How Earth Warms

Climate change and the greenhouse effect have operated here for billions of years. “Greenhouse” gases (GHGs) – chiefly water (H2O) vapor, followed by carbon dioxide (CO2), then methane (CH4), then other gases – let visible light pass, but absorb some infrared radiation re-emitted by Earth, just as glass does. Earth was much warmer than today when dinosaurs roamed and much colder during the “recent” ice ages. If Earth lacked greenhouse gases, the mean [surface] temperature would be 0°F instead of 60°F. So, some greenhouse effect is good. For 900,000 years, temperature has closely tracked changes in concentrations of CO2 and CH4 in the air, as shown in ice and sediment cores. Climate changed dramatically when the last ice age ended 10,000-12,000 years ago, with a burp (Younger Dryas) when the St. Lawrence River opened. Civilization developed while global mean temperatures stayed in a narrow band: from 2°F colder than 1970 levels, up to 1970 levels. During the Medieval Optimum (1000-1200 AD), temperatures rose to 1970 levels. Vikings colonized Greenland. After the Little Ice Age began in 1300, the colonies died out from crop failure and sea ice. By 1600, temperatures fell 1.2 to 1.5°F below 1970 levels worldwide, much more in the Arctic. For 5000 years of written history, climate change has 3 drivers: sun, shade agents, and GHGs. Solar output has risen or fallen by 0.1% as sunspots wax or wane, in cycles of roughly 11, 80, and more years. An active sun is brighter, with more sunspots. Small changes in solar output are magnified several-fold. First, the stronger magnetic fields from an active sun shield Earth from more cosmic rays, so fewer ions are created to become cloud condensation nuclei. Thus, fewer low-level clouds form to shade and cool Earth. Second, as oceans warm to a stronger sun, gases come out of solution, notably CO 2, and more H2O evaporates. More CO2 and H2O in the air magnify the warming considerably. The reverse happens when sunspots wane. They almost vanished around 1500 and from 1640 to 1700, deep in the Little Ice Age. The sun cooled a bit. When volcanoes spew a lot of sulfur and particulates into the stratosphere, Earth cools appreciably. In 1815 Mt. Tambora erupted, to cool Earth for 5 years. 1815, the “year without a summer,” was 5°F cooler. Crops failed. Mt. Pinatubo in mid-year 1992 changed a record hot year into the coolest in 7 years. Sulfur oxides (SOx, incipient sulfates) and particulates from smokestacks screen out sunlight, thus cooling large areas, both directly and by forming more cloud condensation nuclei. Haze-based cooling from coal burning in the th eastern U.S., eastern China, and central Europe left those regions un-warmed in the late 20 century. From 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1765, by 1920 CO2 concentrations rose to the highest level in the last million years, above the 300 ppm peak between earlier ice ages. CO2 concentrations have grown steadily, to 380 ppm now, the highest concentration in the last 20 million years. The story is similar for CH 4. Meanwhile, Earth absorbs more sunlight, as melting polar ice exposes dark water beneath. Greatly compounding matters, warmer oceans put more H2O vapor in the air. 7°F warmer air would hold 33% more H2O vapor, which would greatly amplify CO2’s warming. The greenhouse gas effect is accelerating. Over 70 years, from 1900-04 to 1970-74, Earth’s temperature rose by 0.4°F, to the highest level in 2000+ years, tying the Medieval Optimum. Over the next 20 years, it rose a full 0.6°F. Over just the next 10 years, it rose another 0.6°F. In 2005, it rose yet another 0.3°F. Earth’s temperature is now as far above the Medieval Optimum as the depth of the Little Ice Age was below it, and is the warmest in written history. Earth has warmed dramatically in the last 35 years, especially the last 15. Signs of global warming abound. Fewer days have snow on the ground. Almost all mountain glaciers are in full retreat; some have already vanished. The summer icepack on the Arctic Ocean is shrinking and thinning very noticeably. It will be gone in 20-40 years at the current rate. Some Greenland glaciers have begun to retreat from the coast. The growing season is longer for flowers and trees. Birds mate earlier. Permafrost melts across Alaska, damaging roads and buildings, and liberating CH4 from peat bogs. Droughts worsen. Small changes in solar output explain climate changes in recent centuries, but they fail badly to explain the steep temperature rise since the 1989 solar maximum. Excepting 3 Pinatubo years, the other 13 years are among the 15 warmest on record, including the 6 warmest. Yet during that time, solar output has generally diminished, and is heading to another minimum in 2006. Rising CO 2 levels, amplified by more H2O in the air, melting ice, and less US SOx, explain the recent strong warming that changes in solar output don’t. The human addition to the greenhouse effect now considerably exceeds natural variation in the effect. A note: the temperature in Earth’s troposphere, measured by satellites since 1979, has been rising. This signal was obscured until 2004 by inadvertently mixing data from the cooling stratosphere with data from the warming troposphere. For years, this left the mistaken impression that the troposphere was not warming.

Gene R.H. Fry, PhD

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