How the Earth’s atmosphere shows its face

This is an article I wrote for the European Geosciences Union’s newsletter, GeoQ, issue 9. The issue’s theme is “The Face of the Earth”, and so my article is based on “The Atmosphere of the Earth”. It’s aimed at members of EGU (i.e. a variety of different geoscientists), and I’ve tried to make it understandable to an interested non-scientist audience. I’d love to know whether any non-scientists out there think I’ve pitched it right or not!

Looking from outer space, the Earth’s atmosphere appears as an encapsulating fluid that flows in patterns caused by the rotation of the planet and the heating from the Sun. Up close, however, the atmosphere shows its face in much more detail, helping researchers understand the complex interactions in the Earth system.

Temperature of the atmosphere

The temperature of the Earth is much like the temperature of a person: it is a symptom of everything else that is going on in that person’s body. It may seem like a basic property of the atmosphere, but it is a product of many other aspects of the Earth system, including land and oceans.

Recently, there has been much discussion of the so-called ‘temperature hiatus’, the weakening of the trend in global mean surface air temperature since the late 1990s. Observations, such as those from the HadCRUT4 dataset, appear to show temperatures in the past decade rising more slowly than in the preceding two decades (see figure).

The HadCRUT4 dataset is a combination of ground station and the sea surface temperature measurements, which represent about 85% of Earth’s surface. Recent analysis by Cowtan and Way has tested whether this data contains a bias due to incomplete coverage of the globe, and they conclude that it has led to an underestimate of recent global warming. The authors point out that satellite data, models and isolated weather station data show that regions not covered by the dataset, especially the Arctic, have warmed faster than other parts of the world. Accounting for this gives a trend two and a half times greater than that from HadCRUT4, for temperature since 1997.

So even establishing the magnitude of the temperature hiatus is an ongoing area of research. The range of different studies investigating the causes of it is indicative of just how many different factors affect the air temperature.

Work by Estrada, Perron and Martínez-López explores global temperature data sets and radiative forcing variables (greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, natural changes in composition and land use, and solar irradiance) using statistical techniques. Their method interrogates the data without the use of models, and the authors conclude that the temperature record and the radiative forcing (which describes whether the Earth system has a net warming or cooling) can be described by linear trends punctuated by breaks. In this picture, the hiatus is simply a period with a different trend following a break. But what caused this break to occur?

The results suggest that the predominant cause was an unintended consequence of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the international treaty to stop the destruction of stratospheric ozone by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). CFCs are also greenhouse gases, so reducing them to protect the ozone layer also led to a relative cooling of the atmosphere. Pretis and Allen tested this finding in an energy balance model and found that global mean temperatures are 0.1 °C cooler because of the Montreal Protocol.

Estrada and colleagues also attributed a cooling from the reduction in the methane growth rate in recent years. Methane is a potent but short-lived (about a decade) greenhouse gas, with major natural and anthropogenic sources. The amount of methane in the atmosphere had been growing in the latter half of the 20th century, until it levelled off in the period around 2000 to 2006. The cause of this stagnation is in itself an active research area, with changes to agricultural practices, variability of wetlands, and changing fossil fuel emissions being likely factors.

Others have looked to the oceans to find a cause for the temperature hiatus. Modelling work by Kosaka and Xie shows that it can be explained by recent La Niña events. La Niña events are characterised by cooler tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures and cooler surface air temperatures. By putting observed tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures in to an atmospheric model (which also contained the observed greenhouse gas concentrations), the authors were able to reproduce the hiatus.

This is not necessarily in contradiction to the Estrada study, as Kosaka and Xie do not specify what is causing the sea surface temperatures to be La Niña-like, so the cause could be linked to greenhouse gas warming. A trend towards more La Niña-like conditions since 1950, coinciding with increases in global mean surface temperature, has been identified by L’Heureux et al..

These studies illustrate some of the complex interactions between atmospheric temperature, composition and climate. If temperature is the symptom, then we have seen that the make-up of the atmosphere is one of the many causes. To complicate things further, the symptom can also feed back into the cause. For example, wetland emissions of methane depend on temperature, so a warming Arctic may cause increased methane emissions and therefore even more warming.

The dome of the Jungfraujoch atmospheric observatory in Switzerland is seen  in the distance in this photo.

The dome of the Jungfraujoch atmospheric observatory in Switzerland is seen in the distance in this photo.

Composition of the atmosphere

We are finding ever more sophisticated ways of measuring the atmosphere’s composition: continuous ground-station measurements, sensors attached to weather balloons, aircraft- and ship-based instruments, drones, and satellites are all used to analyse the components of the atmosphere. This array of measurements at different scales is used in combination with models to paint the clearest picture of the atmosphere possible, within current understanding.

The MACC (Monitoring Atmospheric Composition and Climate) project has done just this, by assimilating satellite data into a global model of the atmosphere to produce an 8-year data set of atmospheric composition. The data for carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde are evaluated against independent satellite, weather balloon, ground station and aircraft observations in Inness et al., which goes on to highlight where the discrepancies lie and also indicates the direction for future work. With so much varied data to consider, this kind of large modelling study is a good way of bringing together the current knowledge of atmospheric composition.

These are just a few facets of the atmosphere, with weather patterns, climate modes, aerosol, boundary layer flows, and interactions with the surface being some of the other parts of the atmospheric system that we take interest in studying in just as much depth.It is thanks to the multitude of ways of observing and describing this encapsulating fluid we have today, that we get the atmosphere to show its face.

Svalbard: no bubbles or bears detected

Svalbard airport. No bears (armoured or otherwise) in sight.

The only things that anyone* ever wants to know about Svalbard are: did you see armoured bears, and did you see any methane bubbling up form the clathrates? Well, I’m sad to report that on first look, we detected neither.

*OK, so maybe not anyone. Maybe just me. Most people probably have no idea what I’m on about. So for the 99%, I’ll explain. Armoured bears are in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (highly recommended reading, IMHO). I won’t expand on that point. What I will expand upon is the bubbles, as we flew to Svalbard yesterday to see if we could find any evidence of them.

The bubbles of methane are released from structures on the bottom of the ocean, which are called methane clathrates, gas hydrates, or some variation thereof. I think these are very curious entities, probably because I don’t know enough about them. For now, I’ll just say that the gas hydrates are crystalline structures of water and methane ice, and methane is trapped within the structures. Sometimes, the methane can escape the structure, and bubble out into the ocean. There is a line of these gas hydrates just off the west coast of Svalbard, and methane has been observed bubbling up from the structures underwater. The methane dissolves in the water while it rises to the surface, but the question is whether all of it dissolves, or if some gas can escape to the air.

It was this source of methane that we went looking for off the coast of Svalbard. We didn’t observe higher concentrations of methane in the air while we were there, however it’s still possible we could detect some signature when we get the final analysis done in the lab (and by we, I mean colleagues at Royal Holloway, Manchester, FAAM, etc, and not me!).

Even if we don’t see any emissions from the gas hydrates, it doesn’t mean that it never reaches the atmosphere. The gas hydrates only trap the methane effectively at certain temperatures and pressures. If the water warms, the gas hydrates could potentially release considerable amounts of methane. If the sea is warming gradually, we may reach a point where lots of methane starts to be released. So it’s possible that under most conditions, no methane escapes. But then once the temperature crosses some threshold, it could then start to be released. What we want to know is whether any of this can get into the atmosphere, where it would cause more localised warming.

So that’s why we went off to Svalbard in summer. We also looked for, and found, regions of the atmosphere with more methane than the general background. This is one thing that I’m really interested in. I want to use a model to work out where these high concentrations of methane come from, and see if that’s consistent with the sources suggested by the isotopic analysis. Judging by the meteorology, I think the sources will be Russian (gas) or Scandinavian (wetlands). Watch this space (for a very long time) to find out if I’m right!

When it rains, it pours!

Rainfall at my weather station for first half of 2012

Rainfall at my weather station for the first half of 2012, alongside 1971-2000 averages for the Met Office’s station at Bedford. See how we caught up once the hosepipe ban kicked in! (Click to see full size.)

Can you guess when the hosepipe ban started? It was on the 5th of April. By the end of April we were catching up with the cumulative average. I guess we should all be joyous that the rains have finally come, and we aren’t running low any longer. It’s about time too!

So, to backtrack a bit. Dr Turnip got me a fancy-pants weather station for Christmas (the one he wanted to buy was out of stock, so he went for the next one up!), and so I am now able to plot up my extremely local weather data, which has been collected on the very non-standard roof of our canal boat. Despite being a pretty cool bit of kit, it’s not a very good location for collecting weather data as the boat rocks about a bit, and the boat will radiate heat and reflect light from the roof, and the marina is surrounded by trees, which deflect the wind.

So, every quarter (ish) I download the data and take a quick look. As we were in drought earlier in the year, and then we had such a lot of rain more recently, I thought I’d plot it up and share. The graph shows cumulative rainfall from my rough-and-ready weather station since January. I was a bit negligent and didn’t download the data in time, so there’s a gap in April where the data was over-written. I’ve also plotted up the Met Office 1971-2000 monthly averages for their Bedford station (which can be found at This shows that in the first three months of 2012, here in the south east of England we were much drier than usual. Then the hosepipe ban came into force of 5th April, and everyone started sacrificing their lawns, flower beds and car hygiene in the name of the rain god.

Then in April, we started to see more rain than average, which was totally unrelated to the sacrificial lawns, I’m pretty sure. (NB the totals in my plot are a bit off for March and April because of my lost week which fell over the 1st April. Hah! What a fool I am.) My total for 23 March – 30 April was 90mm. This would equate to about 71mm for a 30 day period, and the average for April in Bedford is 47mm — so we got 50% extra free this April! Bargain!

The River Great Ouse overspilling

I took this photo in Bedford on 2 May 2012. This tree is not usually in the middle of the river… that was down to the bonus rainfall we had in April.

And then May was only slightly above average. But then June. Well. We got 66% extra free. That’s 66% more than usual. And it really felt it. And lo – we caught up with and surpassed the average year-to-date rainfall. Sounds good, right? Not entirely. As you can see from my photo above, the River Great Ouse in Bedford burst its banks. Luckily, we didn’t have it too bad here. Others in parts of the UK had their homes and possessions ruined by flooding, and some poor souls even lost their lives. This kind of unusual weather means that we often aren’t prepared to deal with it. And if this kind of thing is going to become more common, we’ll have to adapt. (One reason why I live in a boat!) But the $64,000 question (in fact, it’s worth a whole lot more than that) is: is our climate is changing to one that has more of these extreme weather events? Only time will tell for sure. But one thing I can say for sure now: by then, the damage will already be done.

That ends on a a bit of a downer. So to pick things up again, check out this article and cool video: It’s about some work that people are doing using the UK’s atmospheric research aircraft, which I have done/will do field work on. Lots of people are working on finding out more about severe weather and predicting it (not me though). So things aren’t all doom and gloom!

Contrails, digested

I’ve written a post on the NCAS Climate blog. Check it out here:

contrails NASA/courtesy of

Contrails and cirrus, as seen from the International Space Station, NASA/courtesy of

Alternatively, read the text here. But do click through to the NCAS blog too, as there are some other interesting posts about climate science (including oceans, crops, blue blobs of death…) by other climate scientists.

Contrails, digested

I noticed that a new journal has just been launched – Nature Climate Change – and thought it would be a good source of inspiration for a blog post. Luckily for me, there was an interesting paper about contrails by Burkhardt and Kärcher in the first issue, AND there was a piece in the news and views section by Boucher about the paper. So I thought I’d do a kind of a ‘digested read, digested’ for this paper about contrails.

For the uninitiated, contrails are the line-shaped clouds that you sometimes see in the wake of aircraft in the sky. Contrails form when hot, moist exhaust from aircraft at cruising altitudes is emitted into the cold, dry air, and the water condenses (hence the name, which is a contraction of condensation trail). Contrails can spread out from their original line shape to cover much larger areas with cirrus (thin, wispy) cloud. This cirrus reflects some sunlight back to space (which cools the atmosphere), but it also absorbs infrared radiation coming from the Earth’s surface (warming the atmosphere), so the net effect is thought to be a warming. The interesting thing is that aircraft have the potential to punch above their weight (compared to other modes of transport) because of these contrails. Burkhardt and Kärcher developed a model of the formation, spreading and dissipation of contrails, so that they could see what effect the contrails had on the radiative forcing (a measure of the radiative imbalance of the atmosphere caused by a particular forcing agent; a positive value means a warming to the atmosphere, and a negative value means a cooling). What they found from their model might come as quite a surprise: that one of the biggest effects on climate from aircraft comes from the spreading out of contrails into cirrus clouds.

They found that the radiative forcing from the contrail cirrus as a whole was 9 times larger (37.5 mW m-2) than for line-shaped contrails alone (4 mW m-2). This is in comparison to a radiative forcing from aircraft emissions of carbon dioxide of 28 mW m-2. They also found that the contrail-induced cirrus reduced the amount of natural cirrus (-7 mW m-2), so the net effect was a 31 mW m-2 radiative forcing from contrail-induced cirrus. Put another way by Boucher: “Overall, and despite their short lifetime, contrails may have more radiative impact at any one time than all of the aviation-emitted carbon dioxide that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the beginning of commercial aviation. It is important to note, however, that the emitted carbon dioxide would continue to exert a warming influence for much longer than contrails, should all aircraft be grounded indefinitely.” This work gives an interesting starting point for further investigation into both the climate effects of contrails, and potential climate change mitigation strategies. The Boucher article gives ideas on possible ways of reducing the radiative forcing caused by aircraft. I rather like the idea of reducing the water vapour in aircraft exhaust emissions (maybe releasing the water as ice instead), so the condensation trails don’t condense in the first place.