Illuminating carbon's climate effects: Researchers demonstrate role of CO2 in deglaciatio

Apr 23, 2012 By Peter Reuell
Shakun picks through 2-million-year-old seashells from the Gulf of Mexico. He will later analyze the chemistry to reconstruct the temperature of the waters.

Harvard scientists are helping to paint the fullest picture yet of how a handful of factors, particularly a worldwide increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, combined to end the last ice age 10,000-20,000 years ago.

As described in a paper published April 5 in Nature, researchers compiled ice and sedimentary collected from dozens of locations around the world, and found evidence that while changes in the planet’s orbit may have touched off a warming trend, increases in CO2 played a far more important role in pushing it out of the ice age.

“Orbital changes are the pacemaker. They’re the trigger, but they don’t get you too far,” lead author Jeremy Shakun, a visiting postdoctoral fellow in earth and planetary sciences, said. “Our study shows that CO2 was a much more important factor, and was really driving worldwide warming during the last deglaciation.”

Though scientists have known for many years, based on studies of Antarctic ice cores, that deglaciations over the past million years and sharp increases in CO2 were connected, establishing a clear cause-and-effect relationship between CO2 and from the geologic record has remained difficult, Shakun said. In fact, when studied closely, the ice-core data indicate that CO2 levels rose after temperatures were already on the increase, a finding that has often been used by global warming skeptics to bolster claims that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change.

Many climate scientists have addressed the criticism and shown that the lag between temperature and CO2 increases means that greenhouse gases were an amplifier, rather than trigger, of past climate change, but Shakun and his colleagues saw a larger problem — while CO2 measurements taken from air bubbles in the ice cores reflect levels throughout the global atmosphere, temperatures recorded in the ice only reflect local Antarctic conditions.

To get a more accurate picture of the relationship between global temperature and CO2, the researchers synthesized dozens of core samples — 80 in all — collected from around the world.

“We have ice cores from Greenland; people have cored the sea floor all around the world, they’ve cored lakes on the continents, and they have worked out temperature histories for all these sites,” Shakun said. “Putting all of these records together into a reconstruction of global temperature shows a beautiful correlation with rising CO2 at the end of the ice age. Even more interesting, while CO2 trails Antarctic warming, it actually precedes global temperature change, which is what you would expect if CO2 is causing the warming.

“The previous science clearly said that CO2 had something to do with warming,” Shakun added. “It has gone up and down in tandem with the ice ages, so it is clearly involved. If it was an amplifier, the question was: How big of an amplifier? Does it explain a lot of climate change, or was it a small piece, and other factors were more important? I think this research really points a strong finger at the idea that CO2 was a major player.”

Armed with that evidence, Shakun and colleagues were able to sketch out how a series of factors aligned to eventually set off a worldwide warming trend and the end of the ice age.

Most scientists now believe, Shakun said, that the first domino wasn’t an increase in greenhouse gases, but a gradual change in the Earth’s orbit. That change resulted in more sunlight hitting the northern hemisphere. As the ice sheets over North America and Europe melted, millions of gallons of fresh water flooded into the North Atlantic and disrupted the cyclical flow of ocean currents.

“Ocean circulation works like a global conveyor belt,” Shakun said. “The reason it’s important for climate is because it’s moving heat around. If you look at it today, the northern hemisphere is, on average, a couple degrees warmer than the south, and that’s partly because the ocean is pulling heat northward as it flows across the equator in the Atlantic.

“But if you turn the conveyor belt off, it’s going to warm the south because you’re no longer stealing that heat away. Warming the southern hemisphere, in turn, shifts the winds and melts back sea ice that had formed a cap, trapping carbon in the deep ocean.”

As more and more CO2 enters the atmosphere, Shakun said, the global warming trend continues, “and pretty soon you’re headed out of an ice age.”

While the research strengthens the link between CO2 and the ages, Shakun believes it also reinforces the importance of addressing CO2-driven climate change in our own time.

“I don’t think this tells us anything fundamentally new about global warming,” Shakun said. “Most scientists are not in doubt about the human-enhanced greenhouse effect — there are nearly a dozen strong pieces of evidence that it is affecting global climate. This is just one more log on the fire that confirms it.”

Shakun’s research was supported by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate and Global Change Fellowship and by the National Science Foundation, and conducted using resources at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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User comments : 16

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rubberman
4 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
I wonder if anyone else will have an opinion about this....
It was alot of work to compile that much data and search for correlations, well done Shakun.
Jitterbewegung
2 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
Could CO2 be used to insulate houses? How thick would the layer of pure CO2 need to be?
jamesrm
1 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2012
Could CO2 be used to insulate houses?

http://www.aga.co...urethane
Jitterbewegung
2 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
"http://www.aga.co...rethane"

That should lock some CO2 up however I was thinking more of 1 meter of CO2 between 2 layers of glass. If I had this as a roof how many degrees would the room increase in temperature?
StarGazer2011
1 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
"http://www.aga.co...rethane"

That should lock some CO2 up however I was thinking more of 1 meter of CO2 between 2 layers of glass. If I had this as a roof how many degrees would the room increase in temperature?


Yeah Ive wondered about that too, if a few hundred ppm can warm the entire planet 'dangerously', why cant it keep my house warm too?
StarGazer2011
1 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2012
Could CO2 be used to insulate houses?

http://www.aga.co...urethane


That has nothing to do with insulation, its about liquid CO2 in foam.

What we are talking about is bags of CO2 in roof spaces at say 30,000ppm CO2. If 600ppm can warm the planet 1.1C (before forcings) then 30,000 should insulate 6-7C (6-7 doublings from 280ppm) which would cut down my heating and cooling bills, sequester CO2 and lower energy use. Sounds like a dream green product, why isnt it being promoted?
gregor1
2 / 5 (8) Apr 23, 2012
For a decent rebuttal of this paper by Don Easterbrookhttp://wattsupwit...-part-1/
and here
http://wattsupwit...-part-2/
Also a troll free comment section
Vendicar_Decarian
4.5 / 5 (6) Apr 24, 2012
Once again, Gore is proven right and the denialists are proven liars.
Vendicar_Decarian
4.3 / 5 (6) Apr 24, 2012
I had to laugh when Easterbrook claimed that the date at which global temperatures change is not accurate enough to determine that CO2 increases preceeded warming. Yet his denialist clan continues to claim based on the same dates, is accurate enough to show that warming preceeded CO2 rise.

Denialist Filth.

"For a decent rebuttal of this paper by Don Easterbrook" - GregorTard
gregor1
1 / 5 (2) Apr 24, 2012
I love it when you talk dirty!
wwqq
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2012
If 600ppm can warm the planet 1.1C (before forcings) then 30,000[in bags under your roof] should insulate 6-7C


Asinine on so many levels it's hard to untangle it all.

The Earth is perfectly insulated from convection and conduction, it is sitting in a vacuum. The only way heat comes in or out is through radiation. In your home, a little heat may come in as radiation from the sun, but the losses are almost entirely convection and conduction through the walls and windows.

600 ppm is a concentration; and as long as we all know we are talking about the Earth's atmosphere that's a fine way to measure things. The CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere at 600 ppm corresponds to a ~3 meter thick layer of pure CO2. 30 000 ppm corresponds to ~170 meters of pure CO2; that's what you'd need to put in your roof(if it was transparent to sunshine and all your losses were radiative).
rubberman
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 24, 2012
WWQQ: Perhaps you can attempt to explain to the fair minded skeptics on the forum how it is that CO2 relates to the greenhouse effect. We have all tried but to no avail...maybe you can do it in a way that would enlighten them. Gregor for instance has posted a link to a paper that attempts to cast doubt on CO2's fundamental radiation absorbtion properties, and why more of it causes an increased warming effect. To those of us who understand how it works it is simple logic, like gravity's effect on a brick dropped from a rooftop, they always seem to want to argue that the brick will float away when you let go....
wwqq
5 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2012
Perhaps you can attempt to explain to the fair minded skeptics on the forum how it is that CO2 relates to the greenhouse effect.


I don't think I've met a fair minded climate change "sceptic" in the last decade or so.

I don't even think most of them "eat their own cooking"; I think most of them have made a conscious decision that the solution looks worse than the problem(at least in their lifetime) or that laissez faire will magically spring into action and solve the problem if they just stall, delay and obstruct long enough.
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (2) Apr 25, 2012
Another honor for Al Gore. This time at Inet 2012 for his effort in creating what is now known as the internet.

The names were announced Monday at the Internet Societys Global INET 2012 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and Gore was placed in the Global Connectors category for having made significant contributions to the global growth and use of the Internet.

The groups description of Gore states: Al Gore, the 45th Vice President of the United States, was a key proponent of sponsoring legislation that funded the expansion of and greater public access to the Internet. Instrumental in helping to create the Information Superhighway, Gore was one of the first government officials to recognize that the Internets impact could reach beyond academia to fuel educational and economic growth as well.
rubberman
5 / 5 (3) Apr 25, 2012
Another honor for Al Gore. This time at Inet 2012 for his effort in creating what is now known as the internet.

The names were announced Monday at the Internet Societys Global INET 2012 conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and Gore was placed in the Global Connectors category for having made significant contributions to the global growth and use of the Internet.

The groups description of Gore states: Al Gore, the 45th Vice President of the United States, was a key proponent of sponsoring legislation that funded the expansion of and greater public access to the Internet. Instrumental in helping to create the Information Superhighway, Gore was one of the first government officials to recognize that the Internets impact could reach beyond academia to fuel educational and economic growth as well.


A very convenient truth!
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (3) Apr 28, 2012
What an odd statement.

You seem to be oblivious to the fact that it is already keeping your house warm.

"Yeah Ive wondered about that too, if a few hundred ppm can warm the entire planet 'dangerously', why cant it keep my house warm too?" - StarTard

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