Putting a new finger on climate change
Posted on 4 March 2011 by Daniel Bailey
It's a settled fact that the world is warming and is generally accepted that humans have contributed to the majority of the warming, especially since about 1980.
Previously here at Skeptical Science we've looked at 10 Human Fingerprints on Climate Change.
Now a new report from the Weizmann Institute of Science establishes another: Paper.
Paper Archives Reveal Pollution's History
Some of the history preserved in old books and newspapers may be hiding in between the lines of print. A Weizmann Institute scientist has found that the paper in such collections contains a record of atmospheric conditions at the time the trees that went into making it were growing.
By analyzing the carbon isotopes in bits of paper clipped from old magazines, Prof. Dan Yakir of the Environmental Sciences and Energy Research Department in the Faculty of Chemistry has traced the rising effects of atmospheric pollution from burning fossil fuel going back to beginnings of the industrial revolution.
Scientists generally reconstruct the record of past climate change from such sources as ice cores or tree rings. But a reliable tree ring history, says Yakir, requires an analysis of quite a few trees.
“Rather than going to forests all over the world to sample trees,” says Yakir, “we went to the local library.”
In the Weizmann library’s archives, Yakir found issues of the scientific journals Science, Nature and the Journal of the Royal Chemical Society going back over 100 years to the late 19th century. Removing small samples from the margins of successive volumes, he took them back to the lab for analysis.
was based on a finding that the proportion of a carbon isotope – carbon 13 (13
C) – to its lighter counterpart – carbon 12 (12
C) – could provide information on the CO2
added to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel. This is based on a cycle that begins with plants taking up CO2
in photosynthesis. All plants prefer to use CO2
made with the more common version of carbon, 12
C, than the slightly heavier 13
C. Plant biomass from millions of years ago was transformed into reservoirs of oil, gas and coal, and so these are naturally low in 13
C, as well. When we started to burn those reservoirs following the industrial revolution, we began returning the 13
to the atmosphere.
Recent CO2 concentrations and emissions (IPCC AR4 WG1). (a) CO2 concentrations, (b) Annual global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacture
Now the atmospheric 13C content has become increasingly diluted, and this is reflected in the carbon ratios in the trees milled for pulp and paper. Yakir’s work shows that this continuing dilution is, indeed, clearly recorded in the archival paper and, plotted over time, it demonstrates the increasing intensity of our fossil fuel burning in the past 150 years.
This project has been ongoing for about 14 years, with figures from new issues added over time. In the process, says Yakir, he has had to learn something about the paper industry. Some early issues, for instance, had been printed on rag paper (made of cotton, flax, etc.) rather than wood pulp, while blips in the data around the time of WWII led Yakir to suspect that the paper was either recycled, or again supplemented with rag content to make up for wartime shortages.
Anomalies aside, 13
C levels in the paper
, especially for two of the journals, were a good match for existing atmospheric records, and even revealed some local phenomena, including differences between American and European records. In addition to alerting climate scientists to a very well organized, untapped, source of global change records, says Yakir, the technique could be used to authenticate antique paper samples.
10 fingerprints: Make room for Number 11 (gonna need a bigger glove).
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