From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published March 2, 2010 05:08 PM

Pliocene Hurricaines

The Pliocene epoch is the period in the geologic timescale that extends from 5 million to 3 million years before present. Although scientists know that the early Pliocene had carbon dioxide concentrations similar to those of today, it has remained a mystery what caused the high levels of greenhouse gas and how the Pliocene’s warm conditions, including an extensive warm pool in the Pacific Ocean and temperatures that were roughly 4 degrees C higher than today’s, were maintained. In a paper published February 25 in Nature, Kerry Emanuel and two colleagues from Yale University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics suggest that a positive feedback between tropical cyclones — commonly called hurricanes and typhoons — and the circulation in the Pacific could have been the mechanism that enabled the Pliocene’s warm climate.


The mid Pliocene warm period is considered a potential analog of future climate changes. Unlike more ancient warm periods, the intensity of the sunlight reaching the earth, the global geography and carbon dioxide concentration were similar to the present. The was a time of higher sea levels and also the time when the North and South American continents became land linked.

Model simulation of mid-Pliocene climate reproduce warmer condition at middle and high latitude ,as much as 10-20°C warmer than today above 70°N, while indicating little temperature variation in the tropics.

It is thought that the start of the glacial cycles was the climate’s response once those levels reached a certain threshold, according to co-author Chris Brierley. While that level remains unknown, this research indicates that by increasing carbon dioxide levels, humans could reach the threshold that would induce a Pliocene like climate.

By combining a hurricane model and coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation model to investigate the early Pliocene, Emanuel, Brierley and co-author Alexey Fedorov observed how vertical ocean mixing by hurricanes near the equator caused shallow parcels of water to heat up and later resurface in the eastern equatorial Pacific as part of the ocean wind-driven circulation.

The researchers conclude from this pattern that frequent hurricanes in the central Pacific likely strengthened the warm pool in the eastern equatorial Pacific, which in turn increased hurricane frequency — an interaction described by Emanuel as a “two-way feedback process.”

The researchers believe that in addition to creating more hurricanes, the intense hurricane activity likely created a permanent El Nino like state in which very warm water in the eastern Pacific near the equator extended to higher latitudes. The El Nino weather pattern, which is caused when warm water replaces cold water in the Pacific, can impact the global climate by intermittently altering atmospheric circulation, temperature and precipitation patterns.

The research suggests that Earth’s climate system may have at least two states — the one we currently live in that has relatively few tropical cyclones and relatively cold water, including in the eastern part of the Pacific, and the one during the Pliocene that featured warm sea surface temperatures, permanent El Nino conditions and high tropical cyclone activity.

Although the paper does not suggest a direct link with current climate models, Fedorov said it is possible that future global warming could cause Earth to transition into a different equilibrium state that has more hurricanes and permanent El Nino conditions. “So far, there is no evidence in our simulations that this transition is going to occur at least in the next century. However, it’s still possible that the condition can occur in the future.”

Whether our future world is characterized by a mean state that is more El Nino-like remains one of the most important unanswered questions in climate dynamics, according to Matt Huber, a professor in Purdue University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

The Pliocene was a warmer time than now with high carbon dioxide levels. The present study found that hurricanes influenced by weakened atmospheric circulation — possibly related to high levels of carbon dioxide — contributed to very warm temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which in turn led to more frequent and intense hurricanes. The research indicates that Earth’s climate may have multiple states based on this feedback cycle, meaning that the climate could change qualitatively in response to the effects of global warming.

the cause of the initial warming or carbon dioxide levels are not known.

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