Studies of Carbon 14 in the atmosphere emitted by nuclear tests indicate that the Bern model used by the IPCC is inconsistent with virtually all reported experimental results.
Guest essay by Gösta Pettersson
The Keeling curve establishes that the atmospheric carbon dioxide level has shown a steady long-term increase since 1958. Proponents of the antropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis have attributed the increasing carbon dioxide level to human activities such as combustion of fossil fuels and land-use changes. Opponents of the AGW hypothesis have argued that this would require that the turnover time for atmospheric carbon dioxide is about 100 years, which is inconsistent with a multitude of experimental studies indicating that the turnover time is of the order of 10 years.
Since its constitution in 1988, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has disregarded the empirically determined turnover times, claiming that they lack bearing on the rate at which anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are removed from the atmosphere. Instead, the fourth IPCC assessment report argues that the removal of carbon dioxide emissions is adequately described by the ‘Bern model‘, a carbon cycle model designed by prominent climatologists at the Bern University. The Bern model is based on the presumption that the increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide derive exclusively from anthropogenic emissions. Tuned to fit the Keeling curve, the model prescribes that the relaxation of an emission pulse of carbon dioxide is multiphasic with slow components reflecting slow transfer of carbon dioxide from the oceanic surface to the deep-sea regions. The problem is that empirical observations tell us an entirely different story.
The nuclear weapon tests in the early 1960s have initiated a scientifically ideal tracer experiment describing the kinetics of removal of an excess of airborne carbon dioxide. When the atmospheric bomb tests ceased in 1963, they had raised the air level of C14-carbon dioxide to almost twice its original background value. The relaxation of this pulse of excess C14-carbon dioxide has now been monitored for fifty years. Representative results providing direct experimental records of more than 95% of the relaxation process are shown in Fig.1.
Figure 1. Relaxation of the excess of airborne C14-carbon dioxide produced by atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons before the tests ceased in 1963
The IPCC has disregarded the bombtest data in Fig. 1 (which refer to the C14/C12 ratio), arguing that “an atmospheric perturbation in the isotopic ratio disappears much faster than the perturbation in the number of C14 atoms”. That argument cannot be followed and certainly is incorrect. Fig. 2 shows the data in Fig. 1 after rescaling and correction for the minor dilution effects caused by the increased atmospheric concentration of C12-carbon dioxide during the examined period of time.
Figure 2. The bombtest curve. Experimentally observed relaxation of C14-carbon dioxide (black) compared with model descriptions of the process.
The resulting series of experimental points (black data i Fig. 2) describes the disappearance of “the perturbation in the number of C14 atoms”, is almost indistinguishable from the data in Fig. 1, and will be referred to as the ‘bombtest curve’.
To draw attention to the bombtest curve and its important implications, I have made public a trilogy of strict reaction kinetic analyses addressing the controversial views expressed on the interpretation of the Keeling curve by proponents and opponents of the AGW hypothesis.
(Note: links to all three papers are below also)
Paper 1 in the trilogy clarifies that
a. The bombtest curve provides an empirical record of more than 95% of the relaxation of airborne C14-carbon dioxide. Since kinetic carbon isotope effects are small, the bombtest curve can be taken to be representative for the relaxation of emission pulses of carbon dioxide in general.
b. The relaxation process conforms to a monoexponential relationship (red curve in Fig. 2) and hence can be described in terms of a single relaxation time (turnover time). There is no kinetically valid reason to disregard reported experimental estimates (5–14 years) of this relaxation time.
c. The exponential character of the relaxation implies that the rate of removal of C14 has been proportional to the amount of C14. This means that the observed 95% of the relaxation process have been governed by the atmospheric concentration of C14-carbon dioxide according to the law of mass action, without any detectable contributions from slow oceanic events.
d. The Bern model prescriptions (blue curve in Fig. 2) are inconsistent with the observations that have been made, and gravely underestimate both the rate and the extent of removal of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. On basis of the Bern model predictions, the IPCC states that it takes a few hundreds of years before the first 80% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are removed from the air. The bombtest curve shows that it takes less than 25 years.
Paper 2 in the trilogy uses the kinetic relationships derived from the bombtest curve to calculate how much the atmospheric carbon dioxide level has been affected by emissions of anthropogenic carbon dioxide since 1850. The results show that only half of the Keeling curve’s longterm trend towards increased carbon dioxide levels originates from anthropogenic emissions.
The Bern model and other carbon cycle models tuned to fit the Keeling curve are routinely used by climate modellers to obtain input estimates of future carbon dioxide levels for postulated emissions scenarios. Paper 2 shows that estimates thus obtained exaggerate man-made contributions to future carbon dioxide levels (and consequent global temperatures) by factors of 3–14 for representative emission scenarios and time periods extending to year 2100 or longer. For empirically supported parameter values, the climate model projections actually provide evidence that global warming due to emissions of fossil carbon dioxide will remain within acceptable limits.
Paper 3 in the trilogy draws attention to the fact that hot water holds less dissolved carbon dioxide than cold water. This means that global warming during the 2000th century by necessity has led to a thermal out-gassing of carbon dioxide from the hydrosphere. Using a kinetic air-ocean model, the strength of this thermal effect can be estimated by analysis of the temperature dependence of the multiannual fluctuations of the Keeling curve and be described in terms of the activation energy for the out-gassing process.
For the empirically estimated parameter values obtained according to Paper 1 and Paper 3, the model shows that thermal out-gassing and anthropogenic emissions have provided approximately equal contributions to the increasing carbon dioxide levels over the examined period 1850–2010. During the last two decades, contributions from thermal out-gassing have been almost 40% larger than those from anthropogenic emissions. This is illustrated by the model data in Fig. 3, which also indicate that the Keeling curve can be quantitatively accounted for in terms of the combined effects of thermal out-gassing and anthropogenic emissions.
Figure 3. Variation of the atmospheric carbon dioxide level, as indicated by empirical data (green) and by the model described in Paper 3 (red). Blue and black curves show the contributions provided by thermal out-gassing and emissions, respectively.
The results in Fig. 3 call for a drastic revision of the carbon cycle budget presented by the IPCC. In particular, the extensively discussed ‘missing sink’ (called ‘residual terrestrial sink´ in the fourth IPCC report) can be identified as the hydrosphere; the amount of emissions taken up by the oceans has been gravely underestimated by the IPCC due to neglect of thermal out-gassing. Furthermore, the strength of the thermal out-gassing effect places climate modellers in the delicate situation that they have to know what the future temperatures will be before they can predict them by consideration of the greenhouse effect caused by future carbon dioxide levels.
By supporting the Bern model and similar carbon cycle models, the IPCC and climate modellers have taken the stand that the Keeling curve can be presumed to reflect only anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. The results in Paper 1–3 show that this presumption is inconsistent with virtually all reported experimental results that have a direct bearing on the relaxation kinetics of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As long as climate modellers continue to disregard the available empirical information on thermal out-gassing and on the relaxation kinetics of airborne carbon dioxide, their model predictions will remain too biased to provide any inferences of significant scientific or political interest.
Climate Change 2007: IPCC Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis section 10.4 – Changes Associated with Biogeochemical Feedbacks and Ocean Acidification
Climate Change 2007: IPCC Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis section 2.10.2 Direct Global Warming Potentials
GLOBAL BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLES, VOL. 15, NO. 4, PAGES 891–907, DECEMBER 2001 Joos et al. Global warming feedbacks on terrestrial carbon uptake under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emission scenarios
Click below for a free download of the three papers referenced in the essay as PDF files.
Paper 1 Relaxation kinetics of atmospheric carbon dioxide
Paper 2 Anthropogenic contributions to the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide during the industrial era
Paper 3 Temperature effects on the atmospheric carbon dioxide level
Gösta Pettersson is a retired professor in biochemistry at the University of Lund (Sweden) and a previous editor of the European Journal of Biochemistry as an expert on reaction kinetics and mathematical modelling. My scientific reasearch has focused on the fixation of carbon dioxide by plants, which has made me familiar with the carbon cycle research carried out by climatologists and others.