Spreading Some Holiday Cheer: Global Warming Not Always ‘Worse Than We Thought’

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

We know this: Every holiday season some of our readers make some offhanded comment at a party, to the effect that, well, global warming (or its effects) appear to have been a bit overblown. Before you finish, you’re likely to be assaulted by a sharp ranch dressing-laden carrot stick or you might get a face full of dill-dipped broccoli.

Fight back! Before things escalate to the level of food assaults, trot out some of the facts in this, our annual guide for holiday parties.

First of all, the tendency for prominent findings about the impacts from human-caused global warming to be “worse than we thought” is not only a pure play for press coverage, but also strains, if not obliterates, scientific credibility.

The unscientific preponderance of “worse than we thought” stories is starting to become more widely recognized (although we have been talking about it for years). And it is having consequences. Fresh from accepting his Nobel Prize for physiology/medicine, University of California’s Randy Schekman announced that his lab would no longer be sending any research papers to “luxury journals” like Science and Nature because of their preference to select papers “that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects.” Schekman explains that “These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research.” Global warming alarmism is a prime example of this.

In fact, there are scientific studies that conclude that things aren’t likely to be worse than we thought, but looking to the “luxury journals” or to the press to highlight them is a fool’s errand.

But that’s where we can help!

In the spirit of this season of good cheer, and as a respite for the increasing number of those out there suffering from “apocalypse fatigue,” your obedient servants at the Center for the Study of Science are here to bring you a little holiday joy and good news.

Below, we’ve collected some clips and quips culled from the recently published scientific  literature (and observations) that show that perhaps the impacts from climate change resulting from our production of energy from fossil fuels isn’t going to worse than we thought—and, in fact, may not prove to be so bad at all.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are supposed to suffer badly under a process called “ocean acidification” in which the pH levels of the oceans drop as more carbon dioxide (a result of burning fossil fuels) is absorbed by ocean waters. The resulting pH drop is supposed to erode the shells of calcifying organisms such as those that build coral reefs. A recent study summed up the doom and gloom outlook:

Coral communities may have limited capacity to adapt to levels of acidification projected for the 21st century, and that healthy coral reefs could cease to exist within this time frame. [citations omitted]

Yikes!

But new research by Kathryn Shamberger and colleagues describes the existence of coral reefs in locations that, for a variety of reasons, have naturally occurring acidification levels on par with those projected to result from human carbon dioxide emissions. The authors write:

Here, we report the existence of healthy, diverse coral reef communities living under levels of natural acidification approaching those projected for the tropical western Pacific open ocean by 2100. Understanding the combinations of genetic and/or environmental factors that enable coral reefs to thrive under relatively extreme conditions … will help to improve projections of reef health.

Apparently, in the real world, coral reef communities can well-adapt to the prevailing conditions.

Arctic Sea Ice

A new paper characterizes the situation with Arctic sea ice:

The observed reduction in sea-ice extent has been significantly faster than projected by most numerical models using realistic anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gases. The mismatch between observations and models can arise from: model underestimation of the sensitivity of sea ice to radiatively forced climate change, incorrect or missing types of radiative forcing, and/or nonmodelled natural variability. [citations omitted]

The first two potential reasons why the observed Arctic sea ice decline (note that in the Antarctic, sea ice has increased contrary to model projections) has been faster than model projections imply things are “worse than we thought.” But this new research favors the latter explanation—that is, the decline from global warming has been boosted (temporarily) by natural variability acting in the same direction. From a paper by Martin Miles and colleagues:

These results imply that the AMO [natural variability operating over the Atlantic Ocean basin] may be an important factor in the faster-than-projected decreases in sea ice, in qualitative agreement with a recent modelling–satellite-data analysis [Day et al., 2012] that attributes up to 5–30% to the satellite-era (1979–2010) summer sea-ice decrease to the concurrent AMO warm phase, and an even higher proportion for the winter sea ice.

In other words, the influence from human-caused global warming is not “worse than we thought.”

Great Lakes Water Levels

Another doom and gloom climate change projection is that the water levels in the Great Lakes will fall dramatically, interfering with (degrading) all sorts of environmental and economic activities. Last year’s Midwestern drought was a sign to some that things were even worse than we thought.

A new paper by Carl Watras and colleagues sums up the situation:

During the past decade, unusually low water levels have been observed in both the NHLD [Northern Highland Lake District of Wisconsin] and the upper Great Lakes. Following a peak in 1998, NHLD water levels have trended downward for roughly 12 years—reaching a record low elevation in 2010. Similarly, the water level of Lake Michigan-Huron recently dropped at a rate not seen since the 1930s mega-drought. Both Lake Superior and Lake Michigan-Huron have been consistently below average level for the longest sustained period in their historical records; and in January 2013 Lake Michigan-Huron reached an all-time low water level. [citations omitted]

Watras et al. go on to conclude that the low water levels of the past 12 years may “mark the onset of a new hydroclimatic regime.”

But, in what is an incidence of unfortunate timing, just as the Watras paper was being published, Mother Nature has made her own announcement. After reaching historic (or nearly so) low lake levels during the beginning of 2013, over the course of this year, and as a result of ample precipitation, the water levels in the Great Lakes have risen rapidly. The Detroit Free Press observes:

A snowy winter and wet spring and summer led to an almost unprecedented recovery of Great Lakes levels this year, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said Wednesday.

The extended lake level forecasts keep the water levels near or just-below normal for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps a new climate regime of low Great Lakes water levels is not upon us. In fact, the situation doesn’t look to be worse than we expected after all.

Gulf Stream

Global warming has been variously predicted to slow down, or even shut down, the Gulf Stream, wreaking havoc on the climate on both sides of the North Atlantic and leading to sea level rise along the U.S. East Coast that may even be worse than expected from warming oceans and melting ice.

Last summer, an article in USA Today stoked these fears with its coverage of a just-published article in the one of the “luxury journal” offshoots—Nature Climate Change:

From Cape Hatteras, N.C., to just north of Boston, sea levels are rising much faster than they are around the globe, putting one of the world’s most costly coasts in danger of flooding, government researchers report.

U.S. Geological Survey scientists call the 600-mile swath a “hot spot” for climbing sea levels caused by global warming. Along the region, the Atlantic Ocean is rising at an annual rate three times to four times faster than the global average since 1990, according to the study published Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

It’s not just a faster rate, but at a faster pace, like a car on a highway “jamming on the accelerator,” said the study’s lead author, Asbury Sallenger Jr., an oceanographer at the agency.

Now, a newly-published study says “nonsense” to this claim. Tom Rossby and colleagues looked at 20 years of direct measurements of Gulf Stream behavior and found no evidence at all that it is slowing down or effecting sea level rise along the East Coast. Rossby et al. took direct aim at the findings highlighted by USA Today:

Recently, two papers have suggested that the [Gulf Stream] may be weakening based on the well-documented accelerated Sea Level Rise (SLR) along the U.S. east coast (Sallenger et al., 2012; Ezer et al., 2013). …In contrast to these recent assertions of a weakening Gulf Stream our direct measurements of Gulf Stream currents for the past 20 years indicate no such trend…”

Not only is the situation not “worse than we thought,” but it is leaning toward being even “not as bad as we thought.”

North American Pika

And we’ll end with something warm and fuzzy—the North American pika. This little critter has long appeared on global-warming-is-going-to-kill-all-things-cute-and-cuddly posters, alongside polar bears, puffins, sea turtles, etc. The story goes that as the climate warms, the high-altitude, cold weather-loving pikas will be pushed off their mountain-top refuges and into extinction.

New research, however, shows that the pikas aren’t quite so prone to climate change extermination after all. According to the authors of a soon-to-be-published paper in the Journal of Mammalogy, by altering their foraging behavior and diet,

“[Pikas] may be more resistant to climate change than we thought.”

Call us stunned—not!

So there you have it, a stocking’s full of good news regarding climate change.

All of this could come in handy during holiday cocktail parties and post-dinner conversations—FIGHT CARROT STICKS WITH FACTS!!!

References:

Miles, M. W., et al., 20130. A signal of persistent Atlantic Multidecadal variability in Arctic sea ice. Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/2013GL058084

Rossby, T., et al., 2013. On the long-term stability of Gulf Stream transport based on 20 yers of diurect measurements. Geophysical Research letters, DOI: 10.1002/2013GL058636

Shamberger, K. E. F., et al., 2013. Diverse coral communities in naturally acidified waters of a Western Pacific reef. Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/2013GL058489

Watras, C. J., et al., 2013. Decadal oscialltion of lakes and aquifers in the upper Great Lakes region of North America: hydroclimate implications. Geophysical Research Letters, DOI: 10.1002/2013GL058679