If so what does it tell us?

Are there certain parts of our planet that are the early warning regions showing us how the climate is already responding and how it will continue to respond?  Well, yes actually and we don’t even have to accept or agree with the climate models, the IPCC reports or even the scientists as we can see for ourselves what is changing.  We don’t even need to be scientists and we need look no further than the Arctic and Antarctic.

The Polar Regions are the best Early Warning System we have, so let’s understand why; what is going on there, and what it tells us.  And of the two, the North Pole will be the premier marker because it contains hugely less ice [much of which is floating] so it will react much faster than anywhere else on the Planet for reasons I will explain.

In Part 1 of this series – see http://tranquilityhouses.org.uk/wordpress/2010/04/blog-climate-3/ we showed that more CO2 = a warmer climate.  That is a fact.  What we now have to understand is what the long term impact of a given rise in CO2 will be.

Climate is complex, and numerous things are having an impact on it, but there is something at work causing most of the surface of the Planet to experience a climate lag.  This means we are not yet seeing the true climate impact of all the CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere.  It is called ‘The Parasol’, and we need to understand it to know why we should pay great attention to climate events at the Poles.

The Parasol:

Most of us have heard of the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ but will not perhaps have heard of the ‘Parasol’.  This works in the opposite way to the ‘Greenhouse’ but is also caused by our emissions mostly from burning fossil fuels.  So the activity that is warming the planet is also cooling it – but don’t get too excited as this is not a Eureka moment.  I so wish it was.

What is it? – The Parasol is the result of the ‘detritus’ of fossil combustion which sits in our atmosphere and keeps us cooler than we would otherwise be.  Just as the Greenhouse stops some heat leaving our planet [which therefore warms us up], so the Parasol stops some primary solar radiation ever getting to the surface [which cools us down].  The amount of warming the planet experiences is at best the difference between these two.

Now there are a huge number of influences on our climate but I hope that in a moment most of us will be able to understand the parasol.  Climate Science is not for the fainthearted, but most of the individual factors affecting our climate can be understood if explained carefully.  We don’t have to use complex equations just to understand what is going on.

Let’s first discover if we can see this ‘Parasol’:

  • All who watched any of the Beijing Olympic Games on TV should be aware that before the Games started, the pictures across Beijing showed nothing but a dreadful haze – almost a smokescreen – obliterating buildings not far from the camera.  This was caused by the pollutants emitted by the local power stations which had to be closed down for the duration of the games even for the health of the athletes.  This was the Parasol at ground level and anyone in the haze would have recognized just how much lower the temperature was than in the full sun. But all fossil power stations emit lots of particulates and sulphates (The Parasol elements); it’s just that China’s are hugely worse than most as they burn the lowest grade of coal – which incidentally also emits hugely more CO2 per unit of energy generated than anything else anywhere else as well as having the biggest impact on the Parasol.  All such detritus is nevertheless emitted by all fossil combustion and ascends high in the atmosphere, sitting there for varying periods of time.
  • For another easy to understand example let’s be in an aeroplane at 10,000 metres with cloud beneath us and of course bright sunshine above.  It is almost blinding looking down at the clouds because they are water vapour which is also a reflector and they bounce the sunshine straight back into space.  This vapour is acting exactly as the Parasol does.  No equations needed.

So there is a Parasol; it does keep us cooler than we would be without it, and that is fact.

How powerful is it? – Different elements in the Parasol drop back to Earth in different timeframes depending on the particulate size, with some returning very quickly and some over a multiyear period.  So the value or cooling effect of the Parasol is approximately proportional to the amount of fossil energy being burnt in any year – or put another way, it has been rising constantly since we started burning fossil fuels and along with the climate push of the Greenhouse.  To some degree, the negative temperature impact of the Parasol has risen along with the positive impact of the Greenhouse!   So if our consumption of the fossil fuels levels off or declines – the Parasol will level off or decline with that.  But the Greenhouse is rising ever faster and the Parasol cannot rise with it forever.  Not a great prospect [and deforestation through burning is obviously another major contributor but we are running out of forest to burn].

Interestingly on 9/11 an American scientist wondered if there would be a measurable temperature effect of the grounding of all US passenger aircraft, because jets leave contrails which are water vapour and which reflect solar radiation.  He found that there was indeed a measurable temperature increase resulting from the contrail loss and this was close to 1° – just from 3 days without aeroplanes – and the airline industry says they are having almost no effect!  So the temperature impact of the Parasol is indeed significant, but that is supported by other long term global research as well I will cover in a coming Paper.

Where does it have most effect? – This detritus is therefore being emitted [and the parasol created] mostly from those countries burning most of the fossil fuel – which is the developed world – mostly in the Northern hemisphere – and mostly in the mid latitudes.  Due to its short lifespan, the parasol should not therefore remotely be a constant coolant around planet earth – it should be greatest over the mid latitudes of the northern hemisphere and minimal over the Polar Regions where none is emitted at all.  But we can experience this for ourselves – or depend on the experience of others:

  • For those of us who have been lucky enough to sleep in the open in wild Africa, sleeping on the edge of the Sahara is a privilege.  Looking at the sky after dark is an astonishing experience as the entire sky is almost covered in really bright stars.  They are everywhere and oh so bright, and the reason you see them there and not here is mostly because there is hardly any Parasol over Africa.
  • Now another privilege is to be high in the Andes in South America in the dark.  Here the sky is even more brilliant, and it explains why the Incas and others were so driven by the stars as they dominate the heavens.  It is impossible not to be amazed at the sky.  Up there not only is there almost no parasol, but at over 4,000 metres much of the lower atmosphere is below you as well.

So now we have an effect which significantly cools the planet; is unevenly distributed, and primarily affects mid northern latitudes with the Polar Regions least affected.

How about the Greenhouse?

CO2 being a gas will distribute more easily, and as it stays in the atmosphere for many hundreds of years if not a thousand or more – the greenhouse effect is more evenly distributed hemispherically and through the latitudes.

The Net Effect on Climate

The hypothesis is therefore that the temperature will rise most and fastest where the Parasol is weakest and least where the Parasol is strongest. This would mean the smallest effect would be through the mid northern latitudes where most of the developed world is – and most at the Poles.  So we won’t notice it so much in Europe and the US (as a temperature increase) but the polar bears and Inuits will.  This is obviously very important as we tend to consider only our own environment, and most of the people who are in a position to do something about Climate, including most of our politicians, live in mid northern latitudes where the least temperature impact will be felt.  Were we to spend time at the Earth’s extremes we might be worried and we might have done something long ago.

Some scientists have been investigating the Parasol but were flying the Indian Ocean south of the Maldives to measure it.  From this hypothesis, apart from measuring over the Poles it would be the place on Earth where the Parasol is weakest.  Check a map of the world and see how much industry and emissions occur over the equator.  Forest burning would be the main contributor there.

The greatest primary solar energy rise will therefore be at the poles, so that is where we would expect the initial rise in temperature to show. But that is not all:

A Positive Feedback:

First we need to know what one of these is which isn’t difficult.  As climate changes things happen on the surface of the Earth which either reinforce that change or oppose it.  A positive feedback reinforces it.

While the Antarctic has volumes of ice most of us cannot imagine – enough to raise sea levels around the world by about 60 metres, the Arctic has much much less – enough to raise them only about 7 metres.  And as the North Polar ice cap is floating, it can melt from both the top and the bottom which Antarctica cannot do. So the North Polar Region should tell us most, first.

But now there is this further factor which is to do with the Albedo or reflectivity of the Earth’s surface.  Ice reflects about 90% of arriving radiation whereas the ocean reflects only about 15%.  The warmer the Arctic gets – the more ice melts – and the more that melts the more is replaced by ocean – which absorbs more heat and raises the temperature even faster – which melts even more ice even faster – AND SO ON.  Predicting the date the Arctic could be ice free in summer therefore requires a bit more than simple maths and a very complete knowledge about a great many things.  We cannot just extrapolate from what has happened.  The real answer will be so much sooner.

But this positive feedback isn’t about to be limited to just the floating ice.  As this ice melts the air in the Arctic will warm ever faster which increases the melt rate of the Greenland Icecap – which contains enough water when totally melted to raise sea levels by that 7 metres on its own. (Note the floating ice won’t raise sea levels as it melts – see an ice cube in a drink).  So as the Greenland Ice Cap starts to melt, land will appear which will at best be grey in colour and which, just as with the ocean, will reflect less and retain more heat.  So the Greenland ice sheet is even more difficult to work on as far as “When could it have all melted?” is concerned.

The melting of the Greenland Ice sheet is the element that seems to get mighty confused particularly by the Climate sceptics who either don’t understand it at all or choose to misinterpret it.  When Al Gore in ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ said “If it [the Greenland ice sheet] all melts, sea levels would rise by 7 metres” he was simply stating a fact, yet the sceptics picked holes in that comment.  Not sure why as his statement was absolutely true.

What is happening around the North Pole is therefore a perfect demonstration of the impact a warming climate will have.

So what is Happening? – I could say “Hold onto your hats” as the temperature rise in the Arctic is dreadful – or put another way most of the Arctic area including down into North Eastern Canada is much warmer.   And the focus of the temperature increase is just north of the Bering Strait which is between Alaska and Russia.   Here the highest rise is already over 6°, with a very large area up between 3° and 4°.  Such a rise globally would be a disaster (which we will quantify in a coming White Paper), yet we sit in the developed world with the haze above us carrying on as if nothing is going on.  [My logo is an Ostrich with his head in the sand!  When we get moving he will take it out].

Well it is going on and while some of us may worry about the Polar Bears, it needs to worry us hugely more FOR US!  Yet again I have to say that ignoring what is happening there won’t make the problem go away.  Those who have watched ‘Ice Road Truckers’ on TV in the UK have seen them saying the ice is melting ever earlier in the Spring and forming ever later in the Autumn.

Spot on as predicted.

Other factors that can confuse

The Thermohaline Conveyor: Well I did say the totality of Climate is mega complex even if we can understand most of the individual elements involved, but here is another one that can and does confuse and needs to be understood as it can alter the rate of change of temperature.   I may use the technical terms as the media occasionally uses them and it is as well to know what they mean.  This conveyor is the ocean current system that circumnavigates the planet passing through or across most of our oceans, but the ‘end’ of it is generally called the Gulf Stream because it comes here from off the Gulf of Mexico.  We are on exactly the same latitude as Moscow yet our climate is hugely warmer because of this oceanic current which brings vast quantities of heat to north Western Europe.  So it gives us our agricultural productivity as well as much else.

This current system moves surface water around the world but of necessity the arriving water must return to where the current started, and it does so at depth broadly going underneath the surface flows.  As can be seen, the ‘end’ of the surface circulation is immediately north of Scotland so it fringes that Arctic ice, and as changes occur in the conveyor – they will directly impact on the Arctic pack ice.  Just to confuse as I said. Nothing too simple.

Because the north Polar ice is floating, warmer water passing underneath it will melt it from below, and a warming climate will cause some water flows to be warmer – so it is being attacked from both sides.

Climate history suggests strongly that the Gulf Stream does turn on and off, and if it turned off then the warmer water would not arrive and our region would get hugely colder.  The corollary is that Central America should fry!

Now the driver for the circulation is the salinity and temperature difference of the water around Iceland where the arriving water has to sink and sink in quantity and at speed.  As the salinity decreases this driver is reduced which would slow the flow and reduce the heat arriving in North Western Europe, and all the ice that is melting is fresh water so it is reducing the salinity of the area of ocean that drives the water down.  So a warmer world will reduce the salinity which should reduce the Gulf Stream which would cool us down or stop us getting warmer.   Therefore a warmer world could manifest itself with the UK becoming colder – not a contradiction at all though the climate sceptics would have you believe so. 

A Polar Flip: What is that when it is at home?  Well it is what happened this last winter which made our weather much colder.  The ‘normal’ weather system over the Arctic covers the North Pole through winter with a low pressure area, and this makes the airflow or winds go towards the North Pole.  This in turn means the winds over the UK are South Westerly which means they bring relatively warm air over us from the mid Atlantic.  A ‘Polar Flip’ turns the low pressure area into a high pressure one – so the winds in mid northern latitudes come from the North Pole and are extremely cold.

What causes a Polar Flip?  Sorry, I don’t know, but I do know that a warming climate especially where it doesn’t warm evenly around planet Earth is going to cause changes in the weather systems we simply cannot predict even on a decadal timescale let alone the 100 years of the IPCC Reports.  And while we had a colder winter through 2009/10 just think of the people in Mongolia who lost most of their animals.  We just pop to the supermarket but for them their animals are their lives.  We need to be very aware of what changes in the climate will do both to our fellow humans [who have often had nothing to do with the cause], and on all animal and plant life.

Incidentally the Jet Stream has also been all over the place – a primary culprit of the less sunny summers we have been having. So these ‘less sunny’ summers may well be a result of climate change.

The Skeptics & the Scientists

Many of the changes the climate sceptics claim prove the climate isn’t altering can be explained perfectly well based on the principles of a changing climate.  Unfortunately they choose to limit their arguments just to CO2; temperature and using short periods of climate to argue from.  In reality there are many other man made factors involved like the Parasol, and nothing can be concluded from short timeframes.  We will answer the sceptics fully in due time.

As for the scientists I have to say, even if it might appear otherwise, that I hold them in the highest regard.  They are an amazing team of very dedicated people who are also extremely clever – but climate is complex and I will continue arguing it cannot be modelled effectively.

We ignore climate at our peril.  Our children will be asking why we didn’t respond when there were such obvious climate markers for us to work from. Wearing blinkers doesn’t change the reality – it just stops us recognising it.

The sceptics will go down in history as people driven by immediate economic wealth to the detriment of coming generations.