Tag Archives: warming

Greenland’s ice sheet is poised to melt forever — we have 600 years to stop it

New research suggests that the Greenland Ice Sheet is inching in towards a dangerous threshold: in around 600 years, it will melt enough that the sheet won’t ever recover, no matter what we do, and sea levels remain permanently higher. This scenario assumes that current rates of melt remain constant.

The glaciers and landscape in northeast Greenland, captured in 2014. Here you can see refrozen meltwater ponds from last year’s summer cover with snow that has fallen during the winter months. Image credits Credits: NASA /Michael Studinger.

The team from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and the University of Reading show that climate change is leading to an irreversible rise in the sea level alongside a declining Greenland ice sheet. Worse yet, this sheet is closing in on a point of no return, past which it will never fully regrow — leaving a permanent mark on the global sea level.

Big Ice, Big Loss

The Greenland ice sheet is roughly three times the size of Texas and stores an important quantity of Earth’s frozen water. Under current melting rates, it contributes around 1mm of sea level rise per year (around one-quarter, 25%, of the total increase). It’s estimated that it lost a total of three-and-a-half trillion tonnes of ice since 2003, even with seasonal growth periods factored in.

Needless to say, that’s a lot of water. Rising seas threaten all coastal areas around the world, and can affect potentially millions of people who live in low-lying areas.

If the current target of the Paris Agreement (keeping global warming from going above 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures) is not met, we should expect the sea level to rise by several meters and significant ice loss, the authors note. Both would last for tens of thousands of years, and the worse global warming gets, the more dramatic these shifts would be.

The current paper shows that even if temperatures are brought back under control at a later time, the Greenland ice sheet will never fully regrow after it passes its critical threshold. If that point is passed, the sea level would permanently rise by at least 2 meters (with other sources adding to that figure).

Being so large, the sheet has a significant cooling effect on its local climate. In essence, there’s so much ice in Greenland that it’s making Greenland colder and more icy — not a bad trick. But if the sheet declines, local temperatures would increase, which increases melting rates, and snowfall levels would drop dramatically, which would slow down the formation of ice. The team estimates that if the Greenland ice sheet retreats from the northern part of Greenland, that area would remain permanently ice-free. All in all, we have around 600 years before that threshold is passed, the team estimates based on data from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The team simulated the effects of the Greenland ice sheet melting under a range of scenarios, from minimal warming to worst-case conditions. All scenarios led to a decline in size of the sheet and contributed to rising sea levels to one extent or another.

So what’s to be done? Well we need to stop and then reverse climate warming before that threshold is reached.

“Our experiments underline the importance of mitigating global temperature rise. To avoid partially irreversible loss of the ice sheet, climate change must be reversed — not just stabilised — before we reach the critical point where the ice sheet has declined too far,” says Professor Jonathan Gregory, climate scientist from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science and University of Reading, a co-author of the paper.

There were some scenarios the team found where the ice sheet could be stabilized before reaching its point of no return. All of them, however, hinged on steps being taken ahead of time to reverse global warming.

The paper “Large and irreversible future decline of the Greenland ice sheet” has been published in the journal The Cryosphere.

New climate models show that global warming will be faster than expected

Things are about to get hotter than we expected.

Image via Pixabay.

New research suggests that the greenhouse gases we’re putting into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels will heat the planet more quickly than we assumed. By 2100 mean temperatures could rise 6.5 to 7.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if carbon emissions continue unabated, according to two separate models from leading research centers in France.

Tres hot

“With our two models, we see that the scenario known as SSP1 2.6 — which normally allows us to stay under 2°C — doesn’t quite get us [the intended results],” Olivier Boucher, head of the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace Climate Modelling Centre in Paris, told AFP.

The 6.5 to 7.0 degrees Celsius mark is two degrees higher than the equivalent scenario (SSP5) set out in the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2014 benchmark 5th Assessment Report. This difference in temperatures comes from refined predictions based on more complex and reliable climate scenarios, the team explains. They also suggest that the Paris Agreement goals of capping global warming at “well below” 2°C, and 1.5°C if possible, will be harder to reach, the scientists said.

It may not seem like a lot, but you have to keep in mind that the recent uptick in deadly heat waves, droughts, floods, and the intensity of tropical cyclones we’ve been seeing lately are happening with barely one degree Celsius of warming.

The two new models are part of a generation of around 30 new climate models collectively known as CMIP6; these will be used as a base for the IPCC’s next major report, scheduled for 2021. While they’re definitely not perfect, the models in CMIP6 are the best and most refined of their kind that we have. Their advantages include increased supercomputing power and sharper representations of weather systems, natural and man-made particles, and how clouds evolve in a warming world.

“We have better models now,” said Boucher. “They have better resolution, and they represent current climate trends more accurately.”

One of the core findings of these models is that increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere will warm Earth’s surface more easily than earlier calculations had suggested. The higher “equilibrium climate sensitivity” (or ECS) predicted by the models means that humanity’s carbon budget — how much we can emit before we see negative effects — is smaller than we previously assumed. Boiled down, a higher ECS means a greater likelihood of reaching higher levels of global warming, even with deeper emissions cuts.

Needless to say, this is bad news for global efforts to curb climate change.

The two French climate models, including one from France’s National Centre for Meteorological Research (CNRM), are to be unveiled at a press conference in Paris.

Air pollution.

Reducing air pollution levels won’t cause a spike in climate heating

Cleaning up pollution won’t make climate change worse, according to new research.

Air pollution.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study from the University of Reading comes to put to rest the concerns that reducing air pollution could amplify climate heating. This concern stems from the fact that pollution particles help clouds form water droplets (which makes the clouds thicker) so they reflect more incoming sunlight and drive temperatures down. While this mechanism is definitely valid, the team reports, pollution also causes several types of clouds to grow thinner, allowing more sunlight to pass through.

All in all, the authors conclude, pollution is unlikely to offset more than half the warming caused by greenhouse gases.

Clean temperatures

“Until now, it was assumed that thicker clouds form when water droplets condense around the particles in polluted air, delaying rainfall, and allowing clouds to reflect more sunlight back into space,” says Velle Toll, lead author of the study. “To test this, we studied satellite data from clouds near sources of pollution.”

The extent to which air pollution helps cool the Earth down wasn’t reliably known up to now. If this cooling is strong, then removing it would amplify climate heating; however, if its cooling effect is negligible, then clearing pollutants out of the air would be a net win for humanity at large.

The present study comes to address this lack in our understanding. The authors showed that air pollution affects different clouds in different ways, causing some to grow thicker while thinning others out. The findings suggest that current plans to curb global warming by moving to cleaner sources of energy may still work without leading to an unexpected extra source of heating.

“There was little change in average water content across all the polluted clouds we found, showing that pollution makes little difference overall to many types of clouds. Some clouds got thicker, but other areas thinned out,” Toll explains.

“This reduces a big area of uncertainty for future forecasts of the climate. Our study provides more evidence that cutting emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution is a win-win situation for the health of people’s lungs and for preventing the worst impacts of climate change.”

For the study, the team looked at near-infrared satellite images of clouds formed across the world over areas with significant air pollution levels. Clouds that are affected by said pollution look ‘brighter’ in these images, which allowed the team to pinpoint them exactly.

Hundreds of such clouds, produced by tiny pollution particles from sources such as volcanoes, cities, ships, factories, and wildfires were included in the analysis. The researchers then compared the changes caused by pollution in these clouds to ones simulated by climate models, to see how reliable our predictions of future climates are.

All in all, they report, air pollution could offset just half of the warming caused by greenhouse gases at best. In other words, we’d get at least two times as much cooling if we scrubbed the atmosphere of both pollution and greenhouse gases — not to mention massive benefits to our health, as virtually every person on Earth is exposed to ‘unsafe’ levels of air pollution.

“Our study provides assurances that polluted air has a limited ability to prevent the atmosphere from heating up, in addition to being bad for people’s health,” says Dr. Nicolas Bellouin, study co-author and a Working Group I lead author in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report.

“There is now one less excuse for us not to cut emissions of both air pollution and greenhouse gases, or we will continue to see temperature rises that put people and the natural world in danger. In any case, a small temperature rise resulting from cutting pollution is a price very much worth paying to prevent greater, long-term harm caused by greenhouse gases.”

The paper “Weak average liquid-cloud-water response to anthropogenic aerosols” has been published in the journal Nature.


Research is getting to the root of climate change with bigger, deeper plant roots

New research is trying to give plants stronger, deeper roots to make them scrub more CO2 out of the atmosphere.


Image via Pixabay.

Researchers at the Salk Institute are investigating the molecular mechanisms that govern root growth pattern in plants. Their research aims to patch a big hole in our knowledge — while we understand how plant roots develop, we still have no idea which biochemical mechanisms guide the process and how. The team, however, reports to finding a gene that determines whether roots grow deep or shallow in the soil and plans to use it to mitigate climate warming.

Deep roots are not reached by the scorch

“We are incredibly excited about this first discovery on the road to realizing the goals of the Harnessing Plants Initiative,” says Associate Professor Wolfgang Busch, senior author on the paper and a member of Salk’s Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory and its Integrative Biology Laboratory.

“Reducing atmospheric CO2 levels is one of the great challenges of our time, and it is personally very meaningful to me to be working toward a solution.”

The study came about as part of Salk’s Harnessing Plants Initiative, which aims to grow plants with deeper and more robust roots. These roots, they hope, will store increased amounts of carbon underground for longer periods of time while helping to meaningfully reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

The researchers used thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) as a model plant, working to identify the genes (and gene variants) that regulate auxin. Auxin is a key plant hormone that has been linked to nearly every aspect of plant growth, but its exact effect on the growth patterns of root systems remained unclear. That’s exactly what the team wanted to find out.

“In order to better view the root growth, I developed and optimized a novel method for studying plant root systems in soil,” says first author Takehiko Ogura, a postdoctoral fellow in the Busch lab. “The roots of A. thaliana are incredibly small so they are not easily visible, but by slicing the plant in half we could better observe and measure the root distributions in the soil.”

One gene called EXOCYST70A3, the team reports, seems to be directly responsible for the development of root system architecture. EXOCYST70A3, they explain, controls the plant’s auxin pathways but doesn’t interfere with other pathways because it acts on a protein PIN4, which mediates the transport of auxin. When the team chemically altered the EXOCYST70A3 gene, the plant’s root system shifted orientation and grew deeper into the soil.

“Biological systems are incredibly complex, so it can be difficult to connect plants’ molecular mechanisms to an environmental response,” says Ogura. “By linking how this gene influences root behavior, we have revealed an important step in how plants adapt to changing environments through the auxin pathway.”

“We hope to use this knowledge of the auxin pathway as a way to uncover more components that are related to these genes and their effect on root system architecture,” adds Busch. “This will help us create better, more adaptable crop plants, such as soybean and corn, that farmers can grow to produce more food for a growing world population.”

In addition to helping plants scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere, the team hopes that these findings can help other researchers understand how plants adapt to differences between seasons, such as various levels of rainfall. This could also point to new ways to tailor plants to better suit today’s warming, changing climate.

The paper “Root System Depth in Arabidopsis Is Shaped by EXOCYST70A3 via the Dynamic Modulation of Auxin Transport” has been published in the journal Cell.

Climate change denial might soon be abhorred as slavery, says David Attenborough

As he appeared in front of a committee of the British Parliament, the famous naturalist said we are “we are right now in the beginning of a big change,” adding that one day, climate change denial might be view through the same lens as slavery.

“There was a time in the 19th century when it was perfectly acceptable for civilised human beings to think it was morally acceptable to actually own another human being as a slave,” Attenborough commented. “And somehow or other in the space of I suppose 20 or 30 years the public perception of that totally transformed. By the middle of the 19th century it was becoming intolerable.”

Few people in science communication command as much respect as David Attenborough. Attenborough is widely considered a national treasure in Britain, although he himself does not like the term. People, in Britain and above, listen to him. Just last year, Queen Elizabeth banned plastic straws and bottles on the royal estates after seeing a David Attenborough documentary, and just months after that, a national ban on plastic straws was implemented in the UK. I’m not saying it’s only owed to him, but the attention and respect that he commands is simply unparalleled. Attenborough is also not afraid to use his voice, as was the case when he recently appeared in front of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee on how to tackle the climate emergency.

“I am sorry that there are people who are in power … notably, of course, [in] the United States but also in Australia [who are climate change deniers], which is extraordinary because Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”

Attenborough is right. In the past century, Australia has experienced an increase of nearly 1 °C in average annual temperatures, with several areas experiencing substantially reduced rainfall and a higher likelihood of extreme weather events such as drought or wildfires. Attenborough recalls being in a state of shock when he dived to see the Great Barrier Reef 10 years ago, only to find a ghost — a shadow of the reef’s former self.

“I will never forget diving on the reef about 10 years ago and suddenly seeing that instead of this multitude of wonderful forms and life that it was stark white. It had bleached white because of the rising temperatures and the increasing acidity of the sea,” he said.

He emphatically spoke against climate change denial, but also said that the world shouldn’t stifle debate — it’s just that the debate shouldn’t focus on topics which are scientifically settled.

“It’s very, very important that voices of dissent should have a place where they’re heard and the arguments between the two sides can be worked out in public, and compared and analysed in public,” he said.

But there is also good news, Attenborough says. He praised the recent UK commitment to achieve zero net emissions by 2050, noting that it is a “tough target” which will “cost money”. But Attenborough sees the best reasons for optimism in the younger generations.

“The idealism of youth is something that should be treasured and respected,” he said.

He says that the younger generations are growing up with a new set of ideals and morals, despising pollution and greenhouse gas emissions the way we now despise slavery.

It’s an intriguing comparison. The similarities are there: it’s largely caused by the affluent parts of the world, and the less affluent are the ones who will suffer the most. The ethical resemblance is also there, and like slavery, climate change is already starting to cause social unrest.

“I’m OK, and all of us here are OK, because we don’t face the problems that are coming. But the problems in the next 30 years are really major problems that are going to cause social unrest, and great changes in the way that we live and what we eat. It’s going to happen,” Attenborough added.

It remains to be seen whether Attenborough speech resonates with the British parliament and politicians from other places of the world. We are indeed at a point where climate change denial is simply unacceptable. We are living in a climate emergency which affects each and every one of us — whether we like it or not.

Planet hands.

Climate warming is definitely, for sure, no doubt about it, our fault, says new study

University of Oxford researchers have confirmation: we’re causing climate change, natural factors have very little to do with it.

Planet hands.

Image via Pixabay.

Human activity and other external factors are responsible for climate warming, the paper reports. This, in itself, isn’t exactly news; there has been consensus around the issue in the scientific community for a long time now. One piece of the puzzle, however, remained unclear — what effect natural ocean currents had on climate patterns over the course of multiple decades. This lack of understanding has been leveraged by some to throw the whole thing into question.

The new paper, however, is clear: natural ocean-cycles have very little to no effect on global warming.

Man-made climate change

“We can now say with confidence that human factors like greenhouse gas emissions and particulate pollution, along with year-to-year changes brought on by natural phenomenon like volcanic eruptions or the El Niño, are sufficient to explain virtually all of the long-term changes in temperature,” says study lead author Dr Karsten Haustein.

“The idea that oceans could have been driving the climate in a colder or warmer direction for multiple decades in the past, and therefore will do so in the future, is unlikely to be correct.”

For the study, the team of researchers at the Environmental Change Institute looked at ocean and land surface temperature measurements since 1850. Apart from human-induced factors such as greenhouse gas concentrations, the analysis also looked at other occurrences such as volcanic eruptions, solar activity, and air pollution (both natural and anthropic).

The key finding that the authors report on is that slow-acting ocean cycles don’t explain changes in global temperatures, including several decades of accelerated or slowed warming. The paper shows that the ‘early warming’ period (1915 — 1945) was also caused by external factors. Formerly, this period of warming had been largely attributed to natural ocean temperature changes, which fueled uncertainty around the effect of unpredictable natural factors on climate.

“Our study showed that there are no hidden drivers of global mean temperature,” says co-author Dr Friederike Otto. “The temperature change we observe is due to the drivers we know.”

“This sounds boring, but sometimes boring results are really important. In this case, it means we will not see any surprises when these drivers — such as gas emissions — change. In good news, this means when greenhouse gas concentrations go down, temperatures will do so as predicted; the bad news is there is nothing that saves us from temperatures going up as forecasted if we fail to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

The paper “A limited role for unforced internal variability in 20th century warming” has been published in the Journal of Climate.

Ocean dwellers are hit twice as hard by climate change as land-based species

Twice as many ocean-borne species have experienced local extinctions due to climate change than land-based ones, a new study reports.

Churning water.

Image via Pixabay.

They may be hidden from our sight, but ocean dwellers are also suffering from climate change. In fact, says a new study led by researchers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, they might be carrying the brunt of it. The rate of climate-change-induced extirpation in the oceans is double that seen on land, the paper explains. In addition to destabilizing marine environments, this may also significantly impact communities that rely on fish and shellfish for food or finance.

A thing of the deep

“We find that, globally, marine species are being eliminated from their habitats by warming temperatures twice as often as land species,” said lead author Malin Pinsky, an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

“The findings suggest that new conservation efforts will be needed if the ocean is going to continue supporting human well-being, nutrition, and economic activity.”

The study is the first to compare cold-blooded marine and land species’ sensitivity to a warming climate, as well as their ability to find shelter from heat in their natural habitats, the authors write. It included data (recorded in studies around the world) on nearly 400 different species including fish, reptiles, and spiders. The study notes that ancient extinctions have often been concentrated at specific latitudes and in specific ecosystems when the climate changed rapidly. Future warming is likely to trigger the loss of more marine species from local habitats and more species turnover in the ocean.

The team calculated safe conditions for 88 marine and 294 land species, as well as the coolest temperatures they could expect, in their natural habitats, during the hottest months of the year. On average, marine species are more likely to live in temperature conditions that are on the edge of dangerous. They also can’t seek shelter from the heat in forests, underground, or in shaded areas like land-based animals can — which further compounds their woes.

Such findings are particularly troubling as they showcase how fragile marine species can be in the face of climate change. And, it needn’t be whole species that goes extinct for the damage to mount — the team says that even the loss of local populations can deplete a species’ genetic diversity and have cascading impacts on the ecosystems that benefit human society.

“Understanding which species and ecosystems will be most severely affected by warming as climate change advances is important for guiding conservation and management,” the study says.

The paper ” Greater vulnerability to warming of marine versus terrestrial ectotherms” has been published in the journal Nature.

CO2 emissions.

Atmospheric greenhouse gas levels hit new record. Just like in 2017… and 2016

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have hit a record high — again.

CO2 emissions.

Image credits Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research University Network / Flickr.

United Nations (UN) officials reported last week that greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere have hit a record high. The report, published in preparation for the COP24 climate summit to be held in Poland next month, also warns that the time to act is running short.

Too much bad gas

“Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth,” the head of the World Meteorological Organization Petteri Taalas said in a statement.

“The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin — the flagship annual report of the UN’s weather agency, WMO (World Meteorological Organization) — has been tracking the content of various gases in the atmosphere since 1750. This year’s report (covering data for 2017), puts CO2 content in the atmosphere at 405.5 ppm (parts per million). This is the single highest value we’ve ever seen during our time on the planet — it’s up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015. Both years were record-setters in the CO2-content department themselves.

However, it’s not the first time our planet has experienced such levels of carbon dioxide. The WMO has reliable CO2 concentration estimates for the last 800,000 years, drawn from analysis of air bubbles locked in the ice sheets of Greenland or Antarctica. It also has rough estimates of the gas’ concentration in our atmosphere spanning the last five million years, mostly drawn from chemical analysis of fossils.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3°C warmer,” Taalas said.

The agency also points to rising concentrations of methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone-depleting gases (such as CFC-11) in addition to CO2. Carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) all broke new records in 2017, with CO2 at 405.5 ppm, CH4 at 1859 ppm, and N2O at 329.9 ppb. These values represent, respectively, 146%, 257%, and 122% of pre-industrial (before 1750) levels.

We need to scrub

All in all, this isn’t good news. While the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is indeed a direct consequence of emissions, that’s only part of the picture. Emissions are how much of such compounds we release into the wild; the levels reported on by the WMO are what stays there after plants, oceans, and all sorts of other players are done absorbing their share. ‘Their share’ amounts to roughly 25% of all emissions for oceans and the biosphere, plus a little extra that goes into the lithosphere (i.e. rocks) and cryosphere (i.e. ice).

These atmospheric concentrations reported on by the WMO are, then, the year-after-year build-up of emissions that our planet can’t process. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the body tasked with reviewing climate science and organizing the international effort against climate change, net emissions must be brought to zero in order to limit warming to below 1.5°Celsius.

This basically means either not emitting anything in the first place (which is highly unlikely to happen right now), or scrubbing as much greenhouse gas out of the air as we put out — whether this is done through natural or technological means isn’t really important. If we can’t rise up to the challenge, notes WMO’s deputy chief, Elena Manaenkova, all that CO2 will end up in the atmosphere and oceans — and plague us for hundreds of years. To put it in context, the cost of climate-related disasters topped $2.25 trillion worldwide from 1998 to 2017. The U.S. had “the worst” losses with $944.8 billion, followed by China with $492.2 billion, and Japan with $376.3 billion, Niall McCarthy writes for Forbes. The UN reports that 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. A warmer climate means more and more powerful disasters (such as droughts, storms, or disease).

“There is currently no magic wand to remove all the excess CO2 from the atmosphere,” she said. “Every fraction of a degree of global warming matters, and so does every part per million of greenhouse gases,” she said.

UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned in an open letter addressed to all member states at COP24 that the world faces dire consequences if we don’t change our ways. “Entire nations, ecosystems, peoples, and ways of life could simply cease to exist,” she said. She cited evidence that nations are not on track to meet the commitments made in Paris in support for her claims.

In response to a recent tweet from US president Donald Trump — “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS – Whatever happened to Global Warming?” — deputy WMO chief Elena Manaenkova chose to simply tell reporters that the science on global warming is “unequivocal.”


The report “WMO Greenhouse Gas Bulletin (GHG Bulletin) – No. 14: The State of Greenhouse Gases in the Atmosphere Based on Global Observations through 2017” is available on the WMO’s page here.

Last year was the warmest humanity ever recorded without El Niño, NASA warns

The Earth continues to heat up according to a NASA analysis that revealed 2017 was the second warmest year since global estimates became possible in 1880. More worryingly, it was only second to 2016, which saw increases in temperature caused by El Niño, the warm phase of the cyclical El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). When correcting for the phenomenon, 2017 takes the lead.


Image credits Cuddy Wifter.

The year continued the ignoble, decades-long warming trend of the globe — 17 out of the 18 warmest years on record have occurred between 2001 and today. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) reports that globally-averaged temperatures in 2017 were 1.6° Fahrenheit higher than the 1951-1980 mean.

It came second as the warmest-ever recorded year behind 2016. However, temperatures then were bumped up by El Niño, which pushes warmer fronts of water from the western tropical Pacific Ocean towards the coast of South America. This movement of warm water causes warming effects across the globe.

When El Niño is factored out, 2017 becomes the warmest year ever recorded by humanity.

The Earth warmed up overall, but weather dynamics mean that this effect wasn’t homogenous across the face of the planet — as such, different locations experienced different amounts of warming.

“Despite colder than average temperatures in any one part of the world, temperatures over the planet as a whole continue the rapid warming trend we’ve seen over the last 40 years,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt.

The strongest warming trends were seen in the Arctics, which continued to bleed ice cover and volume in 2017, the report adds.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers produced an independent analysis on the subject, which strongly confirms NASA’s findings, with the exception that NOAA lists 2017 as the third warmest year on record.

The two agencies used different methods to analyze temperatures across the globe, which created this small difference in ranking. NASA tracks temperatures using a combination of data from 6,300 weather stations, ship- and buoy-based recordings of sea-surface temperatures, as well as research stations in the Antarctic. The algorithm that data is fed through was designed to consider sources of interference to produce the global average temperature deviations from the baseline period of 1951 to 1980, according to NASA.

This processing (and the fact that NOAA uses its own algorithms) is why the two agencies’ results diverge slightly. However, the findings reported in both documents largely overlap, and both agree that the five warmest years on record have taken place since 2010.

Temp recording over time.

They say an image is worth a thousand words.
Image credits NASA.

“NOAA scientists used much of the same raw temperature data, but with a different baseline period, and different methods to analyze Earth’s polar regions and global temperatures,” the NASA report reads.

NASA estimates that the global mean change in temperature they calculated is accurate within 0.1°F with a 95% certainty level — which is very solid. Any uncertainty arises due to changes in measurement practices over time, and to some weather stations being relocated over the studied period.


Google used DeepMind to cut their electricity bill by a whopping 15%

Google is putting DeepMind’s machine learning to work on managing their sprawling data centers’ energy usage, and it’s is performing like a boss — the company reports a 15% drop in consumption since the AI took over.

Image via brionv/flickr

Google is undeniably a huge part of western civilization. We don’t search for something on the Internet anymore, we google it. The company’s data servers pretty much handle all of my mail at this point, along with YouTube, social media platforms and much more. But even so, it’s easy to forget that the Google we know and interact with every day is just the tip of the iceberg; it relies on huge data servers to process, transfer and store information — and all this hardware needs a lot of power.

So much power, in fact, that the company decided to do something about it. On Wednesday, Google said it had proved it could cut the energy use of its data centers by 15% using machine learning from DeepMind, the AI company it bought in 2014. These centers use up significant power to cool and maintain an ideal working environment for the servers — requiring constant adjustments of air temperature, pressure, and humidity.

“It’s one of those perfect examples of a setting where humans have a really good intuition they’ve developed over time but the machine learning algorithm has so much more data that describes real-world conditions [five years in this case]” said Mustafa Suleyman, DeepMind’s co-founder.

“It’s much more than any human has ever been able to experience, and it’s able to learn from all sorts of niche little edge cases seen in the data that a human wouldn’t be able to identify. So it’s able to tune the settings much more subtly and much more accurately.”

Suleyman said that the reduction in power use was achieved through a combination of factors. On one hand, DeepMind is able to more accurately predict incoming computational load — in other words, it could estimate when people accessed more data-heavy content such as YouTube videos. The system also matched that prediction more quickly to the required cooling load than human operators.

“It’s about tweaking all of the knobs simultaneously,” he said.

Ok, so Google’s electricity bill just went down; good for them, but what does this have to do with us? Well, a lot, actually. Data centers gobble up a lot of energy, and that means a lot of greenhouse gas emissions — combined, data centers have emission levels similar to those seen in aviation. When Google first disclosed its carbon footprint in 2011 it was roughly equivalent to Laos’s annual emissions but since then they claim they upped their game, getting 3.5 times as much computational power for the same amount of energy. Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year.

Using machine learning is only the latest step in optimizing their system. The company began toying with this idea two years ago, and since then they’ve tested it on “more than 1%” of its servers, Suleyman said. It is now being used across a “double-digit percentage” of all Google’s data centers globally and will be applied across all of them by the end of the year. They haven’t released the exact amount of power their data centers use, but claims that in total its activity makes up 0.01% of global electricity use (and most of that probably goes towards the data centers.)

But DeepMind is leaving a considerable mark on their energy efficiency. It cut energy expenditure for cooling by 40%, which reduced the company’s overall power consumption by 15%.

“I really think this is just the beginning. There are lots more opportunities to find efficiencies in data centre infrastructure,” Suleyman added.

“One of the most exciting things is the kind of algorithms we develop are inherently general … that means the same machine learning system should be able to perform well in a wide variety of environments [think power generation facilities or energy networks].”

Sophia Flucker, the director of Operational Intelligence, a UK-based consultancy that advises data centers on their energy use, said it was feasible that Google had achieved such a big reduction.

“I’ve worked with some award-winning data centres, which still had plenty of room for improvement,” she said.


Climate change is impacting wine grape harvest dates in Switzerland and France, NASA finds

A new collaboration study between NASA and Harvard University found that climate change is breaking an important link between droughts and the grape harvests in France and Switzerland.

Image credits Wikimedia user Verita

By analyzing records of wine-grape harvests between 1600 and 2007, researchers found that during the latter half of the 20th century these began shifting dramatically; between 1600 to 1980, earlier harvests were recorded only in years with warmer, drier springs and summers. But, from 1981 onward, farmers harvested the grapes earlier even in years without drought. This all comes down to shifting climate patterns.

The finding is important because high quality wines typically come from earlier harvests in relatively colder grape-growing regions, such as France and Switzerland.

“Wine grapes are one of the world’s most valuable horticultural crops and there is increasing evidence that climate change has caused earlier harvest days in this region in recent decades,” said Ben Cook, lead author and climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York.

“Our research suggests that the climate drivers of these early harvests have changed.”

Wine ratings show that the best grapes are typically harvested in years with above-average rainfall early in the growing season, followed by late-season droughts.

“This gives vines plenty of heat and moisture to grow early in the season, while drier conditions later in the season shift them away from vegetative growth and toward greater fruit production” said the study’s co-author, ecologist Elizabeth Wolkovich of Arnold Arboretum and the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

“So far, a good year is a hot year,” she added.

However, she pointed out that the earliest French harvest ever recorded–2003, when a deadly heat wave hit Europe and grapes were picked a full month ahead of the once-usual time — did not produce particularly exceptional wines.

“That may be a good indicator of where we’re headed. If we keep pushing the heat up, vineyards can’t maintain that forever.”

The study looked at variability and trends in harvest dates over the last 400 years in Western Europe. It also took into account climate data recorded with instruments during the 20th century and (before these became available) reconstructions from tree rings and historical documents of temperature, precipitation and soil moisture all the way back to 1600.

The results were compared to wine quality from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions in France based on the ratings of vintages over the past 100 years. Detailed quality information was available for those two regions in addition to the broader harvest data available throughout France and Switzerland.

The study’s results suggests that the role drought and moisture play in the time of harvest and the quality of the wine is undergoing a fundamental change; throughout history, warm temperatures have steadily led to earlier harvests and high-quality wines. Recent, large-scale climate shifts in the last few decades however have caused this effect to largely disappear.

“Wine quality also depends on a number of factors beyond climate, including grape varieties, soils, vineyard management and winemaker practices,” Cook said.

“However, our research suggests the large-scale climate drivers these local factors operate under has shifted. And that information may prove critical to wine producers as climate change intensifies during the coming decades in France, Switzerland and other wine-growing regions.”

In the long run, these shifts could be the bane of regions with deep traditions in wine-making, as the vines will struggle to adapt to their new climates.

The full paper, titled “Climate change decouples drought from early wine grape harvests in France” has been published online in the journal Nature Climate Change and can be read here.

Oceanographers Liz Creed (Kongsberg, Inc.) and Andy Thompson (Caltech) run through a series of tests in preparation for the release of a Seaglider into the Weddell Sea in January 2012. (Credit: Alan Jamieson/Caltech)

Robot Underwater Gliders show How Antarctic Ice is Melting

Over ninety percent of all the world’s ice is in Antarctica, where it can run 4000-5000 meters deep. Yet, as a result of global warming, the ice sheet is melting at a rapid rate making it the most significant contributing factor to world sea level rise. It’s simple to throw in a label like global warming and be done with it, though. There’s still so much scientists need to find out, like what are the underlying mechanisms that cause ice loss – truly, this is a highly complex task. In the face of such complexity, a scientist’s best friend is data and a slew of mechanized underwater gliders may just be the best solution in this case. A study published in Nature Geoscience describes how these gliders were used to determine how warm water influences ice loss, where no other option was feasible.

Probing Antarctica’s water – where’s all the heat gone?

Oceanographers Liz Creed (Kongsberg, Inc.) and Andy Thompson (Caltech) run through a series of tests in preparation for the release of a Seaglider into the Weddell Sea in January 2012. (Credit: Alan Jamieson/Caltech)

Oceanographers Liz Creed (Kongsberg, Inc.) and Andy Thompson (Caltech) run through a series of tests in preparation for the release of a Seaglider into the Weddell Sea in January 2012. (Credit: Alan Jamieson/Caltech)

The gliders are very small – only six feet in length – and come equipped with sensors that track temperature, salinity and oxygen levels in the water. These were used to study these characteristics up to several thousands feet below the Antarctic shoreline. To reach these depths, the gliders employ a pump that flushes liquid inside a compartment to make it denser than the sea water. When it needs to reach the water surface (it does so each several hours, where it signals the research team to pick it up and download the data), the pump injects liquid into a bladder on the outside of the glider, making it less dense and more buoyant so it can rise.

[YOU WON’T BELIEVE] Antarctica was home to a rainforest some 50 million years ago

Caltech Seaglider SG539 (“Queequeg”). Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marketing & Communications

Caltech Seaglider SG539 (“Queequeg”). Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech Marketing & Communications

Traditionally, things like water salinity and temperature are determined using submersible probes launched from ships or via satellites. There’s only so much time the ship can spend at sea and satellites can’t probe temperature and salinity at very high depths, nor they have the best accuracy. As such, these gliders came as a godsend – they could stay at sea for months and months, surfacing only every couple of hours to transmit data. The wealth of information was immense, which led to a more refined view of what’s going on with the waters around the Antarctic and consequently how the continent’s ice is getting lost.


Credit: Thompson et al. ( 2014)

The gliders show that swirling ocean eddies, similar to atmospheric storms, play an important role in transporting warm waters to the Antarctic coast.

“When you have a melting slab of ice, it can either melt from above because the atmosphere is getting warmer or it can melt from below because the ocean is warm,” says lead author Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

“All of our evidence points to ocean warming as the most important factor affecting these ice shelves, so we wanted to understand the physics of how the heat gets there.”

Eddies warming the Antarctic waters


Temperature profile along a cross-section in the northwestern Weddell Sea on the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The shallower, coastal waters are on the left, and the deeper ocean on the right. The white section shows the seabed, part of the Antarctic land mass. The white dotted lines show the paths of the robot gliders when taking readings. Thompson et al. ( 2014)

Because there’s salinity, the warmest water doesn’t necessarily stay at the very top of the layer. Instead, as data from the glider clearly shows, the warm water is sandwiched between layers of varying temperature. This is highly important since it reveals that eddies – swirling underwater currents – are at the root of this warming.

“Eddies are instabilities that are caused by ocean currents, and we often compare their effect on the ocean to putting a spoon in your coffee,” Thompson says. “If you pour milk in your coffee and then you stir it with a spoon, the spoon enhances your ability to mix the milk into the coffee and that is what these eddies do. They are very good at mixing heat and other properties.”

“Ocean currents are variable, and so if you go just one time, what you measure might not be what the current looks like a day later. It’s sort of like the weather—you know it’s going to be warm in the summer and cold in the winter, but on a day-to-day basis it could be cold in the summer just because a storm came in,” Thompson says.

“Eddies do the same thing in the ocean, so unless you understand how the temperature of currents is changing from day to day—information we can actually collect with the gliders—then you can’t understand what the long-term heat transport is.”

Map of Antarctica. Credit: Creative Commons

Map of Antarctica. Credit: Creative Commons

Understanding how ice is lost of the great important in order to make projections on how it will fair in the future. The better your model, the better your predictions. The Antarctic ice sheet spans more than 14 million square kilometers (think of the USA + Mexico) and every year some 150 billion tonnes of ice are lost. Most of the lost ice comes form the vulnerable Antarctic Peninsula, highlighted by the red rectangle above.

“Our research reveals the process by which warm water is being transported towards the ice. It is important because the rapidly melting ice sheets on the coast of West Antarctica are a potential major contributor to rising ocean levels worldwide,” co-author, Professor Karen Heywood said.

The gliders aren’t limited to Antarctic waters, though. Thompson and team plan on deploying an upgraded version (the Waveglider) to study a rough patch of ocean between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica, called the Drake Passage. Here, deep water from the Southern Ocean are “ventilated”—or emerge at the surface—a phenomenon specific to this region of the ocean. By studying this watery patch, researchers will better understand the CO2 exchange between water and the atmosphere.

Antarctic ice sheet. Amazing photo shot by  STEVEN KAZLOWSKI/ GETTY IMAGES

Antarctic ice sheet. Amazing photo shot by STEVEN KAZLOWSKI/ GETTY IMAGES

“With the Waveglider, we can measure not just the ocean properties, but atmospheric properties as well, such as wind speed and wind direction. So we’ll get to actually see what’s happening at the air-sea interface.”

“The Southern Ocean is the window through which deep waters can actually come up to ‘see’ the atmosphere”—and it’s also a window for oceanographers to more easily see the deep ocean,” he says. “It’s a very special place for many reasons.”

Ocean gliders are increasingly becoming popular, thanks to their practicability, for scientific research. A few years ago, the PacX Wave Glider, also known as Papa Mau, finally reached the end of its epic journey after it reached Queensland, Australia setting a new world record for the longest distance traveled by an autonomous vehicle. PacX swam over 9,000 miles after it departed from its original starting point – San Francisco Bay. Not only did the glider survive the high seas and a journey of this length, but more importantly, it collected and transmited ocean data in real-time from the most remote portions of the Pacific Ocean.

Taking a look at the ‘little ice age’ of 1810

ice-ageGlobal warming is one of the main concerns on everybody’s lips, causing more and more damage to the environment every year, sometimes in ways that seem hard to believe; everyday there seems to be a new report about something that went, is going, or will be going terribly wrong. However, in the early 1800s, the situation was in diametric contradiction with everybody being worried about a global cooling that seemed to come out of nowhere.

It all peaked in 1816, when in most places of the world there was actually no summer at all ! That year’s chill was blamed by climatologists on the eruption of the Indonesian volcano called Tambora, but why the few years before 1816 were also way colder than usually remained a mystery. However, newly uncovered evidence from the ice of Antarctica and Greenland suggests that another volcanic eruption was probably responsible for it.

Jihong Cole-Dai, a chemistry professor at South Dakota State University led the expeditions that cleared this intriguing question that seemed to be without an answer. He found evidence of another eruption some 6 years before the 1815 one (which was responsible for the 1816 cooling). Here’s why major volcano eruptions have such a big influence:  they practically dump immense quantities of sulfur dioxide and ash that act pretty much like an umbrella, shading the Earth and reflecting sunlight for several years.

However, it’s obvious that a single volcanic eruption couldn’t be responsible for ‘freezing’ a whole decade. Cole-Dai and his team found evidence of one more eruption that helped trigger the mini ice age. However, they weren’t able to pinpoint the volcano, saying that they only know it has to be somewhere close to the equator and really big. I don’t know for sure but I’m guessing that a more detailed analysis will give some more clues regarding this volcano and researchers will be able to find it, despite the fact that it seems to be a ‘needle in the haystack’ kind of search.