Category Archives: Climate Change; a Geological Perspective

It looks like sea level rise is accelerating; the era of satellite altimetry

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Sea level. It’s the most common starting point for any kind of elevation measurement, a datum, that for centuries was understood to be an invariant surface. Then some geologists came along and showed that, for eons past, sea level has risen and fallen countless times; coasts were flooded, sea floors exposed. And sea level is still changing, going up in some places, down in others, but on average it is rising; it has been doing this for the last few 1000 years.

The current globally averaged rate of sea level rise is 3.0 +/- 0.4 millimetres per year, based on satellite altimetry. Satellite measurement of sea level is now about 25 years old. Earlier measurements, some dating back to 1700, were made by tide gauges, basically glorified measuring sticks (the initial technology was just that) which over the years, have become sophisticated, automated measuring systems.  Tide gauges measure water levels on a local scale, and in order to make sense of the data in the context of global sea level, all manner of local variables need to be considered: for example, is the location open to the ocean or a sheltered harbour, storm surges, seasonal changes in currents and water mass temperatures, changes in air pressure (sea levels rise during passage of low pressure systems – this is part of the storm surge), and whether the land is rising or subsiding (i.e. local tectonics). In contrast, satellite altimetry gathers data from a much broader swath of the ocean surface. Both Jason 2 and the more recent Jason 3 satellites can cover 95% of the ice-free ocean surface in 10 days. The accuracy of the Jason 3 radar altimeter is currently an impressive 3.3 cm.

Rising sea levels and changing climate are inextricably linked because ocean water mass volumes increase or decrease in concert with changes in the volume of land-based ice (primarily the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets), plus changes in ocean temperature (this is the steric effect) and salinity.  Thus, if there is an acceleration in atmospheric warming or cooling, there will be a reasonably sympathetic acceleration in ocean volume change and therefore, sea level change.  This is the scenario posited by many climate-change model projections – that increased warming will produce an acceleration in sea level rise. A recent publication that analyses the 25 years of satellite altimetry data (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2018), concludes that the (global) average sea level rise is accelerating at 0.084 +/- 0.025 mm/year2, which means that the current speed of sea level rise (about 3 mm/year), will increase year upon year.

The possibility of accelerating sea level rise during the 20th century, based mainly on tidal gauge data, has been debated although most analyses indicated a degree of ambiguity in the data. In fact, a 1990 ICCP report (page 266) concluded there was little concrete evidence at that time for an acceleration, although re-analysis of 20th century tide gauge data, published in Nature (2015) did show a possible accelerating trend. If the present analysis is correct, this is the first time such an acceleration has been demonstrated with reasonable confidence from a single data set.

As the published analysis shows, teasing accurate sea level numbers from the satellite data is not a simple task.  As is the case for any kind of remote sensing or monitoring, there are data corrections and filters.  Some of the corrections include:

  • Terrestrial water storage (rivers, lakes, and groundwater); this is necessary because of natural variability in the exchange between land-based water and the oceans,
  • Natural variability in land-based ice storage and melting, that adds to, or subtracts water from ocean masses,
  • Natural variability in heat exchange between the atmosphere and oceans (the steric contribution to sea level),
  • Multi-year cycles such as ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation)
  • One-off events such as volcanic eruptions that affect regional temperatures because of ash and aerosols; in this case the Pinatubo eruption influence was incorporated into the analysis.
  • And the drift in satellite orbits; this variability is much less than that of tide gauges.

The sum of these errors gives the plus (+) and minus (–) value (0.025 mm/year2) that is attached to the overall result – 0.084 mm/year2 (check the open access publication for details). So, if our current rate of sea level rise is 3mm/year, then in 10 years the rate will have increased (accelerated) to 3.84 mm/year, and after 50 years to 7.2 mm/year (almost double the 2017 rate).

Data correction may seem like a bit of a fudge, but it is a critical part of almost every measurement we take, no matter where or what it is; it is part of the process in science that makes data intelligible and coherent.  Correcting data is part and parcel of any attempt to isolate causes and effects, as well as determining the kinds of error that are inherent in all measurements. The bottom line in this example, and one that is pointed to by the authors, is that the analysis is preliminary, and that some of the corrections might change as our knowledge of climate and other global systems improves.  However, there is confidence that this kind of analysis is on the right track.

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The fractured lives of ice shelves; destined to collapse

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Under the influence of gravity, ice will flow or creep, albeit glacially. Stand in front of a glacier or the edge of an ice sheet, and if you’re patient enough, you will see it creep, inexorably. It may take a while (days, months) but, like I said, be patient. Bits of ice may fall off the front (calve) but that’s more the product of gravitational instability and weakness at the exposed ice edge. If it wasn’t for the propensity to flow, there would be no glaciers, and ice sheets would stand still.

Antarctic ice shelves, those thick, floating wedges and platforms of ice, are a direct consequence of ice flow. One of them, Larsen C, has been in the news of late because a very large chunk (5800 sq. km), broke off and floated away as an iceberg; the inevitable comparisons have the new iceberg (imaginatively named A68) as twice the size of Luxembourg, or about the size of Delaware.  The Larsen C collapse took place in July 2017, during the polar winter, thus requiring thermal images; scientists had to wait for the summer sun to rise before getting a first-hand view of the new iceberg. Continue reading

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Polar bears do not live in the Antarctic, there are no Penguins in the Arctic. The asymmetry of the poles

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This post is about asymmetry – the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions. They are the most frigid places on Earth, but that is about all they have in common; with one other exception –  they are both stunningly beautiful. I can attest to this for the Arctic, or at least the Canadian Arctic Islands where I spent several summers; but I’ve never been to Antarctica. Visual treats everywhere. And silence – above the wind and the hum of a few insects – silence.

There is an intriguing asymmetry in their respective geographies, the timing of ice accumulation, present climates, the flora and fauna. What follows are a few comparisons and contrasts. Continue reading

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Nitrate in excess; a burgeoning, global contamination problem

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A “Nitrate timebomb”.  Last week’s media metaphor (Nov 10, 2017), was no doubt intended to create visions of dire deeds. After all, it seems that explosions are not in short supply these days. The actual story though is more droll, based as it is on the slow leakage of excess chemicals called nitrates, into the global environment. No fireworks; only leakage. The headline in several media outlets, only lasted a day or two, barely scratching our collective consciousness. Perhaps the problem is too big, or too remote – a candidate for the too-hard-basket. As Mark Twain might have said, “I guess so, I dunno”.

Nitrogen itself is not a concern; every breath we take contains 80% N2. It’s what we do with nitrogen that is causing problems, particularly in natural systems like soils, surface waters, groundwater aquifers, and ultimately, the oceans. The scientific paper that caused these brief media conniptions was published this month in Nature Communications (it is Open Access). Continue reading

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Dirt; Soil degradation is a global problem we inflict on ourselves

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The media loves hyperbole. In some ways they remind me of ‘The end is nigh’ cartoon guy. This week (Oct 16, 2017) it’s ‘Ecological Armageddon’, a kind of end-of-the-world announcement that is founded on what looks like a drastic reduction in the insect biomass in parts of Germany; 75% of insects have disappeared since 1989. I don’t mean to trivialise these alarming reports, because if it turns out to be a phenomenon of more global extent (the collapse of bee colonies does not augur well), then the ramifications for activities like food production could be dire. The report’s authors note that the cause of this reduction is not yet understood, a sensible comment based on the limited scope of their study (the paper is Open Access). But their caution has not stifled speculation and hyperbole.

The demise of insects segues into the topic of this blog; the alarming rate at which soils, globally, are being degraded. There is a symbiotic relationship between soils and insects, linked primarily to the vital role both play in vegetation productivity. Continue reading

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Class 5; The Toba eruption – how a super volcano almost stopped humanity in its tracks

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Toba Lake, in northern Sumatra, occupies the ancient Toba caldera. One of its outlets, the Asahan River, is the site of some spectacular white-water, a kayaker’s delight. For anyone willing to run the river, spare a thought for your early human ancestors, who it seems, were lucky to survive the aftermath of a cataclysmic super volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago. Be thankful that they did. Continue reading

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The intriguing paradox of global warming piggybacking on global cooling

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Flood, fire, drought … We have, by luck and muddled management, thwarted pestilence, but it seems that changing weather patterns everywhere are leading us on a merry dance.  Our climate is giving us a bumpy ride; anyone living in the Caribbean and southeast US, or Bangladesh, will attest to this, given the havoc that hurricanes and tropical cyclones have wrought over the past few months (northern hemisphere summer, 2017).  The skinny, outer layers of our world (air and oceans) seem to be getting warmer. No doubt there are consequences?

It may seem paradoxical, but global warming is taking place against a backdrop of global cooling. Forcing of global climates is governed by internal (within our own skinny sphere) and external agents; the latter by solar output and earth’s changing orbit. There is now, good Continue reading

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