Study: Earth's polar ice sheets vulnerable to even moderate global warming

Dec 16, 2009 by Steven Barne
Arctic ice

A new analysis of the geological record of the Earth's sea level, carried out by scientists at Princeton and Harvard universities and published in the Dec. 16 issue of Nature, employs a novel statistical approach that reveals the planet's polar ice sheets are vulnerable to large-scale melting even under moderate global warming scenarios. Such melting would lead to a large and relatively rapid rise in global sea level.

According to the analysis, an additional 2 degrees of global warming could commit the planet to 6 to 9 meters (20 to 30 feet) of long-term . This rise would inundate low-lying coastal areas where hundreds of millions of people now reside. It would permanently submerge New Orleans and other parts of southern Louisiana, much of southern Florida and other parts of the U.S. East Coast, much of Bangladesh, and most of the Netherlands, unless unprecedented and expensive coastal protection were undertaken. And while the researchers' findings indicate that such a rise would likely take centuries to complete, if emissions of greenhouse gases are not abated, the planet could be committed during this century to a level of warming sufficient to trigger this outcome.

The study, "Probabilistic Assessment of Sea Level During the Last Interglacial Stage," was written by Robert Kopp, who conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher in Princeton's Department of Geosciences and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; Frederik Simons, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton; Jerry Mitrovica, a professor of geophysics at Harvard; Adam Maloof, an assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton; and Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs in Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

As part of the study, the researchers compiled an extensive database of geological sea level indicators for a period known as the last interglacial stage about 125,000 years ago. Polar temperatures during this stage were likely 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today, as is expected to occur in the future if temperatures reach about 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (about 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

"The last interglacial stage provides a historical analog for futures with a fairly moderate amount of warming; the high sea levels during the stage suggest that significant chunks of major ice sheets could disappear over a period of centuries in such futures," Kopp said. "Yet if the global economy continues to depend heavily on fossil fuels, we're on track to have significantly more warming by the end of century than occurred during the last interglacial. I find this somewhat worrisome."

Oppenheimer added, "Despite the uncertainties inherent in such a study, these findings should send a strong message to the governments negotiating in Copenhagen that the time to avoid disastrous outcomes may run out sooner than expected."

Previous geological studies of sea level benchmarks such as coral reefs and beaches had shown that, at many localities, local sea levels during the last interglacial stage were higher than today. But local sea levels differ from those in this earlier stage; one major contributing factor is that the changing masses of the ice sheets alter the planet's gravitational field and deform the solid Earth. As a consequence, inferring global sea level from local geological sea level markers requires a geographically broad data set, a model of the physics of sea level, and a means to integrate the two. The study's authors provide all three, integrating the data and the physics with a statistical approach that allows them to assess the probability distribution of past global sea level and its rate of change.

The researchers determined through their analysis that there is a 95 percent probability that, during the last interglacial stage, global sea level peaked more than 6.6 meters (22 feet) above its present level. They further found that it is unlikely (with a 33 percent probability) that global sea level during this period exceeded 9.4 meters (31 feet).

Sea levels during the last interglacial stage are of interest to scientists and important to policymakers for several reasons. Most notably, the last interglacial stage is relatively recent by geological standards, making it feasible for climate scientists to develop a credible sea level record for the period, and is the most recent time period when average global temperatures and polar temperatures were somewhat higher than today. Because it was slightly warmer, the period can help scientists understand the stability of polar ice sheets and the future rate of sea level rise under low to moderate global warming scenarios.

The findings indicate that sea level during the last interglacial stage rose for centuries at least two to three times faster than the recent rate, and that both the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheet likely shrank significantly and made important contributions to sea level rise. However, the relative timing of temperature change and change during the last interglacial stage is fairly uncertain, so it is not possible to infer from the analysis how long an exposure to peak temperatures during this stage was needed to commit the planet to peak sea levels.

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User comments : 42

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defunctdiety
3 / 5 (23) Dec 16, 2009
Polar temperatures during this stage were likely 3 to 5 degrees Celsius...warmer than today.
...
The findings indicate that sea level during the last interglacial stage rose for centuries at least two to three times faster than the recent rate

An interesting couple nuggets of truth they allowed to slip out here.

So not only did a natural change in sea-level occur at 2-3 x the current observed rate (musta been quite the melt too, eh?), which AGW theorists have adamantly insisted is anthropogenic, but also temperatures were naturally 3-5 C (numbers within the highest certainty of AGW "predictions") higher?

Hmmm, I wonder what CO2 concentrations were then... I wonder why they seemed to have forgot to mention that.

What they've (unwittingly?) admitted is the change we're seeing presently is in fact well within natural variability. That, in fact, man's burning of fossils isn't really a factor at all.

Thank you AGW theorists for debunking yourselves.
Velanarris
3.4 / 5 (16) Dec 16, 2009
It's better when they include that picture of the "hole" in the sea ice in the exact shape of Florida.
Canman
2.7 / 5 (14) Dec 16, 2009
defunctdiety, AGW does not propose that all global warming is man-made. Climate scientists already know, better than either of us, how much climate has changed in the past from causes separate from man. The study appears to be about how ice sheets respond to temperature change.
defunctdiety
2.9 / 5 (20) Dec 16, 2009
AGW does not propose that all global warming is man-made

Actually that's precisely what AGW stands for. Global Warming BEGINNING in Man. Its not Para-anthropic GW. Its not Solargenic Anthropo-exacerbated GW. They are telling you directly this change begins in mans activities, that man is THE responsible force behind any warming.

And thats exactly what the thrust of the AGW message is to the public, and indeed the assertion of the incomplete science behind it.

None of the AGW articles you read say "climate change that may be in part due to man", ALL of it is "science has determined man is causing a catastrophic warming". When we all know nothing has been determined.

You can split hairs however you like, but you know darn well their message includes no room for uncertainty that man, and specifically CO2, is the one reason we are going to see what they insist will be disastrous warming. You know there is no acknowledgment of natural variability in their argument for legislation.
RAL
2.6 / 5 (10) Dec 17, 2009
But all this will be avoided if we give them more power to run our lives, let them raise our taxes, and take our production and redistribute it around the world. The most amazing part of AGW is that so many people are actually gullible enough to believe it.
Going
2.1 / 5 (11) Dec 17, 2009
This is a study of how to relate melting ice caps to global sea levels . Landmasses unburdened of ice rise through geostatic uplift as they float on the mantle giving the impression the sea is retreating. Ocean levels also rise as the ice melts. How do you separate the two effects in your data? The researchers are trying to address this. It seems AGW deniers are now so hysterical they click down anything on climate.
SincerelyTwo
3 / 5 (3) Dec 17, 2009
I think the problem with the global warming folks isn't the fact that the temperature is relatively high, or that it was higher in the past, it's not the temperature ITSELF, it's the RATE OF INCREASE which is significantly different from anything we've been able to discover.

Geographically speaking, warm and cold periods occurred naturally over hundreds of years at it's quickest, where at this moment in time we've accomplished such feats in a single century.

At least, as I understand it, that's the actual criticism from the man-made global warming crowd.

Weather or not that's accurate is up for debate clearly.
Shootist
1.8 / 5 (10) Dec 17, 2009
So. A more "normal" temperature for Terra is 3 to 5C higher than today. Seems much more reasonable than carbon forcing of temps.
Velanarris
2.5 / 5 (11) Dec 17, 2009
warm and cold periods occurred naturally over hundreds of years at it's quickest,

That's not true either.

There's no catch-all for the AGW skeptic side of the debate. I can only speak for myself when I say, my stance is there's no evidence pointing to change outside of natural variation.

Once someone can provide evidence of change outside of natural variation then I'll want cause and effect.

AGW Hypothesists have assumed the warming is not natural and have asserted that man is responsible through his emissions of CO2. This hypothesis is laughable. Man produces water vapor at a rate 500,000 times higher than CO2. Water vapor is also a far more powerful GHG. Why haven't we looked at reducing our water vapor creation? Or perhaps looked at any number of the other thousand gasses and chemicals we emit in far greater volume than CO2? Pollution is bad, we all agree. I don't agree that CO2 is a pollutant, or capable of exerting the monsterous influence attributed to it.
Canman
2.7 / 5 (7) Dec 17, 2009
"most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid 20th century is very likey due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations"
-Working Group I, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers
There you have it defuctdeity. Not all warming, only most warming since the middle of the 20th century. I recommend objectively reading the report, and see if it influences what you think.
defunctdiety
2.3 / 5 (9) Dec 17, 2009
This is a study of how to relate melting ice caps to global sea levels.

You seem to have forgotten to finish your statement, here allow me:

"This is a study...with the AGW message inserted where it really has no scientific basis, relevance or need to be there."

Yes, you are correct there, sir.
There you have it

Ah yes, dug out from page 312, paragraph seven, sentence seventeen.

As I said, you can split hairs all you like but you know full and well that is not their message. They rarely use any unequivocal language like that and never in widely disseminated public statements.

They project the message as if there is no doubt that man-emitted CO2 is THE cause of what is SURE to be catastrophic global warming.

To claim it is less is just a rationalization on your part as, I suspect, you yourself have doubts and can't allow yourself to be fit into such a unilateral stance, even when you know it is so and anything less completely disarms the validity of AGW legislation.
SincerelyTwo
3.8 / 5 (4) Dec 17, 2009
Velanarris,

... I have this cynical view that so much attention is being put on global warming to distract from the actual clear and quantifiable effects we have on the environment. Destruction of fishing trades, demolishing of ecosystems, we pretty much do devastating damage to environments all over the world.

... and yet we focus on global warming which we actually can't do anything about.

What ever, this fear mongering is at least motivating new science and technology, might as well let it go. Hahaha and it took global warming to make that happen, not raping limited resources in to meaningless pulp. damn.
Velanarris
3.3 / 5 (10) Dec 17, 2009
ST,

You and I are in agreement on this. I hate AGW debates because they obfuscate the issues of renewables and true pollution with talk of carbon trading and taxation of citizens.

But AGW research does have some merit, we're finally getting people interested in the natural wonder of the planet and trying to preserve it. That is a stance everyone, skeptic or not, can agree with.
Canman
3 / 5 (6) Dec 17, 2009
Defunctdiety,
You see a kid listening to an ipod, looking down, walking home from school. You can tell the music is loud. She is about to cross some railroad tracks, and you see a train barrelling down the tracks. You yell as loud as you can, "hey! watch out for the train!" Suddenly a man steps up to you and says, "are you certain that she can't hear the train? Unless you are certain, you probably shoudn't act so alarmed." Do you think that is very good risk management?
1.We are dumping millions of tons of known greenhouse gas annually into the atmosphere.
2.The Earth is getting hotter.
3.The Sun's output is not currently significantly changing.
4.The only way to definitively proof AGW by CO2 is to create another earth with everything the same except CO2 levels, and measure the temps.

It is not unreasonable to be alarmed. Its also not unreasonable to be skeptical. Where's the balance between the two?
defunctdiety
2.8 / 5 (8) Dec 17, 2009
Do you think that is very good risk management?

Your analogy is completely wrong though. Here is the proper analogy: you hear something that sounds like a train, you can't actually see it, it could be on another set of tracks going the opposite direction of the girl, and in order to "save" her you have to push her into either a sewage treatment canal or oncoming cars.

Heres some proposed corrections to your list. Corrections to be accounted for in your biased statement of the situation.
1.We are also spewing millions of tons of reflective particulate and cloud forming aerosols into the sky.
2.The Earth has tremendous natural variability in climate, even exhibiting rapid change as we are seeing now.
3.The Suns output is the main determinant of global temperature, period.
4.I agree.

The balance is taking direct action you know will have a result, such as going directly for energy independence. Consequently this action won't cost the People billions and will fix AGW if it exists.
Canman
5 / 5 (2) Dec 17, 2009
I say that once we achieve energy independence, we should have an "Energy Independence Day", and we can have a super laser light show powered by cow poop or something. Goodnight everybody!
po6ert
3 / 5 (4) Dec 17, 2009
I am the only one that concluded on this study that the world did not come to an end because of a four degree rise in temperature and our species survived and thrived in this enviroment. the younger dryas period of rapid global cooling was not so benign, resulting in mass extinction and
perhaps severe enough changes to force the emergence of agricultural practice.
Noctilucent and high statussphere clouds provide
very significant infra red heat reflection.
these were first observed 1n the eigthteen eighties after the karkatoa event and have increased fairly rapidly since the advent of large amounts of water vapor being injected into the upper atmosphere by the operation of aircraft and rockets. I personal look forward to more not less global warming
SincerelyTwo
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 17, 2009
Canman,

Your analogy is good, quite fitting, and it works against you, how obvious does it need to be how far out of your control the situation is? It's quite likely that we're only aiding a process already well on its way on its own.

How do you look over the issues which are of far more direct and immediate concern? I bet you're going to ask me 'what other global problems are there?!'
Nik_2213
1 / 5 (4) Dec 17, 2009
A bold attempt to cut through the hype and look at fresh, indisputable data.

Sadly, too many opinions are now so entrenched that it would take ice-caps mega-sloughing, the Arctic ice-free *and* the East Coast clathrates ablaze to convince or satisfy. Hopefully, that worst-case combo won't show in my life-time...
Exits, whistling off-key 'The times, they are a-changing...'
Parsec
3 / 5 (6) Dec 19, 2009
defunctdiety, I do not believe that name calling ever enhanced a debate. However I must say that your naive acceptance of a few contrary data points along with a determined avoidance of understanding/twisting what people are actually saying to you is not speaking well of your reasoning power or your education.

The sun is not changing its output. We can directly measure solar radiation to a very fine resolution using satellites so this is known as not causing current warming. This is simply a fact, unless of course your proposing that the satellite data is faked. That sounds pretty paranoid doesn't it?

AGW refers to the greenhouse gases man is dumping into the atmosphere specially since about 1800. Volcanic eruptions, particularly those of the rift type, are natural CO2 sources which easily explain past warming. But using isotope ratios we know that most of the current atmospheric CO2 is biologically sourced (life doesn't like C13).
Parsec
3 / 5 (6) Dec 19, 2009
There is in fact one group of players in this debate who are currently making hundreds of billions of dollars each year by maintaining the status quo. I am a cynic, so rather than looking at speculative and imaginary motives, my nose leads me to where the money is. Just like the Tobacco companies used the Tobacco Research Institute for decades to obscure the dangers of smoking, the American Petroleum Institute (among others) regularly publishes so called scientific studies that you and the rest of your friends lap up like it was the truth from heaven.

Did it ever occur to you to be a little skeptical? Just a little dubious about the crap your swallowing whole? Did it ever occur to any of you so-called climate change skeptics? What was the motivation of the hackers behind the email scandal in England? Altruism? LOL...
Parsec
3 / 5 (6) Dec 19, 2009
To address the water vapor argument directly. I agree that we put a lot of water vapor in the atmosphere and I also agree that water vapor above the troposphere could have serious deleterious affects on our climate and environment. However it (probably) has very little room in the global warming debate (as a greenhouse gas) simply because water vapor moves in and out of the troposphere where 99% of the atmosphere is concentrated in a matter of hours or days. CO2 also moves in and out of the atmosphere, but at a rate on the order of many centuries. Methane cycles into CO2 on time scales of 50-100 years.

However the effects of cloud albedo is a very complicating factor in the global warming debate just as retreating sea ice and the subsequent increase in albedo at the poles. But current studies have shown that clouds tend to reflect radiation back into space( cooling us). This is not always true, as a previous poster pointed out.
Parsec
3 / 5 (6) Dec 19, 2009
po6ert --> you are not seeing the forest for the trees. The point isn't about how good life may be AFTER the climate is restabilized, its the fact that a very good percentage of the worlds species, including a substantial portion of mankind, could not adjust as fast as the changes would occur. Saying you are hoping for more global warming is like saying more anarchy and death would be a good thing.
ForFreeMinds
2 / 5 (8) Dec 20, 2009
History indicates that warmer temperatures means greater crop yields and generally better living conditions for humans. As for people living on the coast or low sea level areas, do they expect everyone else to compensate them when nature destroys their property? They can buy insurance.

As for those who want to stabilize the weather (like Parsec) what hubris you have to think that we can. Not only that, if we could do anything, it will benefit some at the expense of others. E.G., cooling the planet will make some farmland less productive and some more productive, or lowering the sea level will benefit beachfront property owners.

As far as human destruction of fishing, water, etc., the best system we have to ensure the value of these resources is strong property rights. With government control of most of our use of resources, it will be politicians deciding what happens, not property owners. History shows government is the worst polluter and destroyer of resources.
eachus
5 / 5 (3) Dec 20, 2009
I think the problem with the global warming folks isn't the fact that the temperature is relatively high, or that it was higher in the past, it's not the temperature ITSELF, it's the RATE OF INCREASE which is significantly different from anything we've been able to discover.

Geographically speaking, warm and cold periods occurred naturally over hundreds of years at it's quickest, where at this moment in time we've accomplished such feats in a single century.

At least, as I understand it, that's the actual criticism from the man-made global warming crowd.

Weather or not that's accurate is up for debate clearly.


Unfortunately, the known facts contradict that assumption. At least three times since 1800, global average temperatures have dropped several degrees in a matter of months, due to volcanic eruptions. Since the Little Ice Age, global temperature records show gradual warming punctuated by volcanic cooling episodes.
fizzissist
1 / 5 (5) Dec 20, 2009
I'd like to know what were the factors that caused the temperature of that interglacial to be 3-5deg C warmer than today's temp, and why that couldn't be what's happening now.

...oh, and when was climate "stabilized"??? What is the ideal temperature?

Richard Alley, who has never observed a hole in the ice in the shape of Florida, has noted that the climate can warm radically, and suddenly, without any anthropogenic forcing.

Why not now?
Parsec
4 / 5 (4) Dec 21, 2009
CO2 levels were higher during the interglacial. Its probably exactly what is happening now. Except that currently the CO2 levels are rising very fast because man kind is dumping billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. We can measure current CO2 levels very accurately. Direct CO2 level measurements have been done since the late 1950's. In addition, past CO2 levels can be measured pretty accurately (not quite as well as direct measurements, but still within a tenths of a ppm) using ice cores. This gets CO2 level measurements back a few 10's of thousands of years. Before that we have to use proxies, like carbonate shell isotope measurements etc. that can get us with a few ppm. We can see CO2 rises after volcanic eruptions, and determine the ratio of volcanic to biologic sources by looking at the ratio of C13/C14 in the CO2.
Parsec
4 / 5 (4) Dec 21, 2009
The bottom line is that we can measure directly or indirectly CO2 levels for at least the last 2.5 million years, and in addition determine the percentage sourced biologically. Obviously the further you go back into the past, the less accurate the measurements become, but the error bars range from very small currently to reasonable in the far past.

Orbital/sunlight radiation changes cause global temperature to change and the CO2 levels to FOLLOW the changes. However, large volcanic emissions of CO2 or ice coverage that reduces CO2 emissions cause the global temp to move accordingly AFTER the CO2 changes. This is all pretty clear from the historic record. Lots of groups have looked at this and used a variety of methods and different measurement technologies that all agree very closely.
Parsec
4 / 5 (4) Dec 21, 2009
The record shows that in the past, whenever CO2 changes occur, the global temperature always moves the same way. It is entirely possible that the current period will be an exception. However, absent some reasonable explanation why this should be so, I tend to think the chances of that are vanishingly small.

It is far more likely that all you climate skeptics will be become known as the flat-earthers and Luddites of this era. In the future, people will shake their heads and laugh that anyone could be so stupid and deluded to deny the facts staring them in the face.

Just like today we are pretty dismissive about anyone who believed the Tobacco Institutes garbage about how smoking was safe and non-addictive while hundreds of thousands of people died each year from smoking.
Velanarris
2.5 / 5 (8) Dec 21, 2009
The record shows that in the past, whenever CO2 changes occur, the global temperature always moves the same way.

No, the record shows no correlation or causation for either event. You can't state that unequivocally.
MikeyK
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 21, 2009

3.The Suns output is the main determinant of global temperature, period.

n
Not true and especially so since the '70's as you have been shown a number of times before. Take a look at the solar irradiance chart since 1975 and tell me, and tell everyone just how this shows ANY correlation to global temperature mean anomolies
MikeyK
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 21, 2009
Defunctavela, if you can't find a link to a Total Solar Irradiance chart, here's one for you now. http://i49.tinypi...rgoj.jpg
Velanarris
2.1 / 5 (7) Dec 21, 2009
Defunctavela, if you can't find a link to a Total Solar Irradiance chart, here's one for you now. http://i49.tinypi...rgoj.jpg

That chart correlates rather well with observed raw data for the time period. Stop looking at smoothed data.
MikeyK
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 22, 2009

That chart correlates rather well with observed raw data for the time period. Stop looking at smoothed data.


I don't think so, not by a long way, but let's not take my word for it, let's use the excellent website Wood for the Trees to decide (website as used by WUWT, including the Wood For Trees Temperature Index, reckoned to be as neutral in the debate as you can be). Here is a link, but, as the graph is interactive you can play around before blaming it on smoothed data! http://www.woodfo...t:1366.3
If you want to have even more fun, let's check the trend lines (you can of course do this yourself, here's one I prepared earlier http://www.woodfo....4/trend )
Now can you admit you are wrong about any sort of correlation between TSI and global mean temperatures since 1975?
Velanarris
2.1 / 5 (7) Dec 22, 2009
More tree ring data.

Haven't you learned by now?
MikeyK
1.8 / 5 (5) Dec 22, 2009
I figured you wouldn't admit to the graphs and use some kind of 'All inclusive' excuse. FYI there is no proxy data used in the WFT index.
This link takes you to the WFT site explaining how this index came about and how it is extrapolated http://www.woodfo...otes#wti

To show how the LAND BASED AND SATELLITE TEMPERATURE RECORDS correlate with each other check this link. http://www.woodfo.../mean:12

To repeat: There is no proxy data used in the WFT Index. Now that's sorted, admission and apologies please!
Phelankell
Dec 22, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
MikeyK_PaidAdvocate
Dec 22, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Phelankell
not rated yet Dec 23, 2009
You realize that all of the data in the WFT index is based on smoothed data and not raw data correct?

It's already been tampered with prior to the reconstruction.
MikeyK
1 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2009
Are their any graphs you have seen that meet your requirements? If so please attach a link to it.
You notice that the graphs are compiled by four different sources, they all match up pretty well, satellite and ground stations.
If the graph is good enough for Watts....
MikeyK_PaidAdvocate
1 / 5 (2) Dec 23, 2009
Then it's good enough for Watts.

Velanarris
1 / 5 (3) Dec 23, 2009
You notice that the graphs are compiled by four different sources, they all match up pretty well, satellite and ground stations.
Of course they do, they're all reconstructions based off of a single monitoring network. Effectively that is a graph of different takes on the same raw data. Do you have the raw data graph? I've been unable to find one.
MikeyK
Dec 29, 2009
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
dachpyarvile
2 / 5 (4) Dec 29, 2009
Trouble with a lot of that data is that it came down to us through the CRU. No, MikeyK, I prefer to look at the raw data myself. Any chance you can make that happen since repeated FOIA requests often go unanswered and much raw data and other evidence gets destroyed by those supporting the view of the IPCC?
dachpyarvile
1 / 5 (3) Dec 29, 2009
Has anyone else noticed that the above cutout from the ice in the picture above has the appearance of the state of Florida in the United States? :)