case that IPCC predictions are wrong because they predict that the last four years should be getting warmer in each successive year and that has not been observed. This blog is about an interesting paper that also addresses that issue. The paper is by Judith Lean and David Rind. You might recall that I relied a lot on their work in the series of blogs on the Sun.

But first … Models are used to both isolate and quantify the processes that are important in the transfers of energy within the Earth’s climate system. The more recognized use of models is to make predictions. Here is a link to some material I have written that introduces the basics of modeling to, let’s say, science-interested people.

The recent paper by Lean and Rind investigates expected warming in the next 20 years or so. The paper relies upon a statistical model that is based on recent behavior that has been observed. Statistical models are one of a suite of model types that are used in science. Statistical models, physical models, and more intuitive, heuristic, models are used in concert with each other. One could view this hierarchy of models as a way to explore and, sometimes, manage and reconcile the uncertainties that are an intrinsic part of the scientific process. For those of you who are weather forecasters, this is same process that is used in that application. There is guidance from global and regional predictions. That guidance is made a more accurate prediction by local forecasters who have intuition on how local weather is related to global and regional models. This local intuition is based on understanding the statistics of past behavior. It’s using all available sources of information.

Here is Figure 1 from Lean and Rind:

Figure 1 from Lean and Rind (2009), Geophysical Research Letters. Figure taken from tinypic.com.

If you compare this figure with the one in my previous blog, there is an honest presentation. You see a longer record of both the observations and the IPCC projections. This presentation makes the historical variability clear, as well as the agreement and disagreement with the model representation of the last, approximately, 30 years. Also evident is the change in the character of the model representation of temperature as the models move from representing the past to projecting the future. This is because the past projections include, for example, a representation of “natural forcing” associated with volcanoes. This type of natural variability is not known for the future.

Lean and Rind derive relations that represent the historical variation associated with the solar cycle, volcanic aerosols, El Nino, and anthropogenic influences (This is the orange curve.). This model does represent the lack of warming in the past 4 - 5 years. Looking to the future, the variability in the solid orange curve shows the wave-like variability of the solar cycle and the temperature increase due to increasing greenhouse gases. Lean and Rind anticipate, in the next decade, periods when the observations are both warmer and cooler than the IPCC projections. Still in the average, the temperature will be rising. Furthermore, when Lean and Rind consider the potential variability associated with a volcanic eruption or a large El Nino, any discrepancies in the near term projections and the observations are more that accounted for. This variability is represented by the dashed lines.

Lean and Rind, in fact, are making a courageous statement here. They take a position on predictability of a measure of “global warming” on a decadal time scale. This is based on an analysis of past natural variability and the assumption that that variability extends into the future. Another recent paper by Keenlyside et al., 2008 in Nature, examines the impact of the variability in the Atlantic Ocean on regional and global climate. Keenlyside et al. project that based only on the projection of the observed Atlantic variability into the future, natural cooling will act counter to the projected human-made warming. Lean and Rind assert that their analysis suggests warming even in the presence of this projected cooling. These are both statements that will be subject to “validation” with observations.

Prediction on decadal timescales is emerging as one of the next big challenges in model-based prediction. Papers like the ones referenced here are amongst the first setting the foundation for such predictions. Decadal prediction is a stunningly difficult challenge because it will require better representation of the variability associated with the ocean, and the difficult problem of the interaction of the atmosphere and the ocean.


But it’s not Getting Warmer

Models (3): Predictable Arguments

Fundamentals of Modeling

Updated: 3:01 PM GMT on October 22, 2009


But it’s not getting warmer

By: RickyRood, 10:36 PM GMT on October 12, 2009

But it’s not getting warmer

Recently I received some questions from Westview High School in San Diego, California. The questions were motivated by a video they had downloaded from the web that included discussion of the figure below. The attribution of the plot is to Science and Public Policy. The figure is from 2005 through 2008. In this figure are traces of plots from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and some recent observations.

So in thinking about this plot and the student’s question, the first thing that strikes me is that we don’t know the source of the observations. In the material associated with the questions it was stated that these were satellite only observations and that satellite observations were the only objective measure of global temperature (It is, by the way, categorically untrue that satellite measurements are the only objective measure of temperature.) Even if it is true that these are only satellite measurements, I can name without even looking it up, a dozen or more satellites with different types of instruments, with different measurement characteristics. So “satellite measurements” means little. OK, there are some scholarship issues in presenting this picture. (But if you google or bing images with the right search words you can find this figure many times.)

Getting past this basic concern, dismissing that “this is the web,” there are some other basic problems with the use of this figure to “debunk global warming.” If I made such a figure and presented it for publication, several flaws would be immediately recognized by the reviewers.

First, the IPCC projections have been treated as if they were a deterministic prediction. Deterministic? Traditionally weather forecasts have been deterministic; that is, at a geographical place at a particular time the temperature will be XX degrees and it will/will not be raining. Deterministic forecasts are often placed in comparison with probabilistic forecasts, that is, the development of a range of probability of what will be observed at a particular place and time. Forecasts that are used for deterministic prediction are started (initialized) with an observed state of the atmosphere and ocean. Then, the forecast model represents how this observed state moves forward in time. IPCC projections are simply not deterministic forecasts. IPCC simulations have the physics to represent processes like El Nino and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, but they make no attempt to represent any particular El Nino. They represent these multi-year phenomena with varying degrees of quality. Then in a plot like the IPCC plot, several models are added together. It is simply ill posed to use the IPCC projections in this sort of analysis. In a paper based on the scientific method, it would not make it out of the starting gate.

The issues with this figure don’t end here. There are only 4 years of observations on this figure and this is extrapolated to a cooling of six degrees per century. What is the foundation of this extrapolation? This is a particularly egregious step in the analysis – what is the justification of making such an insinuation?

A minimal step in the analysis would be to look at the previous 150 years of the observations, which have been omitted from the plot, and asking the question of whether or not the differences displayed in this figure lie outside of the range of the variability that has already been observed. Even if the report insisted on only using “satellite” data, there are 30 or so years of observed variability. Of course, then the title of the figure should be, “how does a certain satellite instrument differ from the projection?”

The question is raised, implicitly and explicitly, that there is some mode of natural variability that accounts for the difference visible in the figure. Consequently, there is the implication that the recently observed series of very warm years are also the result of this natural variability. Recall – the projections are not designed in any way to represent this variability in an event-by-event way. So an analysis that aims to make this point is dubious from the start. But, assuming the analysis was to pursued, then once again, the longer data record needs to be considered to establish the natural variability.

So my original goal was to analyze this figure for some students who posed questions to me. Standing alone, this figure has no basis in the scientific method. It is a convenient way to make a point in the spirit of “selective doubt.” That is, by selecting narrowly focused information it is possible to propagate doubt. In the next blog I will report on a recent paper that takes a more comprehensive look at the issues raised in this figure.


Updated: 7:44 PM GMT on October 16, 2009


Extreme Feedbacks

By: RickyRood, 4:26 AM GMT on October 01, 2009

Arctic Extreme Feedbacks

My previous blog was on a paper that argues from a variety of points of view that the Arctic is showing definitive warming, despite a substantive reduction in solar radiation due to the wobbling of the orbit of the Earth. This blog is also on the Arctic, and specifically a scientific assessment sponsored by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). (Yes, I know that the WWF takes an advocacy position.) The report has excellent summaries of scientific studies as well as basic references.

This WWF report is an assessment of the state of the Arctic comprised of information since the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. Part of the motivation for this report is that at the time of the IPCC report there was controversy within the scientific community that the melting of ice in Greenland and, perhaps, West Antarctica was occurring much faster than reported in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. One consequence of more rapid melting of the ice sheets would be more rapid and larger than predicted sea level rise.

There have been a number of “official” responses to evaluate the observations and predictions and to improve the predictions. The European Union has funded a program called Ice2sea, and in the U.S. SeaRISE is a community organization, which is now sponsored by NASA. Both of these efforts strive to take an integrated approach to put together observations and models to improve predictions to provide input for the next IPCC report in 2013. You might recall that the IPCC is based entirely on assessment of papers that have appeared in the peer-reviewed literature; therefore, these projects need to deliver results in about 2 years.

Back to the WWF Report: Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications. This report has six chapters written by experts in the field. The unique focus of the report is on feedbacks. That is, if the Arctic climate is warmed by greenhouse gas warming, does the Arctic climate respond to this warming in a way that increases the warming more, or does it respond in a way to reduce the warming, bring it back to “normal.”

The feedback that is easiest to understand is the feedback related to ice and snow. For example, if the ocean is covered with ice, which is “white,” then much of the summertime sunlight will be reflected back to space. If there is warming, and the ice melts, and the “white” ice is replaced by the “dark” ocean, then the ocean will absorb more heat from the Sun and there will be more warming. Warming begets more warming; this is a “positive feedback.” If you march through all of the feedbacks that might exist, the strongest and most assured feedbacks are positive. In general, the present day Earth will respond to warming with more warming.

The WWF report studies a whole variety of feedbacks. There is discussion on how and why large changes in the Arctic impact both the circulation of the atmosphere and the ocean. A large and definitive feedback is the fact that a warming Arctic will release greenhouse gases that are stored in frozen land, cold water, and at the bottom of the ocean. The store of greenhouse gases in these reservoirs is enormous. For example, “There is more carbon in methane hydrates that in all the fossil fuel deposits in the world.”

The feedback, here, is the fact that warming by greenhouse gases, releases greenhouse gases, which cause more warming. Methane is a far more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Much of the methane is stored in ocean sediments that are in relatively shallow water. There is already observed release coming from these sediments, but we don’t yet know whether or not these releases are contributing to warming. There is a possibility, however, of huge sudden releases of methane.

The gist of the WWF report is that when we consider the full role of feedbacks from changes in the Arctic, then the possibility of rapid global consequences is quite high. While large decreases in greenhouse gas emissions will help mitigate this change, it is my opinion that we have already reached a point where we must anticipate such warming, assess risk, and plan for adaptation.

The existence of feedbacks as described in WWF report is not surprising, and there is ample evidence of these feedbacks naturally impacting the climate. For example absorption and capture of methane and carbon dioxide in the ice age cycles is well documented. This is, surely, related to the roles that the oceans, permafrost, and biological activities play in the controlling the composition of the atmosphere.


WWF Report: Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications.

Updated: 5:02 PM GMT on October 02, 2009


Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.
Clouds in the lee of the Rockies at sunset.