DATE: February 25, 2019
SNIP: … 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.”
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.
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.
First, physicists came to grips with high clouds — the icy, wispy ones like cirrus clouds that are miles high. By 2010, work by Mark Zelinka of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and others convincingly showed that as Earth warms, high clouds will move higher in the sky and also shift toward higher latitudes, where they won’t block as much direct sunlight as they do nearer the equator. This is expected to slightly exacerbate warming, and all global climate models have integrated this effect.
But vastly more important and more challenging than high clouds are the low, thick, turbulent ones — especially the stratocumulus variety. Bright-white sheets of stratocumulus cover a quarter of the ocean, reflecting 30 to 70 percent of the sunlight that would otherwise be absorbed by the dark waves below.
As the CO2 level ratchets up in the simulated sky and the sea surface heats up, the dynamics of the cloud evolve. The researchers found that the tipping point occurs, and stratocumulus clouds suddenly disappear, because of two dominant factors that work against their formation. First, when higher CO2 levels make Earth’s surface and sky hotter, the extra heat drives stronger turbulence inside the clouds. The turbulence mixes moist air near the top of the cloud, pushing it up and out through an important boundary layer that caps stratocumulus clouds, while drawing dry air in from above.
Secondly, as the greenhouse effect makes the upper atmosphere warmer and thus more humid, the cooling of the tops of stratocumulus clouds from above becomes less efficient. This cooling is essential, because it causes globs of cold, moist air at the top of the cloud to sink, making room for warm, moist air near Earth’s surface to rise into the cloud and become it. When cooling gets less effective, stratocumulus clouds grow thin.
Countervailing forces and effects eventually get overpowered; when the CO2 level reaches about 1,200 parts per million in the simulation — which could happen in 100 to 150 years, if emissions aren’t curbed — more entrainment and less cooling conspire to break up the stratocumulus cloud altogether.
Extrapolated to the entire globe, the loss of low clouds and rise in water vapor leads to runaway warming — the dreaded 8-degree jump. After the climate has made this transition and water vapor saturates the air, ratcheting down the CO2 won’t bring the clouds back. “There’s hysteresis,” Schneider said, where the state of the system depends on its history. “You need to reduce CO2 to concentrations around present day, even slightly below, before you form stratocumulus clouds again.”