Is there no such thing as human-induced climate change? Is it all just a natural blip? The Telegraph‘s Christopher Booker seems to think so. Meanwhile, the Unknown Country web site has put solar radiation back in the frame as a candidate for climate disruption — but have they each arrived at these differing positions by cherry-picking the available information to suit their own agendas?
If Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are to be believed, the debate about whether or not global warming is caused by human activity (what’s now called Anthropogenic Global Warming, or AGW) is all-but solved. We are the culprits — at least to a 90% certainty, given the current evidence. Our continuing output of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere is dangerously upsetting the delicate balance of the planet’s climate and is leading to global warming. The most obvious physical evidence for this is the rate at which Arctic sea ice appears to have been melting during the past few years.
However, Christopher Booker, writing in the Telegraph on 4th February 2008 (an article since moved to Booker’s online Notebook and re-dated 18 April 2008), questions this evidence. He points out that while news outlets such as the BBC were keen to report the December 2007 findings on Arctic sea ice loss (which I also quoted in my post The Maya And The Arctic Meltdown), which showed that the summer of 2007 heralded the biggest loss of Arctic sea ice since 1980 (down to 4.2 million sq. km), they’ve been less keen to report that by February 2008, the winter sea ice had recovered to an area of almost 13 million sq. km again — as shown by figures and graphs released by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Mr. Booker feels that these findings have been conveniently ignored by the “warmists” who would rather suppress such information because, he implies, it harms their cause.
My reading of the situation is that the scientists quoted in the article to which I referred fully expect the sea ice to return each winter. They also said that what will help determine the extent of the summer melt in 2008 and in future years will be, amongst other things, the thickness (or perhaps I should say thinness) of that returning winter sea ice and how it’s affected by the warm water advected from the Pacific and Atlantic oceans into the Arctic region. Personally, I will not be surprised to hear, later this year, that the Arctic sea ice has once again retreated to minimal levels — perhaps even more so than in 2007. Mr. Booker, meanwhile, seems happy to use this return of the winter sea ice to dismiss the notion of any form of climate change. I infer from the tone of his article that he’s of the opinion that whatever’s going on, it’s much more likely to be part of a natural cycle. It seems to me he’s the one who’s filtered the available information to suit his own purposes.
But then, I would feel like that. I’m not a “warmist”, but I have no doubt something very bad is going on with the climate, so I’m dismayed when I read articles that seek to undermine that position. My main concern is not about whether it’s anthropogenically induced or a natural phenomenon. Whatever’s causing it, I think we should be preparing for a sudden, nasty shock when we reach a “tipping point” and things change very quickly indeed.
I try to avoid using the term “global warming” too much when writing about this subject (unless I’m quoting someone else who said it), because I think it’s a misnomer. Climate change, or climate disruption, are more accurate terms in my view. The planet may be growing continually warmer (and there is, as you might expect, considerable dispute even about this — see David Whitehouse‘s article, Has Global Warming Stopped?, published online on 19th December 2007 by New Statesman as an example), but that doesn’t necessarily mean our future climate here in the northern hemisphere will simply continue to feel warmer than it has in the past, or warmer than it already is now.
I worry that it may suddenly become very much cooler. (That makes me a coolist, I suppose.) This is based on articles and research I’ve read online and in books and other publications — and on a gut feeling. Hardly scientific, I know, but that’s why I’m trying to better understand the incredibly complex processes underlying climatic balance.
Our sun has a major influence on global climate — and there appears to be a major and unexpected change taking place on the sun, according to Whitley Strieber’s Unknown Country web site. In my post Climate Change: Sunspots? Or Us? I wrote about some research, reported by BBC News Online, that appeared to break the theoretical link between solar activity and global warming. Recently, Unknown Country published information on its Superstorm QuickWatch page that put solar activity back on my radar — not as a cause of global warming, but global cooling.
Here again, though, perhaps all is not quite as it seems.
I give a lot of credence to the information this web site provides, so I was disappointed to find an inaccuracy in its reporting on this subject. Inferring that the sun is possibly about to enter an unusually quiet phase, the site said that despite the appearance of a high-latitude reverse polarity sunspot on December 14, 2007, the sun, as of February , remained devoid of the sunspots that would signal the beginning of the next solar maximum. However, according to information archived at SpaceWeather.com, this statement is not true — its archives show that while the December activity caused a good deal of excitement amongst the solar physics community who’ve been looking out for the first “official” sunspot to mark the beginning of Solar Cycle 24, the December activity turned out not to be the hoped-for sign — because it never developed into a sunspot. However, there was a further outbreak, sighted on 4th January 2008, which did become a sunspot and in doing so it did officially kick off Solar Cycle 24 (pictured — click for larger image). I hope this minor inaccuracy was merely an oversight by the Unknown Country team that will soon be corrected. They’re right, however, in saying that things have been quiet since Solar Cycle 24 began — the SpaceWeather.com site’s archives show that no other high-latitude, reverse polarity sunspots have developed since that first one in January. This possibly ominous sign gives the Unknown Country team the collywobbles — and, in turn, me too — though SpaceWeather.com doesn’t think it’s unusual.
Notwithstanding their date error, the general thrust of the Unknown Country piece elaborates on solar activity’s effect on our climate, and it makes sobering reading. Normally, it says, the appearance of such a sunspot signals the beginning of a period of higher solar activity, and NASA scientists had predicted in 2005 that the 2008-2011 solar max would be one of the most intense on record. The lack of activity since December (or, more accurately, January) has the Unknown Country team worried that the sun may really be entering a quieter, longer-term cycle. (Image shows the sun on 19th February 2008 — devoid of any sunspots.)
The last time the sun went into “hibernation” began in approximately 1250, and lasted, with cyclic changes, into the mid 18th century — a period we now call “The Little Ice Age”.
At present, it continues, the gas profile of the atmosphere is similar to that which appears at the end of interglacials, and it is possible that, if another period of reduced solar output is in the offing, a new ice age could begin, following a pattern similar to that predicted in the book [The Coming Global] Superstorm. In the past, increased solar output has led to the retreat of glaciers, exposing millions of square miles of previously frozen soils to thawing, with the result that massive quantities of methane have entered the atmosphere, resulting in even higher temperatures and, in the end, the appearance of another interglacial period of relatively warm weather. During this period, greenhouse gasses have at first declined, then risen again as continued increases in solar output have resulted in high arctic heating.
Then, when solar output suddenly drops again, a period of extremely violent weather has followed, culminating in a winter of very extensive snowfall over the northern hemisphere, followed by a summer where the combination of the increased reflectivity of the snowpack and reduced solar output causes the snow to fail to melt, with the result that the next winter brings more snow, and another ice age commences.
There’s my worry in a nutshell — in just a single year, the earth could be set on a path leading to an extended period of freezing temperatures lasting centuries.
Whether or not climate change is human-induced, or human-assisted, may, in the end, turn out to be a moot point. There are bigger influences playing their part — and you can’t get much bigger than the sun. There’s a lot more research being conducted into what’s happening to our solar life-giver, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.
I agree with the Unknown Country team when they write that at present, the question of what the sun will do over the next few years is of overwhelming importance in understanding how humanity might most usefully minimize the effects of what appears to be a period of sudden climate change that is rapidly gaining momentum.
Contrasting Unknown Country’s concerns about a quiet Solar Cycle, SpaceWeather.com comments that many forecasters believe Solar Cycle 24 will be big and intense. Peaking in 2011 or 2012, (coinciding, perhaps with the end of the Mayan calendar?) the cycle to come could have significant impacts on telecommunications, air traffic, power grids and GPS systems. In this age of satellites and cell phones, the next solar cycle could make itself felt as never before. The furious storms won’t start right away, however. Solar cycles usually take a few years to build to a frenzy and Cycle 24 will be no exception.
“We still have some quiet times ahead,” says David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center, reassuringly.
Phew. That’s good news, at least. If it can be believed.
Read my Climate Change posts in chronological order by using the Climate Change Log.