One of the key questions about climate change is the strength of the greenhouse effect. In scientific terms this is described as “climate sensitivity”. It’s defined as the amount Earth’s average temperature will ultimately rise in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Climate sensitivity has been hard to pin down accurately. Climate models give a range of 1.5-4.5℃ per doubling of CO₂, whereas historical weather observations suggest a smaller range of 1.5-3.0℃ per doubling of CO₂.
In a new study published in Science Advances, Cristian Proistosescu and Peter J. Huybers of Harvard University resolve this discrepancy, by showing that the models are likely to be right.
According to their statistical analysis, historical weather observations reveal only a portion of the planet’s full response to rising CO₂ levels. The true climate sensitivity will only become manifest on a time scale of centuries, due to effects that researchers call “slow climate feedbacks”.
Fast and slow
To understand this, it is important to know precisely what we mean when we talk about climate sensitivity. So-called “equilibrium climate sensitivity”, or slow climate feedbacks, refers to the ultimate consequence of climate response – in other words, the final effects and environmental consequences that a given greenhouse gas concentration will deliver.
These can include long-term climate feedback processes such as ice sheet disintegration with consequent changes in Earth’s surface reflection (albedo), changes to vegetation patterns, and the release of greenhouse gases such as methane from soils, tundra or ocean sediments. These processes can take place on time scales of centuries or more. As such they can only be predicted using climate models based on prehistoric data and paleoclimate evidence.
On the other hand, when greenhouse gas forcing rises at a rate as high as 2–3 parts per million (ppm) of CO₂ per year, as is the case during the past decade or so, the rate of slow feedback processes may be accelerated.
Measurements of atmosphere and marine changes made since the Industrial Revolution (when humans first began the mass release of greenhouse gases) capture mainly the direct warming effects of CO₂, as well as short-term feedbacks such as changes to water vapour and clouds.
A study led by climatologist James Hansen concluded that climate sensitivity is about 3℃ for a doubling of CO₂ when considering only short-term feedbacks. However, it’s potentially as high as 6℃ when considering a final equilibrium involving much of the West and East Antarctic ice melting, if and when global greenhouse levels transcend the 500-700ppm CO₂ range.
This illustrates the problem with using historical weather observations to estimate climate sensitivity – it assumes the response will be linear. In fact, there are factors in the future that can push the curve upwards and increase climate variability, including transient reversals that might interrupt long-term warming. Put simply, temperatures have not yet caught up with the rising greenhouse gas levels.
Prehistoric climate records for the Holocene (10,000-250 years ago), the end of the last ice age roughly 11,700 years ago, and earlier periods such as the Eemian (around 115,000-130,000 years ago) suggest equilibrium climate sensitivities as high as 7.1-8.7℃.
So far we have experienced about 1.1℃ of average global warming since the Industrial Revolution. Over this time atmospheric CO₂ levels have risen from 280ppm to 410ppm – and the equivalent of more than 450ppm after factoring in the effects of all the other greenhouse gases besides CO₂.
Crossing the threshold
Climate change is unlikely to proceed in a linear way. Instead, there is a range of potential thresholds, tipping points, and points of no return that can be crossed during either warming or transient short-lived cooling pauses followed by further warming.
The prehistoric records of the cycles between ice ages, namely intervening warmer “interglacial” periods, reveal several such events, such as the big freeze that suddenly took hold about 12,900 years ago, and the abrupt thaw about 8,200 years ago.
In the prehistoric record, sudden freezing events (called “stadial events”) consistently follow peak interglacial temperatures.
Such events could include the collapse of the Atlantic Mid-Ocean Circulation (AMOC), with consequent widespread freezing associated with influx of extensive ice melt from the Greenland and other polar ice sheets. The influx of cold ice-melt water would abort the warm salt-rich AMOC, leading to regional cooling such as is recorded following each temperature peak during previous interglacial periods.
A collapse of the AMOC, which climate “sceptics” would no doubt welcome as “evidence of global cooling”, would represent a highly disruptive transient event that would damage agriculture, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere. Because of the cumulative build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere such a cool pause is bound to be followed by resumed heating, consistent with IPCC projections.
Humanity’s release of greenhouse gases is unprecedented in speed and scale. But if we look far enough back in time we can get some clues as to what to expect. Around 56 million years ago, Earth experienced warming by 5-8℃ lasting several millennia, after a sudden release of methane-triggered feedbacks that caused the CO₂ level rise to around 1,800ppm.
Yet even that sudden rise of CO₂ levels was lower by a large factor than the current CO₂ rise rate of 2-3ppm per year. At this rate, unprecedented in Earth’s recorded history of the past 65 million years (with the exception of the consequences of asteroid impacts), the climate may be entering truly uncharted territory.
Icebergs breaking off Antarctica, even massive ones, do not typically concern glaciologists. But the impending birth of a new massive iceberg could be more than business as usual for the frozen continent.
The Larsen C ice shelf, the fourth-largest in Antarctica, has attracted worldwide attention in the lead-up to calving an iceberg one-tenth of its area – or about half the area of greater Melbourne. It is still difficult to predict exactly when it will break free.
But it’s not the size of the iceberg that should be getting attention. Icebergs calve all the time, including the occasional very large one, with nothing to worry about. Icebergs have only a tiny direct effect on sea level.
The calving itself will simply be the birth of another big iceberg. But there is valid concern among scientists that the entire Larsen C ice shelf could become unstable, and eventually break up entirely, with knock-on effects that could take decades to play out.
Ice shelves essentially act as corks in a bottle. Glaciers flow from land towards the sea, and their ice is eventually absorbed into the ice shelf. Removal of the ice shelf causes glaciers to flow faster, increasing the rate at which ice moves from the land into the sea. This has a much larger effect on sea level than iceberg calving does.
While the prediction that Larsen C could become unstable is based partly on physics, it is also based on observations. Using aerial and satellite images, scientists have been able to track very similar ice shelves in the past, some of which have been seen to retreat and collapse.
The death of an ice shelf
The most dramatic ice shelf collapse observed so far is that of Larsen C’s neighbour to the north – the imaginatively named Larsen B. Over the course of just six weeks in 2002 the entire ice shelf splintered into dozens of icebergs. Almost immediately afterwards, the glaciers feeding into it sped up by two to six times. Those glaciers continue to flow faster to this day.
In our new study, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, we turn the clock back even further to look at the Wordie ice shelf, on the west coast of the southern Antarctic Peninsula, which began to retreat in the 1960s and eventually disappeared in January 2017.
Over the past 20 years, observations have shown that the main glacier feeding into the Wordie ice shelf, the Fleming Glacier, has sped up and thinned. Compared with the glaciers feeding Larsen B and C, Fleming Glacier is massive: 80km long, 12km wide, and 600m thick at its front.
We used historic aerial photographs from 1966 to create an elevation map of the Fleming Glacier, and compared it to elevation measurements from 2002 to 2015. Between 1966 and 2015 the Fleming Glacier thinned by at least 100m near the front. The thinning rate, which is the elevation change rate, rapidly increased: the thinning rate after 2008 is more than twice that during 2002 to 2008, and four times the average rates from 1966 to 2008.
Ice flow speeds have also increased by more than 400m per year at the front since 2008. This is the largest speed change in recent years of any glacier in Antarctica. These changes all point to ice shelf collapse as the cause.
We estimate the total glacier ice volume lost from all glaciers that feed the Wordie is 179 cubic kilometres since 1966, or 319 times the volume of Sydney Harbour. The weight of this ice moving off the land and into the ocean has caused the bedrock beneath the glaciers to lift by more than 50mm.
Other research has suggested this lift could have acted to slow the glacier’s retreat, but it’s clear that the bedrock deformation has not stopped the ice movement speeding up. It seems the Fleming Glacier has a long way to go before it will return to a new stable state (in which snowfall feeding the glacier equals the ice flowing into the oceans).
Fifty years after the Wordie Ice Shelf began to collapse, the major feeding glaciers continue to thin and flow faster than before.
We can’t yet predict the full consequences of the new iceberg calving from Larsen C. But if the ice shelf does begin to retreat or collapse, history tells us it is very possible that its glaciers will flow faster – making yet more sea level rise inevitable.
Chen Zhao, PhD candidate of Antarctic Science, University of Tasmania; Christopher Watson, Senior Lecturer, Surveying and Spatial Sciences, School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania, and Matt King, Professor, Surveying & Spatial Sciences, School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania
Volcanoes erupt when magma rises through cracks in the Earth’s crust, but the exact processes that lead to the melting of rocks in the Earth’s mantle below are difficult to study.
In our paper, published today in the journal Nature, we show how it is possible to use satellite measurements of movements of the Earth’s surface to observe the melting process deep below New Zealand’s central North Island, one of the world’s most active volcanic regions.
Rifting in the Taupo volcanic zone
The solid outer layer of the Earth is known as the crust, and this overlies the Earth’s mantle. But these layers are not fixed. They are broken up into tectonic plates that slowly move relative to each other.
It is along the boundaries of the tectonic plates that most of the geological action at the Earth’s surface occurs, such as earthquakes, volcanic activity and mountain building. This makes New Zealand a particularly dynamic place, geologically speaking, because it straddles the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates.
The central region of the North Island is known as the Taupo volcanic zone, or TVZ. It is named after Lake Taupo, the flooded crater of the region’s largest volcano, and it has been active for two million years. Several volcanoes continue to erupt regularly.
The TVZ is the southern tip of a zone of expansion, or rifting, in the Earth’s crust that extends offshore for thousands of kilometres, all the way north in the Pacific Ocean to Tonga. Offshore, this takes place through sea floor spreading in the Havre Trough, creating both new oceanic crust and a narrow sliver of a plate right along the edge of the Australian tectonic plate. Surprisingly, this spreading is going on at the same time as the adjacent Pacific tectonic plate is sliding beneath the Australian plate in a subduction zone, triggering some of the major earthquakes in the region.
Sea floor spreading results in melting of the Earth’s mantle, but it is very difficult to observe this process directly in the deep ocean. However, sea floor spreading in the Havre Trough transitions abruptly onshore into the volcanic activity in the TVZ. This provides an opportunity to observe the melting in the Earth’s mantle on land.
In general, volcanic activity happens whenever there is molten rock at depth, and therefore the volcanism in the North Island indicates vast volumes of molten rock beneath the surface. However, it has been a tricky problem to understand exactly what is causing the melting in the first place, because the underlying rocks are buried by thick layers of volcanic material.
We have tackled this problem using data from Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors, some of which form part of New Zealand’s GeoNet network and some that have been used in measurement campaigns since 1995. The sensors measure horizontal and vertical shifts in the Earth’s surface to millimetre precision, and our research is based on data collected over the past two decades.
Bending of the earth’s surface
The GPS measurements in the Taupo volcanic zone reveal that it is widening east-west at a rate of 6-15 millimetres per year – in other words, the region, overall, is expanding, as we anticipated from our previous geological understanding. But it was surprising to discover that, at least for the past 15 years, a roughly 70-kilometre stretch is undergoing strong horizontal contraction and is also rapidly subsiding, quite the opposite of what one might anticipate.
Also unexpectedly, the contracting zone is surrounded by regions that are expanding, but also uplifting. Trying to make sense of these observations turned out to be the key to our new insight into the process of melting beneath the TVZ.
We found that the pattern of contraction and subsidence, together with expansion and uplift, in the context of the overall rifting of the TVZ, could be explained by a simple model that involves the bending and curving of an elastic upper crust, pulled downwards or pushed upwards by an underlying vertical driving force. The size of the region that is behaving like this, extending for about 100 kilometres in width and 200 kilometres in length, requires this force to originate nearly 20 kilometres underground, in the Earth’s mantle.
Melting the mantle
When tectonic plates drift apart on the sea floor, the underlying mantle rises up to fill the gap. This upwelling triggers melting, and the reason for this is that hot, but solid, mantle rocks undergo a reduction in pressure as they move upwards and closer to the Earth’s surface. This drop in pressure, rather than a change in temperature, begins the melting of the mantle.
But there is another property of this upwelling mantle flow, because it also creates a suction force that pulls down the overlying crust. This force comes about because as part of the flow, the rocks have to effectively “turn a corner” near the surface from a predominantly vertical flow to a predominantly horizontal one.
It turns out that the strength of this force depends on how stiff or sticky the mantle rocks are, measured in terms of viscosity (it is difficult to drive the flow of highly viscous or sticky fluids, but easy in runny ones).
Experimental studies have shown that the viscosity of rocks deep in the Earth is very sensitive to how much molten material they contain, and we propose that changes in the amount of melt provide a powerful mechanism to change the viscosity of the upwelling mantle. If mantle rocks don’t contain much melt, they will be much stickier, causing the overlying crust to be pulled down rapidly. If the rocks have just melted, then this makes the flow of the rocks runnier, allowing the overlying crust to spring back up again.
We also know that the movements that we observe at the surface with GPS must be relatively short lived, geologically speaking, lasting for no more than a few hundred or few thousand years. Otherwise they would result in profound changes to the landscape and we have no evidence for that.
Using GPS, we can not only measure the strength of the suction force, but we can “see” where, for how long, and by how much the underlying mantle is melting. This melt will eventually rise up through the crust to feed the overlying volcanoes.
This research helps us to understand how volcanic systems work on a variety of time scales, from human to geological. In fact, it may be that the GPS measurements made over just the last two decades have captured a change in the amount of mantle melt at depth, which could herald the onset of increased volcanic activity and associated risk in the future. But we don’t have measurements over a long enough time period yet to make any confident predictions.
The key point here is, nevertheless, that we have entered a new era whereby satellite measurements can be used to probe activity 20 kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface.