Setback for climate researchers

setback for climate researchers

Graphic: IPCC

The energy and climate newsreel: From agricultural fuel and oil price trends, to radiation gauges and crashing satellites, and sea ice and sea levels

Summits are all the rage: integration summits, education summits and now a gasoline summit as well. The federal government and the mineral oil industry are having problems with the introduction of the new fuel mixture E10, and as usual, a lot of hue and cry is being made, in which the information only occurs in homeopathic doses.

So now the minister of economics has met with his colleague from the environment ministry and representatives of the affected companies. In Berlin and not on some Alpine summits. After some back and forth, they unexpectedly demonstrated rough unity and promised to provide better information in the future. Aha! And about what? Which cars can tolerate the aggressive mixture. I see.

Information about the environmental or energy sense of the whole thing, however, is not to be expected. The stuff will continue to be called biofuel and promoted with all sorts of images of a hunky, green agricultural world. In concrete terms, this involves ethanol, usually obtained from corn, sugar beets or sugar cane, which is added to gasoline at a rate of ten percent. Therefore E10.

The problem is that ethanol is much more aggressive than gasoline, which is why not all engines can tolerate it. But this should concern only a small minority of old cars. Over 90 percent of the cars on the roads in this country will be able to use E10 without any problems. More details for various models are available at ADAC.

But what are we to make of the arguments with which the new fuel is to be made palatable to drivers?? Is it the answer to the dependence on Libyan oil, as Environment Minister Norbert Rottgen thinks?? Is it a means of combating climate change, as the energy and climate strategy of not only the current German government but also its predecessors would have us believe??

On closer inspection it quickly becomes clear: not too much. On the one hand, the cultivation, the manure on the fields, the transport and the processing of the ethanol precursors will release a lot of greenhouse gases, so that the Federal Environment Agency already advised against agrofuels in the 1990s. On the other hand, the surface consumption is far too high to be able to replace a large part of the gasoline in the EU with ethanol in the long term. Western Europe will not be able to get along without imports on a large scale if the current car-fixated mobility concept is maintained.

In the short term, however, the prere to use more ethanol will certainly increase. The oil price continued to climb last week, albeit not quite as frantically as at the end of February. Brent crude averaged around 115 U.S. dollars per 159-liter barrel (barrel) for the week. Earlier this week, things even took a turn for the worse after the Kuwaiti government announced an increase in OPEC’s demands. Auch die US-amerikanische Standardsorte WTI folgte diesen Marktbewegungen im gleichen Mabe, halt aber zur annahernd gleichwertigen europaischen Sorte Brent weiter einen ungewohnlichen Abstand von zehn bis zwolf Dollar pro Fass. The reason may have been, as reported (plague or cholera), the Canadian oil synthesis from tar sands, which increased the supply on the North American continent.

Developments in the Arab world, especially in Libya, continue to be responsible for the nervousness of the markets. Its exports have so far mostly gone to Europe. Italy alone takes a third, according to a graphic published by Al Jazeera. 14 percent of Libya’s production is shipped to Germany.

Icy high point

High in the north the frost strives meanwhile toward its annual high point. The expansion of sea ice will probably reach its peak in the next few days. It may be that this will take a week or two longer, like last year, when the maximum was unusually late.

Graphic: NSDIC

As you can see in the graph above, the ice extent in the last months was far behind the usual for this time of the year. Especially on the coasts of Quebec, Newfoundland, Labrador and Westgronland there was a lack of ice. The main reason for this was the well above-average temperatures in large parts of the Arctic this winter.

February 2011 was, along with February 2005, the February with the lowest ice cover on the Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas since regular satellite measurements began in 1978. The trend, the blue straight line in the graph below, shows a decrease in ice extent in February of three percent per decade.

Graphic: NSDIC

Crashed at launch

Data such as those shown in the two graphs above are obtained, sometimes at considerable expense, from observations of satellites orbiting the Earth in comparatively low orbits in a polar orbit. Onboard these satellites are radiation measuring devices that scan the planet in various frequency ranges, from microwaves to the infrared. The passive radiation from the surface of the earth, water or ice is captured.

Also the radiation of different air layers, the clouds and also of small solid particles, the so-called aerosols can be caught, and in some frequency ranges the measuring rates can peep also through the sometimes dense cloud layer, so that luckless information can be won from the surface. Using sometimes complex algorithms, the raw data can then be used to determine the temperature of the radiation source or the distribution of the ice cover.

A bitter blow to these observations came on the 4. March, when the launch of a new U.S. satellite Glory failed and it ended up in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. As Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York writes in the science blog Realclimate, the satellite had three measurement devices on board. One to measure the solar radiation, one to measure the clouds, and one that should provide a better insight into the nature and distribution of aerosols.

The latter can be made of very different materials and, accordingly, have quite different properties. Rub particles from burning forests and coal, for example, are among those that can be deposited on snow and ice and contribute to their melting. Other particles from partly natural, partly industrial sources influence the formation of clouds, and still others contribute to the fertilization of the seas. Too little is known about their distribution in the atmosphere, Schmidt said. "Glory" could have remedied the situation and thus reduced the uncertainties (see graph below) about the influence of aerosols on the climate system.

Meanwhile, both on Gronland and in Antarctica, the melting of the coarse ice sheets accelerates. Unlike sea ice, they lie on land, which is why sea levels rise when they shrink. The American Geophysical Union now reports a new study that will appear in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which it publishes.

Accordingly, U.S. and Dutch scientists have studied the development of the gross ice masses in the years 1992 to 2009 using two independent methods, both of which come to the same conclusion. First, the contribution of melting of the major ice sheets now exceeds the other factors contributing to global sea level rise, making ice loss faster than predicted by all climate models.

Second, in both Gronland and Antarctica, the loss of mass in each of the years studied was greater than in the previous year. On Gronland the average annual acceleration was 21.9 gigatons (billion tons) and in Antarctica 14.5 gigatons per year.

Currently, both ice sheets together lose 475 gigatons of ice per year, which is enough for 1.3 millimeters of global sea level per year, or 13 centimeters in 100 years. Mountain glaciers and smaller ice masses are losing about 420 gigatons a year, according to another study, and their loss is accelerating at a rate three times slower than that of the larger ice sheets.

setback for climate researchers

Image: Eric Rignot, JPL

If the currently observed acceleration continues, the authors calculate that global sea level will rise by 15 centimeters by 2050 due to melting on Greenland and in Antarctica. In addition, nine centimeters will be added by mountain glaciers and smaller ice masses, and eight centimeters by the expansion of warming waters. That was ready by 2050 32 centimeters rise in 40 years. Currently, the rate of sea level rise is slightly more than 30 centimeters per century, which is already a significant acceleration compared to the 20th century. Century.

"It is not surprising that the ice sheets will dominate the future sea level rise", says the lead author of the study, Eric Rignot, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and at the University of California at Irvine. "What is surprising, however, is that we can already see their growing contribution. If the trend continues, sea levels will be significantly higher than the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected in 2007."

In other words, the prediction – or projection, as it should strictly speaking be called – that sea levels will rise by a maximum of 58 centimeters by the end of the century, which was already criticized by some scientists when the IPCC report was published in 2007, is once again contradicted by studies of the ice sheets. Mankind must therefore prepare itself for a stronger rise. The fatal thing about it is that the ice sheets are very slow in their behavior, which makes this part of climate change particularly difficult to stop.

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