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Carbon dioxide becomes a more potent greenhouse gas as climate changes

In a disturbing study, scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science have discovered a startling new aspect of carbon dioxide’s role in climate change.

Published in the prestigious journal Science, their research coincides with the significant United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Carbon dioxide feedback mechanism

The team’s findings suggest a concerning feedback mechanism where carbon dioxide becomes increasingly effective as a greenhouse gas as more is released into the atmosphere.

“Our finding means that as the climate responds to increases in carbon dioxide, carbon dioxide itself becomes a more potent greenhouse gas,” said the study’s senior author Brian Soden, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the Rosenstiel School. “It is yet further confirmation that carbon emissions must be curbed sooner rather than later to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change.”

Studying CO2 levels and climate

Employing advanced climate models, the researchers analyzed the impact of rising CO2 levels on the stratosphere. Traditionally, it’s understood that the stratosphere cools with increasing CO2.

However, this study reveals that this cooling enhances the heat-trapping effect of subsequent CO2 increases, amplifying its greenhouse potential.

A critical aspect of this research involves the concept of radiative forcing — the amount of heat trapped in the atmosphere due to CO2. Previously thought to be constant, this study proves otherwise.

“This new finding shows that the radiative forcing is not constant but changes as the climate responds to increases in carbon dioxide,” said Ryan Kramer, a physical scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and  alumnus of the Rosenstiel School.

The research was conducted using a comprehensive suite of climate model simulations from The Coupled Model Intercomparison Projects (CMIP), supported by the IPCC assessments. To bolster their findings, the team also performed extensive offline radiative flux calculations with highly accurate radiative transfer models and analytical models.

Implications for global warming

Carbon dioxide’s role in global warming, primarily through heat trapping, is well known. But this study, led by Haozhe He, a Ph.D. graduate from the Rosenstiel School, sheds new light on the matter.

“Future increases in CO2 will provide a more potent warming effect on climate than an equivalent increase in the past,” He elucidates. “This new understanding has significant implications for interpreting both past and future climate changes and implies that high CO2 climates may be intrinsically more sensitive than low CO2 climates.”

In summary, this discovery is a crucial addition to our understanding of climate change. It reveals the escalating impact of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and also underscores the urgency to curb carbon emissions to mitigate the most severe impacts of climate change.

As world leaders convene for COP28, this research adds a significant layer to the discussions and decisions that will shape global climate policy.

The full study was published in the journal Science.

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