Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast

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Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast

Second Edition

David Archer

University of Chicago

submitted 5/1/2010

revised 11/13/2010

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Humankind and Climate

Section 1 The Greenhouse Effect

Chapter 2 Blackbody Radiation

Chapter 3 The Layer Model

Chapter 4 Greenhouse Gases

Chapter 5 What Holds the Atmosphere Up?

Chapter 6 Weather

Chapter 7 Feedbacks

Section II The Carbon Cycle
Chapter 8 Carbon on Earth

Chapter 9 Fossil Fuels

Chapter 10 The Perturbed Carbon Cycle

Section III The Forecast

Chapter 11 The Smoking Gun

Chapter 12 Potential Climate Impacts

Chapter 13 Decisions, Decisions
On-Line Models

A model of infrared radiation in the atmosphere
A model of visible + infrared radiation in the atmosphere

A model of the geological carbon cycle

ISAM Integrated assessment model for future climate change

A Hubbert's Peak calculator

The Kaya Identity model for the growth of the human footprint

Browsing the results of a coupled climate model


Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast is based on a class for undergraduate non-science majors at the University of Chicago, developed by Ray Pierrehumbert and myself. The class serves as partial fulfillment of our general education or “core” science requirements. We teach the class, and I have written the textbook, in a mechanistic way. We are aiming to achieve an intuitive understanding of the ropes and pulleys of the natural world, a fundamental scientific foundation that will serve the student for longer than would a straight presentation of the latest predictions.

The text is aiming at a single problem, that of assessing the risk of anthropogenic climate change. The story ranges from science to economics to policy, through physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and of course atmospheric science. We see the distant past and the distant future. In my opinion, by looking at one problem from many angles the student gets a pretty decent view of how a working scientist really thinks. This is as opposed to, say, taking a survey tour of some scientific discipline.

The text is suitable for students of all backgrounds. We do make some use of algebra, mostly in the form of what are known as (gasp) story problems. The student will be exposed to bits and pieces of chemistry, physics, biology, geology, atmospheric science, and economics, but no prior knowledge of any of these topics is required. One can learn something of what each field is about by learning what it is good for, within the context of the common unifying problem of global warming.

I have provided a project associated with each chapter after the first, either a computer lab or a paper and pencil exercise, suitable to do in lab sections or as homework. The first three are paper and pencil, aimed at building a foundation for understanding the computer labs that follow. The models run on our computers at the University of Chicago, and you can access them through web pages. No special setup of the student’s computer is required, and the students can work equally well in a computer lab or at Starbuck’s (actually, it would be interesting to see if that’s true.).

This book benefited by thorough, thoughtful reviews by Andy Ridgwell, Stefan Rahmstorf, Gavin Schmidt, and a fourth anonymous reviewer. The web interface to the models benefited from input by Jeremy Archer. The visible/IR radiation model was constructed by Ray Pierrehumbert and Rodrigo Caballero. The ISAM carbon cycle model was provided by Atul Jain. The Exercises in Chapters 11 and 12 make use of model output provided by G. Bala, and is plotted using ferret, developed at NOAA PMEL.

Preface to Second Edition

The text has been revised and updated throughout, reflecting results from the fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Scientific Assessment Report, published in 2007.
Dedicated to George Lockwood, and the spirit of curiosity.

Chapter 1. Humankind and Climate

Everyone always complains about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it. --Mark Twain.

The Glaciers are Melting, But Is It Us?

Is it really possible that human activity could alter the weather? As I write it is a crisp, clear fall day. What would be different about this day in 100 years, in a world where the chemistry of the atmosphere has been altered by human industrial activity?

There is no doubt that the Earth is warming. Mountain glaciers are disappearing. The Arctic coast is melting. Global average temperature records are broken year after year. The growing season has been getting longer. Plans are being made to abandon whole tropical islands as they sink into the Pacific Ocean. Shippers are awaiting the opening of the Northwest Passage that early explorers searched for in vain, with the melting of sea ice in the Arctic.

Of course, the natural world is has variable weather all by itself, naturally. Is it likely that some of our recent weather has been impacted by human-induced climate change, or how much of this would have happened anyway? If humans are changing climate, do we know that this is a bad thing? How does the future evolution of climate compare with the climate impacts we may be seeing today?

Weather versus Climate

We should distinguish at the outset between climate and weather. Weather is chaotic, which means that it cannot be forecast very far into the future. Small errors in the forecast grow with time, until eventually the forecast is nothing but error. The word "climate" means some kind of average of the weather, say over 10 years or more. Weather models cannot reliably predict whether it will rain or be sunny on a particular day very far into the future, but climate models can hope to forecast the average raininess of some location at some time of year. Weather is chaotic, but the average is not chaotic, and seems to be in some ways predictable (Chapter 6).

Human forcing of climate is expected to be small compared to the variability associated with the weather. Temperature in the coming century is projected to rise a by few degrees centigrade (Chapter 12). This is pretty small compared to the temperature differences between the equator and the pole, between winter and summer, or even between daytime and night. One issue this raises is that it is tricky to discern a change in the average, when the variability is so much greater than the trend. Careers are spent computing the global average temperature trend from the 100+ year thermometer record (Chapter 11).

The small change in the average, relative to the huge variability, also raises the question of whether a change in the average will even be noticeable. One way that the average weather matters is in precipitation. Groundwater tends to accumulate, reflecting rainfall over the past weeks and months. It may not matter to a farmer whether it rains on one day versus the next, but if the average rainfall in a region changes, that could spell the difference between productive farming and not. A change in the average climate would change the growing season, the frequency of extreme hot events, the distribution of snow and ice, the optimum growth localities of plants and agriculture, and the intensity of storms.

In addition to day-to-day weather, there are longer-lasting variations in climate. One past climate regime was the Little Ice Age, ~1650 – 1800, bringing variable weather to Europe. By some reconstructed temperature records it was about 1°C colder than our “natural” climate from about the year 1950. Before that was the Medieval Climate Anomaly, perhaps 0.5°C warmer over Europe, coincident with a prolonged drought in American southwest. The causes of these climate changes will be discussed in Chapter 11, but for now it is enough to observe that relatively small-sounding average-temperature shifts produced noticeable changes in human welfare and the evolution of history. The climate of the Last Glacial Maximum, 20,000 years ago, was so different from today that the difference would be obvious even from space, in the massive ice sheets and altered coastlines, and yet the average temperature difference between then and today was only about 5-6°C (Chapter 8). Another implication of these natural climate shifts is that it makes it more difficult to figure out whether the present-day warming is natural or caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations and other human impacts on climate.

Forecasting Climate Change

The fundamental process that determines the temperature of the Earth is the balance between energy flowing to the Earth from the sun, versus energy flowing away from the Earth into space. Heat loss from Earth to space depends on Earth’s temperature (Chapter 2). A hotter Earth loses heat faster than a cooler one, everything else being equal. The Earth balances its energy budget by warming up or cooling down, finding the temperature at which the energy fluxes balance, with outflow equaling inflow.

It is possible to change the average temperature of the Earth by altering the energy flow either coming in or going out, for example by changing the brightness of the sun. It is known that there is a small variation in the brightness of the sun correlated with the number of sunspots. Sometimes sunspots disappear altogether, presumably indicating a particularly cool sun. The Maunder minimum was such a period, lasting from 1645-1750, coincident with the Little Ice Age.

Some of the incoming sunlight is reflected back to space without ever being absorbed (Chapter 7). When sunlight is reflected rather than absorbed, it makes the Earth cooler. Clouds reflect light, and so does snow. Bare soil in the desert reflects more light than vegetation does. Smoke emitted from coal-burning power plants produces a haze of sulfuric acid droplets that can reflect light.

The Earth is kept significantly warmer than it would be by the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. Most of the gases in the air are completely transparent to infrared light, meaning that they are not greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect is entirely driven by trace gases in the atmosphere, first among them carbon dioxide or CO2. Water vapor and methane are also greenhouse gases. The impact that a particular greenhouse gas has on climate depends on its concentration (Chapter 4). The strength of the greenhouse effect also depends on the temperature structure of the atmosphere (Chapter 5).

Water vapor is a tricky greenhouse gas, because the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is determined by the current climate. Water tends to evaporate when the air is warm, and condense as rain or snow in cool air. Water vapor, it turns out, amplifies the warming effects from changes in other greenhouse gases. This water-vapor feedback more-or-less doubles the temperature change we would expect from rising atmospheric CO2 concentration without the feedback, in a dry world for example.

Clouds are very effective at absorbing and emitting infrared light, acting like a completely IR-opaque greenhouse gas. A change in cloudiness also affects the visible-light incoming energy flux, by reflecting it (Chapter 7). Clouds are double-edged climate forcing agents, cooling the Earth by reflecting sunlight while warming it by acting like a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, trapping infrared light escaping to space.

Human activity has the potential to alter climate in several ways. Rising CO2 concentration from combustion of fossil fuel is the largest and longest-lasting human-caused climate forcing agent, but we also release or produce other greenhouse gases, such as methane and other carbon molecules, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Particles from smoke stacks and internal combusion engines reflect incoming visible light, altering the heat balance. Particles in otherwise remote clean air may also change the average size of cloud droplets, which has a huge but very uncertain impact on sunlight reflection (Chapter 10).

Many of these climate drivers themselves respond to climate, leading to stabilizing or destabilizing feedbacks. Reconstructions of prehistoric climate changes often show more variability than models tend to predict, presumably because there were positive feedbacks in the real world that are missing in the models. For example, the climate cools, so forest changes to tundra, allowing more of the incoming sunlight to be reflected to space, cooling the climate even more. A climate model in which the forests do not respond to climate would underestimate the total amount of cooling. In the global warming forecast, the feedbacks are everything (Chapter 7).

The forecast for the coming century is also tricky because some parts of the climate system take a long time to change, such as melting an ice sheet or warming the deep ocean. It is hard enough to predict the equilibrium climate response to some change in forcing, but even harder to predict how quickly it will change (Chapter 12).

Carbon, Energy, and Climate

Climate change from fossil fuel combustion is arguably the most challenging environmental issue human kind has ever faced, because CO2 emission is at the heart of how we produce energy, which is pretty much at the heart of our modern standard of living. The agricultural revolution, which supports a human population of 6 billion people and hopefully more, has at its heart the industrial production of fertilizers, a very energy intensive process. It's not so easy to stop emitting CO2, and countries and companies that emit lots of CO2 have strong interest in continuing to do so (Chapter 9).

The energy we extract from fossil fuels originated in the nuclear fires of the sun. Visible light carried the energy to Earth, where it powered photosynthesis in plants, storing energy in chemical bonds between atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and other elements. Plants have two motives for doing this, one to store energy and the other to build the biochemical machinery of life (Chapter 8).

Most of the biological carbon we use for fossil fuels was photosynthesized millions of years ago. Over geologic time, some of the biological carbon has been converted into the familiar fossil fuel types: oil, natural gas, and coal. Coal is the most abundant of these, while the types of oil and gas that are currently being extracted will be depleted in a few decades (Chapter 9). Stored carbon energy is used to do work, in plants, animals, and now in automobiles etc., by reacting the carbon with oxygen to produce CO2. An automobile needs gas and air to run the engine, liberating the chemical energy by combustion. In living things the energy extracting process is called respiration, and it explains why we need to breathe (to obtain oxygen and get rid of CO2) and eat (to get biological carbon compounds) (Chapter 8).

CO2 is released into the atmosphere to join the beautiful cacophony that is the carbon cycle of the biosphere. Trees and soils take up and release carbon, as does the ocean. Carbon is released when tropical forests are cut, while forests in the high latitudes appear to be taking up atmospheric CO2. Most of the CO2 we release to the atmosphere will eventually dissolve in the oceans, but this process takes several centuries. A small fraction, about 10%, of the CO2 released will continue to alter climate for hundreds of thousands of years into the future (Chapter 10).

Assessing the Risk

Is mankind creating a global warming trend? Climate scientists have tried to answer this question by comparing the history of Earth's temperature with the history of the different reasons why temperature might have changed, what are called climate forcings. The sun is more intense at some times than others. Volcanoes occasionally blow dust or haze into the stratosphere where it reflects sunlight back to space. Greenhouse gases and smokestack aerosols are two anthropogenic climate forcings.

Climate scientists have arrived at the conclusion that it is easy to explain the warming as caused by increased greenhouse gas concentrations, but impossible to explain it as a natural occurrence, unforced by human activity (Chapter 11). Greenhouse theory is over one hundred years old, and is required to explain why the natural Earth is as warm as it is (as well as other planets such as Venus and Mars). For the threat of human-induced climate change to go away, we’d have to toss out greenhouse theory, and come up with some other explanation for why the Earth has been warming over the past decades. But there is no existing model or theory of climate that can reproduce the present-day natural climate, but which would not warm significantly if there were more CO2 in the atmosphere.

The forecast for the climate of the coming century is for a temperature increase of 2-5°C by the year 2100. It doesn’t sound like much, until it is compared with the impacts of natural climate changes in the past such as the Little Ice Age (-1 °C) and the Medieval Climate Anomaly (+0.5 °C). These climate shifts were noticeable pretty much everywhere, and game-changing in some places.

The largest unknown in the climate forecast is the amount of CO2 that will ultimately be released. Some amount of global warming is inevitable, but most of the carbon that could be released by 2100 is still in the ground. The decision is being made now, and in the next few decades.

The economic projections are that reducing CO2 emissions substantially might cost a few percent of global net economic production (GNP). That certainly would be a lot of money if you were looking at it piled in a heap, but in an economy that is growing by a few percent per year, a cost of a few percent per year would only set the trajectory of economic production back by a year or two (Chapter 13).

Sometimes climate issues are framed as a balance between the costs of avoiding CO2 emission versus the costs of living with climate change. That way of thinking seems flawed to me because it ignores the unfairness that the people who benefit from CO2 emission, those in the developed world, are not the same as the people who pay the bill, in the developing world and in the distant future. Ultimately, the question of climate change may be a matter of ethics and fairness, as much as one of profit and loss.

Greenhouse gas emission to the atmosphere is an example of a situation called the tragedy of the commons. The benefits of fossil fuel combustion go to the individual, while the costs of climate change are paid by everyone. In this situation there is a natural tendency for everyone to over-exploit the common resource. The solution to this is to change the incentive system, so that the common costs of the decision end up being paid by the person making the decision. Carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes are two proposed ways to do this.

International negotiations are ongoing, within a framework called the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) under the United Nations. The first major milestone was the Kyoto Protocol, initially adopted in 1995. It succeeded in entering into force on 2005, but it has pretty much failed to decrease the rate of CO2 emission.

The ongoing negotiations may be having an impact on energy investment, however, stimulating the growth of alternative energy technology for example. In the next few decades, the biggest changes in carbon emissions could come from conservation and efficiency. The technology exists to begin to cut CO2 emissions. Looking farther ahead, one hundred years from now, new, larger scale energy sources will have to be found. Neither windmills nor nuclear power plants such as we have them today could scale up to the amount of carbon-free energy that humankind will need a century from now.

With our growing technological and intellectual prowess, as well as our exploding population, we are slowly taking over the job of managing the biosphere. May we do it wisely!

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