Tag Archives: IPCC

Storm Surges, Global Warming, and Delaware Beaches

ADDENDUM (Nov.-7, 2012): Time lapse video from Delaware Sea Grant.

Rising seas and flood waters cause most of the damage during storms such as Sandy did last week. Tides, waves, and storms all contribute. We can debate how global warming impacts any of the above, but the arguments are involved. So lets assume, that neither tides, waves, nor storms are impacted by global warming, but that the globally averaged rise in sea level over the last 50 or 100 years is. This global warming induced sea level rise is about half a foot in 50 years (3 mm/year), but why would we care about global averages, when we live in Delaware? Furthermore, why worry about the whimpy surges we get ever 2-3 weeks. We don’t, we worry most about the most extreme events like Sandy and want to know how often they occur. Below I show a Sandy-like event to occur about once every 10 years. Furthermore, over time Delaware’s most extreme storm surges are rising twice as fast as global averages do. So, how much does the global warming impact our local flooding in Delaware?

Market Street on the beach in Lewes is in one of the lowest lying areas of town and takes its good old-time draining. This photograph looks northeastward toward the beach, just west of the intersection with Massachusetts Avenue. [Credit: Cape Gazette]

More than I initially thought: the largest storm surge that has hit Delaware was the Ash Wednesday storm on March 6, 1962 which added 5.8 feet to the regular tides and waves. I wrote about this yesterday using public NOAA data. This same storm today would add 6.8 feet to the regular tides and waves. For comparison, Sandy’s storm surge added 5.3 feet. So Sandy was a weak storm by comparison. If it had hit in 1962, it would have added only 4.3 feet. The difference of 1 foot in 50 years is due to steadily rising sea levels:

Largest storm surge at Lewes, Delaware each year from 1957 to present. The red line is a linear fit to the data. The slope indicates that the largest storm surge increase by almost 3 inches every 10 years.

On average each year has a larger largest surge than the year before. While this steady increase by 2.8 +/- 1.7 inches each 10 years is statistically significant (95% confidence), picking the extreme each year is perhaps not the best statistic as extremes do not happen often. Please note that a 95% confidence means that there is a 5% chance that the true increase is either smaller than 0.9 inches/decade or larger than 4.5 inches/decade.

What about the mean or average surge each year? From hourly data, I pick the middle surge, that is, half the surges each year are larger and half are smaller:

This increase of 1.4 +/- 0.2 inches per decade (95% confidence) is more in line of the global average. The uncertainty in this trend is smaller than that of the trend for the extreme, because the median sea level varies little from year to year, while the extreme value varies more from year to year. So, from these results we can conclude, that while the mean or median sea level at Lewes increases by perhaps 1.5 inches in 10 years, the extremes increase twice as fast. So, storm surges like Sandy will become more common than they are today mostly because of global warming.

Over the last 50 years we had at least 5 such events in 1962, 1968, 1996, 1998, and 2012. So, on average we have a Sandy-type storm surge greater than 5 feet every 10 years. This contradicts a Wilmington News Journal article today which quotes John Ramsey to describe “… Sandy as a 1-in-200-years storm, unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. That could give coastal communities time enough to deal with the real threats and realities of sea level rise and climate change.” There is no such time, as it is mis-leading to describe Sandy as a 1-in-200-year event when it has happened about every 10 years during the last 55 years. Instead of a 0.5% percent chance of a Sandy-like event to hit Lewes each year, I would raise this chance to be larger than 10%.

Greenland’s Warming, Melting, and Sliding to Sea

Greenland is warming, Greenland’s warming is melting its ice, and Greenland melting ice is raising global sea level. All true, but it all has happened before during the last 100 years or so. Our technology to extract small signals buried deep in noise from both our backyard and remote Greenland is unprecedented. This skill should not fool us, that the large changes that we see in Greenland and elsewhere have not happened before. They have, but memory is a fickle thing, as “new” is exciting, while “old” is often forgotten and considered unimportant. Those who live in the past are doomed to miss the present, those who ignore the past, are doomed to repeat it. We need to learn from the past, live in the present, and prepare for the future.

Preparing for an expedition to Nares Strait between northern Greenland and Canada in about 5 weeks, I am exploring temperature data from land, satellites, and ocean sensors to get a feel for what has changed. I started with data from weather stations such as the U.S. Air Force Base Thule , Canada’s former spy station Alert, and Denmark’s Station Nord about 700-1000 miles from the North Pole. So, it is cold up there:

Annual cycle of air temperature (bottom panel) from south to north at Thule (red), Grise Fjord (green), Alert (blue), and Cap Morris Jesup. Data years (top panel) for each year day are degrees of freedom. For each place two temperature curves indicate upper and lower limits of the climatological mean temperature for that day at 95\% confidence.

Well, we knew that, but the real question is: Has anything changed? Has Global Warming reached Greenland? The plot above does not tell, but this one does:

Annual averages and trends of air temperature anomalies for the 1987-2010 period for (top to bottom) Station Nord (Greenland), Alert (Canada), Grise Fjord (Canada), and Thule (Greenland). Scales are identical. The trends are fitted to daily, not annual data. The annual averages are shown for display purposes only.

To some it screams: “Warming, melting, Greenland is surging to sea.” [It is, but it did so before.]

There is lots of fancy signal processing that goes into this (see Tamino or a class I teach) to make a firm statement:

The air around northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island has warmed by about 0.11 +/- 0.025 degrees Celsius per year since 1987. North-west Greenland and north-east Canada are warming more than five times faster than the rest of the world.

This must be huge (yes, it is), it must have an effect on the Greenland ice sheet (yes, it does), and this must raise sea level (yes, perhaps 10 cm or 3 inches in 100 years, Moon et al., 2012).

Now where is the catch?

The catch is that my records all start in 1987, because that is the period for which I have actual measurements from all those stations. My satellite record is even shorter: it starts in 2000, but with lots of work can be extended back to 1978. And my ocean record is shorter yet: it starts in 2003. There just are no other hard data available from north-west Greenland.

So, does this mean we are stuck with the gloom and doom of a short record?

No, but we have to leave the comforts of hard, modern data with which to do solid science. People have to stick out their necks a little by making larger scale interferences. Based on the 1987-2010 results shown above, I can now say that trends and year-to-year variations are all similar in Alert, Thule, Kap Morris Jesup, etc., etc., so I will use the 60 year Thule record to make statements that somewhat represent all of Nares Strait. I could also start looking for softer and older data. With soft data I mean sketchy ship logs kept by whalers, tense expedition reports of starving explorers (Lauge Koch, Knud Rasmussen, Peter Freuchen), and imperial expeditions (George Nares, Adolphus Greely).

Further south there are a few ports where government or trading authorities started records early. The current capital of Greenland, Nuuk (formerly Godthab) is such a place. The Nuuk record starts 1881. And what I find is that the current warming in Greenland has happened just as dramatic as it does now in the 1920ies and 1930ies [well, except for the 2010 spike, but that story is still ongoing]:

Data from Nuuk, southern Greenland, where the temperature record goes back to 1881 (monthly data from NASA/GISS). The dashed line indicates 1987.

The trend is statistically significant, about 0.008 +/- 0.03 degrees centigrade per year or about 10 times smaller than what it is for northern Greenland starting in 1987. So the devil of Greenland warming, melting, and sliding to sea is in the details or records that are too short. The Global Warming signal is in there, but how much, we do not know and perhaps cannot know. Furthermore, most of the globe of “Global Warming” is covered by water and the ocean warming we know little about. Recall, my ocean record off northern Greenland only starts in 2003 and ends in 2009 or 2012, if we recover computers, sensors, and data from the bottom of Nares Strait this summer.

Greenland’s data and physics of ice, ocean, and air are exciting and all show dramatic change. To me, this is a big and fun puzzle, but one has to be careful and humble to avoid making silly statements for political purposes that are not supported by data. Do I think Global Warming is happening? Absolutely, yes. Do I think it is man-made? Probably. What do I do about it? I ride my bicycle to and from work every day. And that’s what I do next … bicycle home.

Uncertainty in the Physics and Philosophy of Climate Change

I wrote this post last year for the National Journal, but it also relates to the way I think about Petermann Glacier’s ice islands. There are now at least 4 larger ice islands that formed from last year’s single calving: one is the tourist attraction off Labrador and Newfoundland, a second has left Petermann Fjord last week, a third was grounded off Ellesmere Island for much of the year and is now where #1 was Nov.-2010, while the fourth … I do not know. Last I heart, it was grounded off central Baffin Island. With this much variation of where pieces of the ice island went, how can we possibly claim any skill in predicting anything?


Neither climate nor weather is linear, but this neither makes them unpredictable nor chaotic. The simple harmonic pendulum is the essence of a linear system with clear cause and effect relations. Oscillations are predictable as long as the initial forcing is small. Furthermore, a linear trend will show the pendulum to slow down due to friction. Corrections are straightforward.

Unfortunately, climate is not a simple, harmonic, or linear system. While this does not make it unpredictable or chaotic, it means that our “common sense” and loose talk of “totality of events” can easily fool us. We know that CO2 emissions for the last 150 years changed global temperatures. We also know that our current climate system has been very stable over the last 10,000 years. What we do not yet know is how small or how large a perturbations the last 150 years have been. If the pendulum is forced too much, if the spring is stretched too far, the system will find another stable state by breaking. Climate dynamics can find an adjustment less tuned to the areas where people presently live. This is what “tipping points” are about. Only numerical experimentation with the best physics and models will suggest how close to a different stable climate state we are. The IPCC process is one way to do so.

Ice cores from Greenland contain air bubbles 100,000 years old, which clearly demonstrate that our present climate state is the “anomaly of quiet” in terms of temperature fluctuations. The absence of large fluctuations for about 10,000 years made agriculture and advanced civilizations possible. The ice cores show that abrupt climate change has happened and may happen again, not this election cycle, but it is one possibility perhaps as likely as the possibility that climate change is mundane, linear, and follows trends that we can easily correct or mitigate later. Both are excellent hypotheses.

For scientists, these are exciting times as we conduct a massive, global experiment to see how much CO2 we can add to the atmosphere to perhaps find a different climate state. Dr. Terry Joyce, Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution once said: “I’m in the dark as to how close to an edge or transition to a new ocean and climate regime we might be. But I know which way we are walking. We are walking toward the cliff.” I agree with this sentiment, but add that we do not know if this cliff is a 1000 feet fall or a 2 feet step. Can we affort to wait until we know for sure? As a scientist I do not care. As a citizen, however, I think the time to act responsibly is now.

Is Climate Change Causing Wild Weather?

Almost a year ago, Amy Calder of the National Journal asked:

Are extreme weather events, when considered collectively, evidence that climate change is occurring? If not, what are the missing links scientists still need to study in order to make a more conclusive find? Could these weather events revive congressional efforts to pass comprehensive climate legislation?

My answer is still the same, even though I grapple with what my resonsibilities and moral obligations are as a scientist learning, a tenured professor teaching, and a citizen voting. Here it is:

No, climate does not cause weather, the balances of forces, masses, and energies in the atmosphere do. Furthermore, the atmosphere interacts with oceans, ice sheets, lands, and livings things. Ask an equally ill-posed question “Is climate change contributing to wild weather?” and my answer becomes yes, but with the caveat that butterflies flapping their wings in Tokyo contribute as well. There is more to the question than meets the eye.

Globally averaged air temperatures have increased by about 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade over the last 50 years. This warming is not uniform as it varies in both space and time. Some places cool, some places warm, some places cool or warm more than expected. Floods, droughts, mudslides, and calving glaciers always have and always will occur. Some weather events separated in space and time are physically linked via large-scale tele-connections such as Rossby waves in the atmospheric jet stream or the El Nino-Southern Oscillations.

So, how much of the currently observed extreme weather events are due to globally increasing air temperatures that also coincide with globally increasing ocean temperatures? Does global warming increase, say, the intensity of hurricane by 1% or 10% or 50%? These much tougher questions are at the forefront of both observational and computational work on environmental physics. The IPCC numerical models and new understanding of key physical processes, I feel, are the only way to attribute global warming effects on extreme weather events. Ice-ocean interactions around Greenland are one such physical process poorly incorporated in IPCC models. Another such process is the way that hurricanes may dominate the ocean heat flux towards Greenland.

Three weeks before Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 MIT professor Dr. Kerry Emanuel published that the power dissipation by hurricanes has increased by about 60% over the last 30 years and that this increase correlates with increasing sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic. Nevertheless, Dr. Emanuel himself stressed that nothing could be more absurd than stating that Katrina was caused by global warming. Furthermore, refining his methodology in 2008, he finds that “… global warming should reduce the global frequency of hurricanes, though their intensity may increase in some locations.” [Emanuel et al., 2008: Hurricanes and global warming, Bull. Amer. Meteor. Soc. 89, 347-367.]

Just because a pattern of extreme weather events feels like evidence of global warming, it does not make it so. This scientific uncertainty, however, should not distract from the potential costs that a potentially man-made climate change will cause. Climate zones may shift, sea level may rise, volatile weather events may become more volatile, etc. All of this may cause additional political instabilities in marginally stable nation states ill-equipped to deal with either natural or man-made disasters.