, Volume 35, Issue 7-8, pp 1439-1459
Date: 12 Jan 2010

Reversible and irreversible impacts of greenhouse gas emissions in multi-century projections with the NCAR global coupled carbon cycle-climate model

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The legacy of historical and the long-term impacts of 21st century greenhouse gas emissions on climate, ocean acidification, and carbon-climate feedbacks are investigated with a coupled carbon cycle-climate model. Emission commitment scenarios with zero emissions after year 2100 and 21st century emissions of 1,800, 900, and 0 gigatons of carbon are run up to year 2500. The reversibility and irreversibility of impacts is quantified by comparing anthropogenically-forced regional changes with internal, unforced climate variability. We show that the influence of historical emissions and of non-CO2 agents is largely reversible on the regional scale. Forced changes in surface temperature and precipitation become smaller than internal variability for most land and ocean grid cells in the absence of future carbon emissions. In contrast, continued carbon emissions over the 21st century cause irreversible climate change on centennial to millennial timescales in most regions and impacts related to ocean acidification and sea level rise continue to aggravate for centuries even if emissions are stopped in year 2100. Undersaturation of the Arctic surface ocean with respect to aragonite, a mineral form of calcium carbonate secreted by marine organisms, is imminent and remains widespread. The volume of supersaturated water providing habitat to calcifying organisms is reduced from preindustrial 40 to 25% in 2100 and to 10% in 2300 for the high emission case. We conclude that emission trading schemes, related to the Kyoto Process, should not permit trading between emissions of relatively short-lived agents and CO2 given the irreversible impacts of anthropogenic carbon emissions.