Climate Change Projections May Be Way Off: Clouds May Hold The Key
A new study seems to indicate that global warming could be far worse than previously thought–all due to a misunderstanding.
Previous climate change projections may have been mistaken in terms of the role that clouds play in the warming cycle, and this study shows that they underestimated that role by a huge margin.
Researchers are now saying that the doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the levels that existed prior to industrialization could result in a global temperature increase of 5.3°C, much warmer than earlier models predicted.
The Yale University study analyzed satellite data and found that clouds have much more liquid in them as opposed to ice, as was previously thought. So previous climate change models assumed that ice crystals within clouds would reflect more solar energy, reflecting the sun’s light rather than allowing it through to heat the Earth’s surface.
That one factor–ice versus liquid–has led scientists to suggest that models predicting future warming are off significantly. In addition, the study shows that fewer clouds in the future will change to a heat-reflective state containing ice crystals due to carbon dioxide increases than had previously been thought, which will exacerbate the process of warming.
Uncertainty over the role of clouds in climate change and a lack of data prior to this study is to blame for the errors in warming estimates, said Ivy Tan, a graduate student at Yale who worked on the research.
“Models have been systematically underestimating the amount of liquid in clouds,” she said, “meaning that we aren’t fully appreciating the feedback. It could mean our higher limit of warming is now even higher, depending on the model, which means serious consequences for us in terms of climate change.”
The study, in light of the glad-handing and self-congratulation following the flaccid COP21 agreement that suggests nations “should” hold further temperature increases below 2°C but which lacked any kind of enforcement mechanism, ought to serve as a wake-up call.
The earth has already warmed 1°C since industrialization, a consequence of carbon dioxide concentrations rising by more than 40 percent, and as a result of that relatively small rise in temperature we’ve already seen grave changes in storm intensity and frequency, temperature shifts, melting icecaps and a myriad of other problems.
Imagine the consequences of a temperature shift five times greater. The effects on food scarcity and the ability of huge swaths of humanity to feed itself, water scarcity, spread of disease, the loss of pasture land, coastal flooding–it’s almost impossible to imagine the potential destruction that is lurking in the not-at-all distant future.
Indeed world leaders “should” do something about it. But it increasingly looks like they will dither and hem and haw and play word games and pose for photo-ops until we’re all underwater or cooked inside our own skin.