What’s Natural? Guest essay by Jim Steele
American folk lore is filled with stories of how Native Americans observed changes in wildlife and foretold future weather changes. I was fascinated by an 1800s story of Native Americans inhabiting regions around Marysville, California who had moved down into the river valleys during drought years. They then moved to higher ground before devastating floods occurred. Did they understand California’s natural climate cycles? Could changes in salmon migrations alert them?
Observing salmon has certainly improved modern climate science. In the 1990s climate scientists struggled to understand why surface temperatures in the northwest sector of the Pacific Ocean had suddenly become cooler while temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific suddenly warmed. Climate models predicted no such thing. However, fishery biologists noted salmon abundance in Alaska underwent boom and bust cycles lasting 20 to 40 years. When Alaskan salmon populations boomed, their populations from California to Washington busted. Conversely, decades later when Alaskan populations busted, those more southerly populations boomed.
Scientists soon realized the observed alternating patterns in fish abundance not only coincided with those puzzling changes in ocean surface temperatures, but also with regional drought-flood cycles, glacier growth and retreat, and tree-line advances and retreats. Tree rings and lake sediments also recorded cycles of 5 major Sierra Nevada droughts alternating with wetter decades during the past 300 years. This all convinced scientists of the existence of a natural “ocean oscillation” driving climate change. This climate see-saw was finally named the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) in 1997. (Science uses the term “oscillation” to describe repeating cycles with general, but imprecise time periods.)
The newly characterized PDO had yet to be included in climate models. But progress in climate research recently argues the PDO largely explains western North America’s last 100 years of climate change. So how do we separate naturally caused weather extremes from human contributions? Unfortunately, few Americans are aware of these “cycles”. But if we don’t educate our children about natural climate change, the next generation will surely fall victim to every Chicken Little climate story told by scientifically illiterate politicians or by journalists who profit from sensationalism; if it bleeds, it leads!
Similar fish tales have been reported globally. In the Atlantic, a similar oscillation was officially recognized in 2000. But according to fishery records, that oscillation has been noted since the 15th century. Norwegian fisheries documented 30 to 60-year boom and bust cycles for herring, sardines and anchovies. In the 1930s Greenland experienced a warming rivaling today’s temperatures. Simultaneously Danish Arctic ice records showed extensive sea ice melt. This all coincided with intrusions of warm Atlantic waters that brought Atlantic cod and herring northwards. Fish retreated decades later coinciding with cooling temperatures and recovering sea ice. Today’s Arctic warming and reduced sea ice has likewise coincided with greater intrusions of warm Atlantic water. Will there be a return cycle of retreating Atlantic waters that causes sea ice to rebound again?
Finally, contrary to recent claims of “unprecedented” rapid warming, Greenland’s air temperatures warmed more rapidly during the 1920s to 30s causing melting around Greenland’s ice cap. After warm waters retreated, Greenland gained ice from the 1960s to the 90s. A new period of rapid melting began in the 90s but peaked in 2012. Since then, Greenland’s melting gradually subsided and Greenland gained ice in 2017 and 2018, perhaps signaling a new cooling phase.
And there is a truly optimistic fish tale. Monterrey Bay Aquarium Research Institute’s senior scientist Dr. Francisco Chavez is a Peruvian oceanographer who studies the PDO and upwelling effects on marine life. The upwelling region off the coast of Peru is known as the most productive fishery in the world because robust upwelling brings nutrients from dark ocean depths up to the sunlit layers increasing photosynthesis. During the cold Little Ice Age – 1300 to 1850 AD – marine life off Peru’s coast was at a low point. Starting in the late 1800s as temperatures warmed, plankton rapidly increased, which promoted rapid increases in fish abundance. This dramatic improvement in marine life is well documented in preserved sediments.
To promote plant growth, commercial greenhouses add an additional 1000 ppm to the current 400 ppm of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. So, did marine life also increase due to rising levels of CO2? Or perhaps, because land temperatures warm faster than ocean temperatures, did stronger winds increase ocean upwelling? Whatever the drivers of the observed increases in ocean life, it appears likely that rising CO2 contributed definitive benefits.
If we are to truly understand climate change and discern human contributions, these fish tales all suggest we must first account for natural oscillations that have surely been operating for millennia. So, to rephrase Mark Twain, ‘reports of the earth’s imminent death within 18 years, via rising CO2, are likely greatly exaggerated’.
Jim Steele authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism
Published in the Pacifica Tribune January, 29, 2019 (republished here at the request of the author).