You Cannot Imagine “A World Without Clouds”

by Duane Nichols on December 30, 2019

Climate Change is happening faster than expected. Tipping points could bring precipitous change

A World Without Clouds

From an Article by Natalie Wolchover, Quanta Magazine, February 25, 2019

SUMMARY — A state-of-the-art supercomputer simulation indicates that a feedback loop between global warming and cloud loss can push Earth’s climate past a disastrous tipping point in as little as a century.

On a 1987 voyage to the Antarctic, the paleoceanographer James Kennett and his crew dropped anchor in the Weddell Sea, drilled into the seabed, and extracted a vertical cylinder of sediment. In an inch-thick layer of plankton fossils and other detritus buried more than 500 feet deep, they found a disturbing clue about the planet’s past that could spell disaster for the future.

Lower in the sediment core, fossils abounded from 60 plankton species. But in that thin cross-section from about 56 million years ago, the number of species dropped to 17. And the planktons’ oxygen and carbon isotope compositions had dramatically changed. Kennett and his student Lowell Stott deduced from the anomalous isotopes that carbon dioxide had flooded the air, causing the ocean to rapidly acidify and heat up, in a process similar to what we are seeing today.

While those 17 kinds of plankton were sinking through the warming waters and settling on the Antarctic seabed, a tapir-like creature died in what is now Wyoming, depositing a tooth in a bright-red layer of sedimentary rock coursing through the badlands of the Bighorn Basin. In 1992, the finder of the tooth fossil, Phil Gingerich, and collaborators Jim Zachos and Paul Koch reported the same isotope anomalies in its enamel that Kennett and Stott had presented in their ocean findings a year earlier. The prehistoric mammal had also been breathing CO2-flooded air.

More data points surfaced in China, then Europe, then all over. A picture emerged of a brief, cataclysmic hot spell 56 million years ago, now known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). After heat-trapping carbon leaked into the sky from an unknown source, the planet, which was already several degrees Celsius hotter than it is today, gained an additional 6 degrees. The ocean turned jacuzzi-hot near the equator and experienced mass extinctions worldwide. On land, primitive monkeys, horses and other early mammals marched northward, following vegetation to higher latitudes. The mammals also miniaturized over generations, as leaves became less nutritious in the carbonaceous air. Violent storms ravaged the planet; the geologic record indicates flash floods and protracted droughts. As Kennett put it, “Earth was triggered, and all hell broke loose.”

…… more of the article is below …….

The PETM doesn’t only provide a past example of CO2-driven climate change; scientists say it also points to an unknown factor that has an outsize influence on Earth’s climate. When the planet got hot, it got really hot. Ancient warming episodes like the PETM were always far more extreme than theoretical models of the climate suggest they should have been. Even after accounting for differences in geography, ocean currents and vegetation during these past episodes, paleoclimatologists find that something big appears to be missing from their models — an X-factor whose wild swings leave no trace in the fossil record.

Evidence is mounting in favor of the answer that experts have long suspected but have only recently been capable of exploring in detail. “It’s quite clear at this point that the answer is clouds,” said Matt Huber, a paleoclimate modeler at Purdue University.

Clouds currently cover about two-thirds of the planet at any moment. But computer simulations of clouds have begun to suggest that as the Earth warms, clouds become scarcer. With fewer white surfaces reflecting sunlight back to space, the Earth gets even warmer, leading to more cloud loss. This feedback loop causes warming to spiral out of control.

For decades, rough calculations have suggested that cloud loss could significantly impact climate, but this concern remained speculative until the last few years, when observations and simulations of clouds improved to the point where researchers could amass convincing evidence.

Now, new findings reported today in the journal Nature Geoscience make the case that the effects of cloud loss are dramatic enough to explain ancient warming episodes like the PETM — and to precipitate future disaster. Climate physicists at the California Institute of Technology performed a state-of-the-art simulation of stratocumulus clouds, the low-lying, blankety kind that have by far the largest cooling effect on the planet. The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether.

The disappearance occurs when the concentration of CO2 in the simulated atmosphere reaches 1,200 parts per million — a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under “business-as-usual” emissions scenarios. In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth’s temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly.

Once clouds go away, the simulated climate “goes over a cliff,” said Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A leading authority on atmospheric physics, Emanuel called the new findings “very plausible,” though, as he noted, scientists must now make an effort to independently replicate the work.

To imagine 12 degrees of warming, think of crocodiles swimming in the Arctic and of the scorched, mostly lifeless equatorial regions during the PETM. If carbon emissions aren’t curbed quickly enough and the tipping point is breached, “that would be truly devastating climate change,” said Caltech’s Tapio Schneider, who performed the new simulation with Colleen Kaul and Kyle Pressel.

Huber said the stratocumulus tipping point helps explain the volatility that’s evident in the paleoclimate record. He thinks it might be one of many unknown instabilities in Earth’s climate. “Schneider and co-authors have cracked open Pandora’s box of potential climate surprises,” he said, adding that, as the mechanisms behind vanishing clouds become clear, “all of a sudden this enormous sensitivity that is apparent from past climates isn’t something that’s just in the past. It becomes a vision of the future.”

……….. see the full article below ……..

“Cloud Loss Could Add 8 Degrees to Global Warming” | Quanta Magazine 02/25/19

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