TODAY’S STUDY: THE NEWEST CLIMATE SCIENCE (SPOILER: NOT GOOD NEWS)
Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 ◦C global warming is highly dangerous
Hansen, et. al., July 23, 2015 (Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics)
There is evidence of ice melt, sea level rise to +5–9 m, and extreme storms in the prior interglacial period that was less than 1 ◦C warmer than today. Human-made climate forcing is stronger and more rapid than paleo forcings, but much can be learned by 5 combining insights from paleoclimate, climate modeling, and on-going observations. We argue that ice sheets in contact with the ocean are vulnerable to non-linear disintegration in response to ocean warming, and we posit that ice sheet mass loss can be approximated by a doubling time up to sea level rise of at least several meters. Doubling times of 10, 20 or 40 years yield sea level rise of several meters in 50, 100 or 10 200 years. Paleoclimate data reveal that subsurface ocean warming causes ice shelf melt and ice sheet discharge. Our climate model exposes amplifying feedbacks in the Southern Ocean that slow Antarctic bottom water formation and increase ocean temperature near ice shelf grounding lines, while cooling the surface ocean and increasing sea ice cover and water column stability. Ocean surface cooling, in the North Atlantic 15 as well as the Southern Ocean, increases tropospheric horizontal temperature gradients, eddy kinetic energy and baroclinicity, which drive more powerful storms. We focus attention on the Southern Ocean’s role in affecting atmospheric CO2 amount, which in turn is a tight control knob on global climate. The millennial (500–2000 year) time scale of deep ocean ventilation affects the time scale for natural CO2 change, thus the time 20 scale for paleo global climate, ice sheet and sea level changes. This millennial carbon cycle time scale should not be misinterpreted as the ice sheet time scale for response to a rapid human-made climate forcing. Recent ice sheet melt rates have a doubling time near the lower end of the 10–40 year range. We conclude that 2 ◦C global warming above the preindustrial level, which would spur more ice shelf melt, is highly danger- 25 ous. Earth’s energy imbalance, which must be eliminated to stabilize climate, provides a crucial metric.
Humanity is rapidly extracting and burning fossil fuels without full understanding of the consequences. Current assessments place emphasis on practical effects such as increasing extremes of heat waves, droughts, heavy rainfall, floods, and encroaching 5 seas (IPCC, 2014; USNCA, 2014). These assessments and our recent study (Hansen et al., 2013a) conclude that there is an urgency to slow carbon dioxide (CO2 ) emissions, because the longevity of the carbon in the climate system (Archer, 2005) and persistence of the induced warming (Solomon et al., 2010) may lock in unavoidable highly undesirable consequences.
Despite these warnings, global CO2 emissions continue to increase as fossil fuels remain the primary energy source. The argument is made that it is economically and morally responsible to continue fossil fuel use for the sake of raising living standards, with expectation that humanity can adapt to climate change and find ways to minimize effects via advanced technologies.
We suggest that this viewpoint fails to appreciate the nature of the threat posed by ice sheet instability and sea level rise. If the ocean continues to accumulate heat and increase melting of marine-terminating ice shelves of Antarctica and Greenland, a point will be reached at which it is impossible to avoid large scale ice sheet disintegration with sea level rise of at least several meters. The economic and social cost of losing 20 functionality of all coastal cities is practically incalculable. We suggest that a strategic approach relying on adaptation to such consequences is unacceptable to most of humanity, so it is important to understand this threat as soon as possible.
We examine events late in the last interglacial period warmer than today, called Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5e in studies of ocean sediment cores, Eemian in European 25 climate studies, and sometimes Sangamonian in American literature (see Sect. 5 for timescale diagram of Marine Isotope Stages). Accurately known changes of Earth’s astronomical configuration altered the seasonal and geographical distribution of incoming radiation during the Eemian. Resulting global warming was due to feedbacks that amplified the orbital forcing. While the Eemian is not an analog of future warming, it is useful for investigating climate feedbacks, the response of polar ice sheets to polar warming, and the interplay between ocean circulation and ice sheet melt.
Our study relies on a large body of research by the scientific community. After intro- 5 ducing evidence concerning late Eemian climate change, we analyze relevant climate processes in three stages. First we carry our IPCC-like climate simulations, but with growing freshwater sources in the North Atlantic and Southern Oceans. Second we use paleoclimate data to extract information on key processes identified by the modeling. Third we use modern data to show that these processes are already spurring 10 climate change today…
Humanity faces near certainty of eventual sea level rise of at least Eemian proportions, 15 5–9 m, if fossil fuel emissions continue on a business-as-usual course, e.g., IPCC scenario A1B that has CO2 ∼ 700 ppm in 2100 (Fig. S21). It is unlikely that coastal cities or low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, European lowlands, and large portions of the United States eastern coast and northeast China plains (Fig. S22) could be protected against such large sea level rise.
Rapid large sea level rise may begin sooner than generally assumed. Amplifying feedbacks, including slowdown of SMOC and cooling of the near-Antarctic ocean surface with increasing sea ice, may spur nonlinear growth of Antarctic ice sheet mass loss. Deep submarine valleys in West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin of East Antarctica, each with access to ice amounting to several meters of sea level, provide gateways 25 to the ocean. If the Southern Ocean forcing (subsurface warming) of the Antarctic ice sheets continues to grow, it likely will become impossible to avoid sea level rise of several meters, with the largest uncertainty being how rapidly it will occur.
The Greenland ice sheet does not have as much ice subject to rapid nonlinear disintegration, so the speed at which it adds to 21st century sea level rise may be limited. However, even a slower Greenland ice sheet response is expected to be faster than carbon cycle or ocean thermal recovery times. Therefore, if climate forcing continues 5 to grow rapidly, amplifying feedbacks will assure large eventual mass loss. Also with present growth of freshwater injection from Greenland, in combination with increasing North Atlantic precipitation, we already may be on the verge of substantial North Atlantic climate disruption.
Storms conjoin with sea level rise to cause the most devastating coastal damage. 10 End-Eemian and projected 21st century conditions are similar in having warm tropics and increased freshwater injection. Our simulations imply increasing storm strengths for such situations, as a stronger temperature gradient caused by ice melt increases baroclinicity and provides energy for more severe weather events. A strengthened Bermuda High in the warm season increases prevailing northeasterlies that can help 15 account for stronger end-Eemian storms. Weakened cold season sea level pressure south of Greenland favors occurrence of atmospheric blocking that can increase wintertime Arctic cold air intrusions into northern midlatitudes.
Effects of freshwater injection and resulting ocean stratification are occurring sooner in the real world than in our model. We suggest that this is an effect of excessive small 20 scale mixing in our model that limits stratification, a problem that may exist in other models (Hansen et al., 2011). We encourage similar simulations with other models, with special attention to the model’s ability to maintain realistic stratification and perturbations. This issue may be addressed in our model with increased vertical resolution, more accurate finite differencing method in ocean dynamics that reduces noise, and 25 use of a smaller background diffusivity.
There are many other practical impacts of continued high fossil fuel emissions via climate change and ocean acidification, including irreplaceable loss of many species, as reviewed elsewhere (IPCC, 2013, 2014; Hansen et al., 2013a). However, sea level rise sets the lowest limit on allowable human-made climate forcing and CO2 , because of the extreme sensitivity of sea level to ocean warming and the devastating economic and humanitarian impacts of a multi-meter sea level rise. Ice sheet response time is shorter than the time for natural geologic processes to remove CO2 from the climate system, so there is no morally defensible excuse to delay phase-out of fossil fuel emissions as 5 rapidly as possible.
We conclude that the 2 ◦C global warming “guardrail”, affirmed in the Copenhagen Accord (2009), does not provide safety, as such warming would likely yield sea level rise of several meters along with numerous other severely disruptive consequences for human society and ecosystems. The Eemian, less than 2 ◦C warmer than pre-industrial 10 Earth, itself provides a clear indication of the danger, even though the orbital drive for Eemian warming differed from today’s human-made climate forcing. Ongoing changes in the Southern Ocean, while global warming is less than 1 ◦C, provide a strong warning, as observed changes tend to confirm the mechanisms amplifying change. Predicted effects, such as cooling of the surface ocean around Antarctica, are occurring 15 even faster than modeled.
Our finding of global cooling from ice melt calls into question whether global temperature is the most fundamental metric for global climate in the 21st century. The first order requirement to stabilize climate is to remove Earth’s energy imbalance, which is now about +0.6 W m−2 , more energy coming in than going out. If other forcings are unchanged, removing this imbalance requires reducing atmospheric CO2 20 from ∼ 400 to ∼ 350 ppm (Hansen et al., 2008, 2013a).
The message that the climate science delivers to policymakers, instead of defining a safe “guardrail”, is that fossil fuel CO2 emissions must be reduced as rapidly as practical. Hansen et al. (2013a) conclude that this implies a need for a rising carbon 25 fee or tax, an approach that has the potential to be near-global, as opposed to national caps or goals for emission reductions. Although a carbon fee is the sine qua non for phasing out emissions, the urgency of slowing emissions also implies other needs including widespread technical cooperation in clean energy technologies (Hansen et al., 2013a).
The task of achieving a reduction of atmospheric CO2 is formidable, but not impossible. Rapid transition to abundant affordable carbon-free electricity is the core requirement, as that would also permit production of net-zero-carbon liquid fuels from electricity. The rate at which CO2 emissions must be reduced is about 6 % yr−1 to reach 5 350 ppm atmospheric CO2 by about 2100, under the assumption that improved agricultural and forestry practices could sequester 100 GtC (Hansen et al., 2013a). The amount of CO2 fossil fuel emissions taken up by the ocean, soil and biosphere has continued to increase (Fig. S23), thus providing hope that it may be possible to sequester more than 100 GtC. Improved understanding of the carbon cycle and non-CO2 10 forcings are needed, but it is clear that the essential requirement is to begin to phase down fossil fuel CO2 emissions rapidly. It is also clear that continued high emissions are likely to lock-in continued global energy imbalance, ocean warming, ice sheet disintegration, and large sea level rise, which young people and future generations would not be able to avoid. Given the inertia of the climate and energy systems, and the grave 15 threat posed by continued high emissions, the matter is urgent and calls for emergency cooperation among nations.