Weekly Climate Science Roundup

By David Kroodsma, Climate Central

Credit: iStock

Let’s be honest: while the basics of climate change are fairly well-known (there's an increasing amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere), many aspects confuse even the most well-read individuals (How do we get the CO2 out of the air? How do we know the sun isn't causing climate change?). While the mainstream media covers big climate science news when it happens, each day scientists are making new advances in the field of climate research — advances that most of us never hear about.

In this blog post — which may become a weekly installment — I want to give you a chance to connect with that everyday research. I've rounded up the most interesting climate science articles from the past week, and given short summaries and links to select climate science papers. The idea is to provide you with a better idea of the questions scientists are trying to answer, and to help show how climate science operates.

And now, the main event — noteworthy climate science papers published between February 8th and 14th:

Paper title: A subtropical fate awaited freshwater discharged from glacial Lake Agassiz
Journal: Geophysical Research Letters
Authors: Alan Condron and Peter Winsor

Lake Agassiz as it may have existed about 8,000 years ago. Credit: The Dragon's Tales

The gist: About eight thousand years ago, as the earth was emerging from the last ice age, the melting ice sheets of North America created a huge lake in central Canada, which we refer to as Lake Agassiz. When a dam of ice broke in eastern Canada, much of this lake drained into the north Atlantic, delivering thousands of cubic kilometers of freshwater into the ocean. Many scientists believe that this freshwater caused a massive shift in ocean currents, which in turn cooled the earth’s climate for about a millennia. This paper models how the freshwater would have flowed out of the lake into the Atlantic during this turbulent time, arguing that we need better models to figure out this period of earth’s history.

Paper title: Tropical ocean‐atmosphere controls on inter‐annual climate variability in the Cretaceous Arctic
Journal: Geophysical Research Letters
Authors: Andrew Davies, Alan E. S. Kemp, and Heiko Palike

The gist: The authors of this paper drilled into sediment in the Arctic Ocean to determine annual variability of the climate 70 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. During this time, the climate was much warmer than it is today (the Arctic was ice-free in the summer). Understanding how the climate behaved then may help us understand how it may behave under global warming. One of the findings of this paper is that El Niño likely came and went with about the same frequency as it does today (every three to seven years). These findings conflict with some other research that suggests that during warmer climates, the earth switches into a semi-permanent “El Niño” state.

Paper title: Streamflow responses to past and projected future changes in climate at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, New Hampshire
Journal: Water Resources Research
Authors: John L. Campbell, Charles T. Driscoll, Afshin Pourmokhtarian, and Katharine Hayhoe

Credit: iStock

The gist: Using a well-studied forest in New Hampshire, this paper estimates how climate change will affect rivers and streams in the Northeast. Stream flow peaks in the early spring when the snowpack melts. Already, because of climate change, the peak flow is coming earlier in the year, and this trend is expected to continue as the earth warms. Climate models suggest that the Northeast will see more rainfall in the future, but the average stream flow likely won’t increase because warmer temperatures will also cause more evaporation.

Paper title: Responses and feedbacks of coupled biogeochemical cycles to climate change: examples from terrestrial ecosystems.
Journal: Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 
Authors: Adrien C. Finzi, Amy T. Austin, Elsa E. Cleland, Serita D. Frey, Benjamin Z. Houlton, and Matthew D. Wallenstein

The gist: This paper reviews what we know about how climate change will affect the global cycles of nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorous. These three elements are essential to all life, and their ratio is incredibly important (fertilizer is mostly nitrogen and phosphorous). The paper explains the uncertainties and also points out that most climate models assume that plants will strongly respond to elevated CO2 — that is, more CO2 will ‘fertilize’ plants and increase their growth. They show that studies of plants in the real world don’t respond as favorably to CO2, mostly because plant growth is limited by nitrogen or phosphorous. The models are flawed, they argue. That would mean that the models are overestimating how much CO2 is absorbed by plants, and thus underestimating climate change.

Paper title: Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble (an editorial, not a paper)
Journal: Climatic Change
Author: Alan Robock

The gist: This editorial is a response to another paper, in which the author argued we could slow climate change by injecting air bubbles in the ocean to make the water surface more reflective. Robock points out that cooling the ocean in this way will change currents and have unintended consequences on marine life. He also discusses other such “geoengineering” ideas, such as spraying sulfate particles high into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet.

Paper title: Combining climate with other influential factors for modeling the impact of climate change on species distribution
Journal: Climatic Change
Authors: Ana Luz Márquez, Raimundo Real, Jesús Olivero, Alba Estrada

The gist: How much extinction will climate change cause? Although the estimates are very high (the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that more than 40 percent of species could be at risk if the earth warms by more than 4°C), there is still a lot of debate in the scientific community. This paper attempts to better model how individual species might respond to climate change.

An example of a drill set-up in Antarctica. Credit: andrill.org

Paper title: Holocene Southern Ocean surface temperature variability west of the Antarctic Peninsula
Journal: Nature
Authors: A. E. Shevenel, A. E. Ingalls, E. W. Domack, C. Kelly

The gist: The authors drilled into the ocean floor near the Antarctic Peninsula and used the sediments to determine the Southern Ocean’s climate over the past 12,000 years. Until the recent warming trend brought by global warming, changes in the earth’s orbit were cooling the waters off the coast of Antarctica.

Paper title: Climate Data Challenges in the 21st Century
Journal: Science
Authors: Jonathan T. Overpeck Gerald A. Meehl, Sandrine Bony, David R. Easterling

The gist: The amount of climate data are overwhelming our abilities to process, analyze, and share it, and researchers will have to devote more effort to organizing these climate data in the coming years. Climate Central’s Alyson Kenward provides a good summary of this article.

Paper title: Carbon Sequestration May Have Negative Impacts on Ecosystem Health
Journal: Environmental Science and Technology
Authors: Yafeng Wang and Shixiong Cao

The gist: In this article, Wang and Cao criticize the aggressive efforts of the Chinese government to plant trees. The government plans to increase the forested area by 40 million hectares — roughly the size of Montana — by 2020. However, they are planting trees that are not suited for the local environment, the authors say, which may have negative consequences. 

Paper title: Net Air Emissions from Electric Vehicles: The Effect of Carbon Price and Charging Strategies
Journal: Environmental Science and Technology

The gist: This paper considers what happens if plug-in hybrid cars become more common in the next decade. It finds that CO2 emissions will be reduced, as will other harmful pollutants, such as nitrous oxide, a key compo. The power plants that produce the electricity, though, will still produce large amounts of carbon dioxide (unless we change the way we produce power), and more sulfur dioxide, from the burning of coal, will be put in the atmosphere.



If you have questions about a paper, feel free to submit them as a comment to this post. We apologize that not all the articles are freely available (although you can read the abstracts).

All of these papers, with the exception of some of the editorials, were submitted as part of the peer review process — that is, other scientists reviewed the paper to make sure the research met certain standards. If you want to learn more about peer review, we recommend checking out this blog posting on Real Climate.

Here is the list of journals that we skimmed for these articles. See any that you think should be included in next week's edition? Let us know by commenting on this post, or email me at david@climatecentral.org:

  • PNAS
  • Nature
  • Nature Geoscience (and starting in April, Nature Climate Change)
  • Science
  • Science Express
  • PLoS (Biology & ONE)
  • Global Change Biology
  • Climatic Change
  • Geophysical Research Letters
  • JGR - Atmo, Biogeochem, Oceans
  • Water Resources Research
  • ESA journals
  • Global Environmental Change
  • International Journal of Climatology
  • Phil. Transactions of the Royal Society A
  • Environmental Science & Technology
  • Energy and Fuels
  • Energy Policy