Climate change is a significant factor that is having unforeseen effects on the planet. One way that the climate is affected is through feedback loops, which are essentially a kind of domino effect.
These feedback loops can either amplify or diminish the effects of climate forcings. Climate forcings are the drivers of the climate, such as solar irradiance, greenhouse gas emissions, aerosols, dust, smoke, and soot.
Feedback loops that increase the initial warming are known as positive feedback, while those that reduce the initial warming are known as negative feedback.
In this article, I’ll be showing you what falls under these two different types of climate feedback loops, and how they are having an effect on the climate.
Examples Of Negative Climate Feedback Loops
The best way to describe negative climate feedback loops is that these are improving the climate.
These feedback loops are reducing warming and are sparking a favorable domino effect. They have a positive change on the severity of climate change.
Clouds are caused by water vapor in the atmosphere, and this will continue to increase as the atmosphere warms. However, due to the increase in clouds, the Earth’s surface won’t be absorbing as much of the incoming solar radiation.
That’s because the clouds will reflect one third of the incoming solar radiation. I should note, however, that the changes in cloud cover might also warm the planet faster.
Cloud coverage is still a topic of concern for scientists. More research is needed to understand whether more clouds are also a sign of a positive feedback loop too.
Similar to how clouds mean there is more water held in the atmosphere, it also means that there will be an increased amount of rainfall from the atmosphere. That’s because it will retain even more moisture as the temperatures continue to rise.
Unfortunately, there is a catch to this. When rainfall occurs, there may be issues with changing ocean circulation patterns, creating an imbalance where rain falls.
Due to higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, more plants and other greenery will begin to grow. This is due to access to more materials available to help them photosynthesize.
Scientists are currently studying where the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes, and so they have been examining how plants have been growing with access to carbon dioxide.
However, this is only a temporary arrangement. Even with more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plants still require nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to grow. Even with more CO2, they will not have the same level of growth.
Due to more CO2 and water in the atmosphere, the two chemicals will mix together to create atmospheric carbon dioxide. Due to the atmospheric carbon dioxide, it will chemically weather the composition of rocks.
When they do this, the rocks will become a sink for the atmospheric carbon dioxide, and weaken the greenhouse effect. In the end, this will lead to the Earth becoming cooler, and reduce the level of warming.
Ocean Solubility Pump
The ocean transports carbon from the surface to the interiors, referring to it as a solubility pump. When it does this, it regulates the CO2 from the atmosphere by allowing it to dissolve in water.
Due to the melting ice sheets, there will be more storage for carbon. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent solution.
At the time of writing this, the ocean will absorb 33% of the carbon that comes from the atmosphere. The solubility pump’s efficiency is dependent on ocean circulation.
When there is a change of temperature with the altitude, it’s referred to as a lapse rate. As this happens, the air expands higher due to there being less pressure, however, it also compresses lower in the troposphere because there is more pressure.
When there is a change of air in the troposphere, it can be summarized by understanding the lapse rate. Scientists have noticed that due to global warming, the altitude temperature will reduce the temperature at different heights.
This will then weaken the greenhouse effect, and prevent the planet from becoming too warm.
The more energy which is added to the Earth means the Earth will emit more energy. This is known as the Stefan-Boltzmann law, which is also a cooling effect.
This is because the energy that is released by Earth is directly related to the temperature of the Earth. If the temperature increases, so does the amount of outgoing radiation.
Examples Of Positive Climate Feedback Loops
Positive feedback loops are essentially the opposite of a negative feedback loop. These feedback loops increase warming and are thus worsening the climate.
Unlike negative feedback loops, the domino effect caused by these positive feedback loops is increasing the severity of climate change.
Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and due to the melt of permafrost, more methane will be released into the atmosphere.
At this moment, there are only five gigatons of methane within the atmosphere, but in the melting Arctic Tundra, there are hundreds of gigatons of methane.
Ice has a high albedo (ability to reflect sunlight), and reflects a high percentage of solar radiation which is incoming from the atmosphere. However, as the ice sheets melt in arctic locations, the water will absorb even more heat.
If the ice is removed, only a minimum of 5% of solar radiation will be reflected away from the planet.
Ocean Circulation Patterns
When ice melts in the Arctic, the ocean circulation patterns in the Gulf Stream will be disrupted.
As an example of this, I should note that the circulation pattern relies on the transportation of the heavy salt water from the north to bring warm water to the United Kingdom. That is just one example of how the ocean circulation patterns will disrupt it.
As a general overview, the more ice sheets that melt will mean the more freshwater that is released into the oceans. With more freshwater, then there will be a significant downflow in the Atlantic Ocean.
Rising Sea Levels
Along with the ocean circulation patterns, the ocean waters are expanding due to warming. Due to that, the sea levels are rising, and coastal cities are in danger.
Not only this but there is more glacier calving occurring (also see ‘How Do Glaciers Form?‘). That means more chunks of glaciers will fall into the ocean, adding even more water, and increasing in volume.
Loss Of Rainforest
By the year 2100, the Earth’s temperature is projected to rise between 2° and 6° by the year 2100. This means there will be larger evaporation losses due to the warming occurring.
Even though more rainfall is expected, the increase in unpredictable weather will result in less soil moisture.
Methane From Wetlands
Did you know that wetlands are some of the biggest natural sources of methane in the world? The more the planet warms, the more methane is released from the bogs.
However, the amount of methane released depends on other factors in the environment, such as the temperature of the soil, how much oxygen is available, and how warm the environment is.
The more methane that is released into the environment, then the warmer the Earth will be.
Some regions will not have as much rainfall as others. This means that there will be an increase in drought in such regions, including forests.
Due to the drought, forests will struggle to absorb any water and will become kindling for forest fires. These will desertify forests, and more carbon will be absorbed into the atmosphere, ensuring further warming takes place.
Gas From Shallow Water
Shallow oceans store enormous amounts of methane. This can occur through gas hydrates, which store the methane and occur naturally as either methane or other forms of ice.
Shallow oceans are more susceptible to warmer temperatures, and because of that, methane is released.
Due to the melting permafrost, there is more methane released into shallow waters, and the climate will continue to get warmer, especially with more methane being added to the air.
As you can see, climate feedback loops are caused by external factors that cause a domino effect that has either positive or negative effects on global warming.
Due to these feedback loops, the environment is constantly changing, and even negative feedback loops can cause reactions that lead to a positive.
While negative feedback loops can reduce the effects of global warming, it is positive feedback loops that worsen them.
Many of these feedback loops lead to similar effects, with greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere and thus making the planet even warmer. The best way to stop this is by doing what we all can to reduce our carbon footprints.
Since the Industrial Revolution, more greenhouse gasses have been released into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels. So, it is up to everyone, including corporations, to take action against the issues that are causing these feedback loops.