Goodbye, Clouds
February 26, 2019 7:53 AM   Subscribe

A new simulation finds that global warming could cause stratocumulus clouds to disappear in as little as a century, which would add 8°C (14°F) of extra warming to the planet.

56 million years ago, when the world was already several degrees hotter than it is now, the planet experienced a sudden warming pulse that carried thousands of species into extinction. The origin of this event long eluded scientists, but recent supercomputer simulations have provided a clue: at a certain point, global warming breaks up stratocumulus clouds. With the cooling clouds gone, planetary temperatures shoot up.

The good news is that this event appears to be triggered at CO2 levels of 1200 ppm in the atmosphere. The bad news is that we're already over a third of the way there, have no signs of slowing down or stopping, and the majority of existing climate models, which limit warming to 2°C, are probably conservative.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (25 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
eep.
posted by Theta States at 8:11 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]


I think this is fairly early science, and I don't intend to pooh-pooh it in any way -- and if you've read my previous posts on the matter and ask me, I consider our "worst case scenario" predictions to be recklessly optimistic -- but these simulations need more baking and review.

From what I can see among climate scientists and atmospheric scientists, they're classing this simulation as "plausible" which is pretty far short of what I'd consider the threshold for making this Really Big News, and the breathless coverage here very well may backfire when more investigation might uncover major problems. This should be covered, but it's currently being oversold, in my opinion.
posted by tclark at 8:23 AM on February 26 [7 favorites]


Here's some pushback on that report:

But many climate scientists who research clouds are pushing back against the study, arguing that its analysis of one small patch of atmosphere does not apply to the entire globe. It’s a “simple model [that] essentially has a knob with two settings,” says Joel Norris, a cloud scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. “But it is very likely that the Earth has more knobs than that.”
posted by Cash4Lead at 8:38 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]


heard from someone who works at one of the big environmental nonprofits that the thing that makes people least likely to take action against climate change is discussion of the clathrate gun. When we hear about a problem of that overwhelming world-destroying magnitude, we don't spring into action to dodge the disaster. Instead, we sink into despair and/or decide that since everything's going to die we might as well have fun while civilization lasts.

anyway.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:50 AM on February 26 [21 favorites]


> It’s a “simple model [that] essentially has a knob with two settings,” says Joel Norris, a cloud scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. “But it is very likely that the Earth has more knobs than that.”

indeed. there is, in fact, strong circumstantial evidence that the earth is absolutely full of knobs.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:51 AM on February 26 [59 favorites]


Whether this is true or not, the prescription we need to follow is pretty much the same, isn't it?
posted by pracowity at 8:53 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]


Yeah but what about my bitcoin?
posted by tittergrrl at 8:56 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


from what I can see among climate scientists and atmospheric scientists, they're classing this simulation as "plausible"

If your only interest is in accurate scientific predictions, "plausible" might not be big news - because yeah, caution is warranted before something becomes settled science.

If you're worried about the future of life as we know it, "plausible" is terrifying. I don't think that we should be downplaying these plausible, but uncertain, results by saying that they aren't big news until we're sure. The fact that this even a possibility - that we are taking this type of risk for the sake of corporate profit - is absolutely fucking ridiculous.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:00 AM on February 26 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: absolutely full of knobs.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:26 AM on February 26 [5 favorites]


If you're worried about the future of life as we know it, "plausible" is terrifying.

Accurate science is the only and best tool we have to combat the ideologically-driven purveyors of crackpottery, anti-vaxx, climate deniers, etc. When a scientist describes something as plausible, that's often the nice way to say "the math works out, but there is very little to no indication that action is warranted based on this analysis." I emphasize the last part, because we have definitive proof that climate change desperately needs action, and it needs it 20 years ago. So far, this simulation provides no additional support for taking action.

Other examples of plausible science that don't warrant action are supervolcanoes, local gamma-ray bursts, the collapse of the false vacuum, and the LHC creating black holes. All of these are plausible threats. Plausibility is not the threshold for action in my opinion.
posted by tclark at 9:30 AM on February 26 [7 favorites]


Yeah but what about my bitcoin?

hodl?
posted by The Bellman at 9:33 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


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posted by loquacious at 9:52 AM on February 26 [3 favorites]


More seriously:

So are you guys ready for a general strike yet or are we just going to party on into the sunset of doom?

At this point I'm pretty ok with and prepared for either option. I figure either way we're going to want people who can cook over a fire, set up tents and maybe also DJ a dance party.
posted by loquacious at 10:00 AM on February 26 [6 favorites]




Other examples of plausible science that don't warrant action are supervolcanoes, local gamma-ray bursts, the collapse of the false vacuum, and the LHC creating black holes. All of these are plausible threats. Plausibility is not the threshold for action in my opinion.

Some huge variations in plausibility and degree to which anything can be done about it in your examples there.
posted by Artw at 10:25 AM on February 26 [1 favorite]


>I figure either way we're going to want people who can cook over a fire, set up tents and maybe also DJ a dance party.

god gave noah the rainbow sign /
no more water, the fyre festival next time

n.b. there will also be water. lots and lots of lukewarm seawater.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:38 AM on February 26


"heard from someone who works at one of the big environmental nonprofits that the thing that makes people least likely to take action against climate change is discussion of the clathrate gun. When we hear about a problem of that overwhelming world-destroying magnitude, we don't spring into action to dodge the disaster. Instead, we sink into despair and/or decide that since everything's going to die we might as well have fun while civilization lasts."

I wonder if there is a name for this phenomena in general. Like, often I feel that way about my own life and myriad other overwhelming issues. Why quit smoking, I'm going to die anyway and don't care to be alive now, what's the use in feeling less good in order to risk a longer life. Why stop driving to work and using the heater and my computer and eating delicious foods, humanity goes extinct like any other species? Seems like there'd be a nice clean word to describe the circumstance of feeling unable to address a large problem and the mess of associated smaller problems, so you retreat into resignation, not quite despair, not exactly celebration either.
posted by GoblinHoney at 10:46 AM on February 26 [4 favorites]


I do PETM research, and without taking anything away from these results or the need to worry about climate change - please don't read that into this, because I'm not doing that (and also respect some of the researchers here very much) - at the same time I would advise much caution about these findings and breathlessly trumpeting/applying them. Because the number of "THIS IS IT" kind of "discoveries" about the PETM and the subsequent events (particularly ELMO) that have turned out to be incorrect or not as big as originally trumpeted would require both hands to count. (Just a few years ago, it was all about methane clathrates. Well, now there's some problems with the methane clathrate hypothesis. [on preview, exactly] Before that it was about bolides. Etc.) We really don't understand it that well (just how ice free the earth was is a matter of some debate), there's some very interesting and possibly unique anomalies in general about earth's climate at that particular moment in time, the recovery time was extremely rapid, and there are enough anomalous and contradictory effects of what we do understand that it's difficult to model.

Just to give you an example, while the article touched on just one type of plankton, not all of the different types of oceanic plankton behave in the ways the models or the climate swing predict, and we have a hard time modeling how to get those extremely contradictory behaviors with regards to evolution, extinction, and biogeochemistry - and marine plankton are something we actually have a pretty excellent grasp on. Another example would be grass. Its evolution caused it to become not just a dominant vegetation form on land but also to completely change the carbon cycle - millions of years after the PETM. Want to bake your noodle and have an insight into just how hard these models are - just think about the contrast of what erosion looked like on land pre and post grass evolution, then think about how that difference alone affected what nutrients from soils went into rivers and thus eventually the ocean, and how that alone would affect marine life. (More fun times - grasses really started taking off at about the PETM!)

Using the word "plausible" can also be a nice way of being nice to your colleagues about a hypothesis you have doubts about or even want to be open minded about when you're thinking, dang, that needs a lot more testing. IMHO taking the conditions and effects of one model's 8°C increase and its potential cause up against climate swings like PETM, then applying those ideas to our current climate situation has a very very long ways to go to be tested and reproduced when compared against the repeated and tested ~2-4°C increase we're working with now, which requires enough action as it is. Every step gets us closer to understanding what has happened, and it's wonderful to put forward additional hypotheses! I'm excited about this idea, personally (in terms of gaining understanding and improving the science). But this is just a hypothesis at this moment, and will require lots more additional work to reproduce, reasonably prove, or disprove it - which will push our knowledge forward regardless of results, because that's how science works.

But there's a lot of people who do not understand that, and use incorrect or even partially wrong hypotheses to push back against tested ideas through use of "well scientists were wrong that one time" kind of horseshit, which is why a particular kind of coverage can be really bad for science and bad for gaining traction for real action. Scientists-were-wrong-that-one-time-ism has turned out to be a formidable weapon of deniers, from evolution to climate change. It's extremely frustrating and enraging to see the very principles of how the scientific method works used against science when scientists and others call for any kind of action.

I admit I'm biased: On a bad day, I'd say terrible science reporting and media institutions eliminating science reporters has been as bad for climate change action as certain politicians, lobbyists, and deniers have been. On a good day I do try to be less judgmental and say journalists are trying their best. And I get it - "new pub says climate change gets rid of clouds and raises temps by 8 degrees" is sooooo much more clickable than "one model, that has a lot of uncertainty and needs much more testing, suggests new atmospheric changes and may have contributed to changes at not yet well understood time in earth's past". Bad science reporting which does not super super super emphasize the differences between a hypothesis that needs to be tested and those that have been, often by presenting the new idea as "the" scenario, sometimes feed "the scientists have been wrong" charge when inevitably some of those scenarios are overturned and is thus something to call out. It's also insidious, over time - just think how many "news articles" have trumpeted something about nutrition or health that has turned out differently, and how that affects our perception of nutrition science over time. It makes scientists' jobs more difficult, and educating the public is difficult enough as it is. This article is one of the better ones I've seen on this paper - I liked it! - but it could have started out much more strongly with the idea this is a new hypothesis that needs more work instead of concluding with it. The tide we're pushing against is strong enough as it is without making it harder.

We already have tremendous problems with others wanting to discredit and kill science as an institution - maintaining credibility and integrity with those who still have it is incredibly important to scientists. To maintain that integrity means questioning results. It means pushing back against our own known biases and watching out for blind spots. It means calling out news stories that don't show a more complete picture or dramatize needlessly. It is not wrong to desire more accurate and precise reporting, even if the end result desired in this case - action - is the same.

As a scientist, I 100% believe we can still take action and that action will have results. I really do. But I want those actions to be predicated on as much fact, evidence, and data as it can be, because the more and better data we have, the better the action we can take. In an extraordinary situation, I want people to be armed with extraordinary knowledge in order to have and create extraordinary tools. Because as a human, I still have hope.
posted by barchan at 11:08 AM on February 26 [17 favorites]


METAFILTER: anyway.
posted by philip-random at 11:17 AM on February 26 [2 favorites]


There is hope...
posted by sammyo at 11:33 AM on February 26


This all just highlights how fucked the decision making around climate change is. Even the leaders who acknowledge climate change will cherry-pick the best-case scenarios from the executive summaries of scientific research: what they'll take away from this is "we have until 1200ppm before we have to do anything, and maybe it won't happen at all!"

This is like concluding that Russian roulette is safe because "five of these chambers don't even have any bullets!"

We need to be making decisions based on plausible worst-case outcomes. Global warming cannot be reversed quickly---the oceans of the world have massive heat inertia that will keep the planet warm for a very long time even if we stop dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:17 PM on February 26 [4 favorites]


If CO2 hits 1200 PPM, will humans even be able to survive?
posted by Slinga at 5:14 PM on February 26


In the PPM 2525
If man is still alive

*dodges hurled tomatoes*
posted by delfin at 7:56 PM on February 26


So it's literally a Chicken Little/Henny Penny "The Sky is Falling!" narrative.
A cautionary tale, but open to interpretation.
posted by ovvl at 8:09 PM on February 26


first, id like,to 2nd tclark

2nd)
the,IPCC worst case business as usual emissions pathways are middle of the road, not worst case
1200 pm is easy to reach, everyday we manufacture more internal combustion engines locking in more oil burning, new coals plants are being built across the planet, we are able to tap tar sands,and fract shale and will tap the arctic.... as soil,warms the equilibirum of % organic matter decreases, the whole,surface of the planet is leaking CO2 and methane and there is a lot of land warming slowly in the subartic, the wild fires are visible from space, we can easily reach 1200ppm, indeed even if humans stopped all emissions tomorrow, we'd creep up to it in a a dozen decades as the lag in equilibrating the earths temp and the new insulation we added takes time and as non-human emissions increase from the heating.


3rd) my experience of using a co2 monitor to regulate ventilation in my tiny house is that you can tell there is mind impairment and lethergy, enough to look over at the monitor and be like "of course, i switched off the exchanger before going to the store, now im at 900ppm and no wonder i'm still staring at the tea kettle." Its not that bad, like,a classroom that is stuffy and,makes,you drowsy. who knows what the chronic effects are, and what we'll do when there is no "fresh" air on the planet to use to ventilate our vehicles, homes and offices.
and what it will do to gestating new humans, but of course, gestating new humans is a bad idea anyway

4) manditory optimism and rosy "bad" scenarios are just as pernicious as fatalism. the public supports doing something about climate change, the top emitters are not democracies and are unresponsive to public opinion instead of the perogatives of wealthy sociopaths. The top emitter is run by a russian agent who got power after tampering with an election and he and his family and associates have been publically confessing to multiple kinds of crimes for 2 plus years. I think we can safely accomodate both pessimists and optimists in this discussion without fear that the publics fickle mood will be the deciding factor.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 8:13 PM on February 26 [1 favorite]


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