As Effects of Warming Grow, UN Report is Quickly Dated

Issued less than two years ago, the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a voluminous and impressive document. Yet key portions of the report are already out of date, as evidence shows the impacts of warming intensifying from the Arctic to Antarctica.

In a sense, it might be better if the major reports that come from the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change every half-decade or so were never released to the public. It’s not that the documents themselves are scientifically dubious; on the contrary, they’re quite remarkable in their scope and thoroughness. Like its three predecessors, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, issued in 2007, took more than two years to compile. It synthesized literally thousands of individual peer-reviewed papers, written by hundreds of experts in a dozen different climate-related fields, based on innumerable ground-based and satellite observations, and scores of runs of the most sophisticated climate models available.

As a result, the Fourth Assessment Report (or AR4, to insiders) amounted to a high-resolution snapshot of the state of the planet’s climate, and the best possible set of projections for where climate is headed in the future. But because it was a snapshot, and because both the climate and the human activities that contribute to climate change have continued to evolve, the report was largely out of date the moment it was issued.

Since then, new reports have continued to pour in from all over the world, and climate modelers have continued to feed them into their supercomputers. And while a full accounting will have to wait for the next IPCC report, which is already being assembled, the news is not encouraging.

Unexpectedly rapid melting of the vast ice sheet in Greenland, for example, suggests that sea level could rise between 1 and 2 meters (roughly 3 to 6½ feet) by the end of the century — nearly triple what scientists projected just two years ago. A surprisingly rapid round of melting around the North Pole suggest that the Arctic Ocean could be essentially ice-free in summer within two decades or even less — at least 20 years ahead of the most pessimistic AR4 predictions. West Antarctica, whose ice cap is bigger than Greenland’s, is warming up faster than anyone thought, and a major ice stream in West Antarctica — the Pine Island Glacier — is sliding into the sea at the astonishing rate of two miles a year, adding its mass to steadily rising global sea levels.

Carbon dioxide is spewing into the atmosphere faster than any model anticipated.

Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is spewing into the atmosphere faster than any model anticipated, with the IPCC forecasting that if nothing is done to slow greenhouse gas emissions, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 could be as high as 900 parts per million — triple pre-industrial levels — by the end of the century. That could boost worldwide temperatures by an average of more than 4 degrees C (7 degrees F).

IPCC scientists are now working with the Danish government to update portions of the 2007 report in time for the December climate conference in Copenhagen. And in fairness to the scientists who assembled the AR4, it’s no surprise that there should be surprises. Take sea level: The now-outdated projection in the report pointed to a rise of between .18 and .59 meters (6 inches to 2 feet) by the last decade of the century. But if you read the footnote, notes James McCarthy, the Harvard oceanographer who co-chaired one of three major working groups for the previous report, “it makes clear that the projections don’t take into account changes in ice flow.”

It wasn’t that modelers didn’t think these changes would be important; it was that nobody knew how to incorporate them in a reliable way. So they just left them out. But even as the final version of the AR4 was being put together, new observations were beginning to show that ice flow is indeed changing, especially in Greenland. The 650,000-square-mile icecap that covers most of this enormous island drains to the sea through hundreds of glaciers around its perimeter. And the flow in many of them had sped up — doubled, in fact. At the same time, the gravity-sensing GRACE satellites were detecting a significant loss of mass in the icecap.

A scientist stands alongside a fracture on the Greenland ice sheet. WHOI

Initially, glaciologists thought they knew why. Warmer temperatures are melting ice on the glaciers’ surfaces, and when that water finds a crack to flow into, it does. Eventually, all of that water reaches the rock below, where it serves as a lubricant, allowing the ice to slide more efficiently toward the sea. More recently, scientists have come up with a second, perhaps more important effect: glaciers that reach all the way into the sea have become thinner at their outlets. That makes them float free of the ground beneath, and the resulting loss of friction lets the upstream part of the glacier speed up. It is, wrote Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College, in Massachusetts, on the blog RealClimate last April, “akin to letting off the emergency brake a bit.” The same phenomenon is also accelerating the slide of the Pine Island Glacier and its neighbor, the Thwaites Glacier, into the Southern Ocean.

Armed with this new information, Tad Pfeffer, of the University of Colorado, along with several colleagues, recalculated the projections of sea-level rise and came up with a range of .8 to 2 meters (roughly 2½-feet to 6½-feet); their paper was published last fall in Science. “Even one meter,” says Gavin Schmidt, of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Sciences, “is a disaster. It would directly threaten millions of people, and trillions of dollars of infrastructure.” The original figure wasn’t misguided; it just means that it wasn’t meant to be taken at face value. “We know,” says McCarthy, “that we have a lot to learn.”

What did take climate scientists by surprise is the accelerated melting of Arctic sea ice. Modelers have been predicting for decades that the climate change should proceed fastest above the Arctic Circle. The reason has to do with a powerful positive feedback loop known as Arctic Amplification. As the temperature rises, the ice pack covering the Arctic Ocean starts to melt, replacing white, reflective ice with darker ocean water. The water absorbs solar energy, then radiates its heat back into the atmosphere, which melts more ice, revealing more water, and so on.

That’s only part of the feedback story, says Mark Serreze, Senior Research Scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo. In the autumn, Arctic sea water is warmer than the air above it, but when the ice cover begins to return, it forms an insulating blanket that keeps the heat from transferring to the atmosphere. “When you lose sea ice cover,” says Serreze, “you lose that insulator.” The more open water you have in summer, the longer ice takes to re-form, so this natural insulator is absent for longer than it would normally be. A recent study by Serreze and Julienne Stroeve, a colleague at the NSIDC, showed that the rapid disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice is being amplified throughout the region, with autumn air temperatures in the last four years 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) higher than the 1978 to 2007 average.

Since the late 1970s, satellite observations have shown a steadily growing retreat of Arctic sea ice in summer. Earlier models projected that between 2050 and 2070 the north polar sea would be essentially ice-free for at least part of the year. But in 2005, a steady downward trend in summer ice started to plunge more sharply. It got worse in 2006 and 2007, and moderated only slightly this past summer. The area of the Arctic Ocean now covered by sea ice in summer is only about half as large as in 1950, according to satellite photos and data from earlier studies. The year-round sea ice is also appreciably thinner, often only three feet deep as opposed to nine feet a half-century ago.

If that trend continues, says Serreze, “the move to ice-free will come a lot earlier, say, around 2030. Some people are even saying it could happen as early as a decade from now.” There are some issues with the models, acknowledges Marika Holland, a climate modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research who specializes in sea ice. “They’re incomplete — obviously, because they’re models,” she says. “You can’t include all the gory details.” Still, she says, “the fact that all of the models show a slower rate of melting than we actually see is an eye-opener. Clearly we’re missing something.” Most models, for example, don’t include the effects of soot deposition from faraway smokestacks, and tailpipes, which can darken ice and make it melt more quickly. “How important that might be isn’t entirely clear,” she says.

One major source of uncertainty is what you assume about the growth of anthropogenic CO2.

“Another thing about amplification,” says Serreze, “is that at some point it’s no longer confined to the ocean. You’ve got atmospheric circulation that sends heat out over land.” In the Arctic, much of that land is deeply frozen permafrost. When you warm it up, organic matter that’s been trapped in the soil for many thousands of years decomposes to release carbon dioxide and also methane — a far more potent greenhouse gas, molecule for molecule, than CO2.

Is it happening already? “The models have generally suggested we’d start to see a signal somewhere between 2012 and 2045,” says Dave Lawrence, a modeler at NCAR who specializes in the terrestrial aspects of climate change. “Some observational studies suggest that there have been significant increases in methane, maybe by as much as a factor of two. But you can’t see it from satellites, and we have a very limited number of ground stations. It could be less,” he says, “or it could be a lot more.”

Recent scientific cruises in the Arctic Ocean, however, have discovered high levels of methane bubbling up from the sub-sea permafrost, which apparently is starting to thaw as the Arctic Ocean warms.

These feedbacks are less important in the Antarctic, where most of the ice lies over land, not water, and where the land is essentially all rock, not permafrost. As a result, nobody had expected Antarctica to be warming up much yet. In fact, temperature readings at the South Pole and at Russia’s Vostok Station, in East Antarctica, have shown a slight cooling over the past few decades. That, climatologists believe, is due in part to the ozone hole that opens over the continent every Antarctic spring. At the same time, the Antarctic Peninsula, a finger of land jutting up from West Antarctica toward the southern tip of South America, has been warming rapidly, with mid-winter temperatures in the northwestern peninsula soaring more than 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) since 1950. Large ice shelves, such as the Larsen B in the Weddell Sea, have collapsed in recent years.

“People naively assumed that West Antarctica must be more like East Antarctica than like the Peninsula,” says Eric Steig, of the University of Washington. It’s not. In a letter to Nature last month, Steig and several colleagues used both satellite and weather-station data to show that West Antarctica has been steadily warming for the past 50 years, at an average rate of .1 degree C per decade. And before the ozone hole opened up in the 1980s, East Antarctica was warming up too, and will presumably resume its warming trend as the hole repairs itself now that ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons have been banned.

Finally, one major source of uncertainty in projecting future climate change is what you assume about the growth of anthropogenic CO2 and other greenhouse-gas emissions. Those assumptions are based on projections of economic growth, changes in the efficiency of energy production, the rise of renewable fuels to replace gas, coal and oil, and all sorts of other factors.

Just as with the model projections of the planet’s response to greenhouse gases, the projections of emissions don’t always go according to expectations. According to a report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, atmospheric CO2 increased at a rate of 2.2 ppm (parts per million) in 2007, compared with an average of 2 ppm per year from 2000-2007, and 1.5 ppm in the 1990s. Because feedback mechanisms have only lately been kicking in, most of that has to do with increased burning of fossil fuels. The trend isn’t surprising, given the growth of industry in India and China; what’s worrisome is that its magnitude is greater than that of the most fuel-intensive of the models IPCC uses in forecasting future warming.

Forecasts will be adjusted, only to be challenged as the physical world follows with more surprises.

None of this information was available when the last IPCC report was being put to bed. Neither, on the other hand, was the fact of the current recession. The plunge in economic activity has already led to a pullback in fossil-fuel use. The IPCC is just now beginning to “scope” its next major report, in the quirky language of its website, and depending on the state of the world economy when the Fifth Assessment Report goes to the printer in 2014, the forecasts will be adjusted accordingly — inevitably to be challenged as the physical world follows with more surprises.

But whatever happens, the carbon dioxide we’ve already added to the atmosphere — about 100 ppm over the 280 ppm that were there before the Industrial Revolution — are going to stay there. And according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last month, the effects on temperature, sea level rise and altered weather patterns are already locked in, even if we don’t yet know exactly what they’ll turn out to be, and are likely to persist for 1,000 years. Anything we add from today forward will come on top of that. Just like the Fourth Assessment Report, today’s concentration of human-generated greenhouse gases, already high enough to be changing the climate for the worse, are quickly going to be out of date.