Earth's Climate is a State Machine

The Earth's current Climate State is a function of its past state, its current physical state and its current biological state and positive and negative feedbacks. Our engineers here probably understand this right away and the light bulb just went on. For the rest of this community I am going to spell it, and try to not use any formulas. The result of this is an understandable model that explains where we are, where we are going (not good) and what options we have to change this.

I'm going to keep this simple and concentrate on the core mechanism. I assume that you understand about insolation (solar energy falling on the planet), albedo (reflectivity) and the greenhouse effect. These are the major factors effecting the Earth's Climate. There are a a multitude of solutions (surface temperature) possible based on these inputs, because the Earth has State, or as I am modelling here, a State Machine.

A State Machine is an Engineering construct. It is a description of a system in terms of inputs, outputs and internal state. There can be a very large number of states and one state changes to another by virtue of a transition equation, in a simple engineer's state machine. Some states are more stable that others.

I'm using the term "state" for multiple phenomena (sorry). The Climate State is the current state of the Climate state machine, the physical and biological states are measurements of entities on the planet, physical and biological.

The physical state:

1. Free carbon, in the environment, gasses, dissolved and otherwise
2. Short term carbon, mostly in biological entities, in the soil
3. Medium tern sequestered carbon in permafrost, glaciers and seabeds
4. Long term carbon in coal, gas and oil
(the above four are a direct result of life on the planet)
5. Landmass covered by ice, surface area and volume
6. Oceans covered by ice, surface area and volume
7. relative area of oceans v landmass
...and more

We also have to look at the biological state as this is key to understanding the mechanism.

1) Large Deciduous forests, species and distribution
2) Large Coniferous forests, species and distribution
3) Phytoplaknton, same
4) Animal mass, species and distribution

Now we have to talk about negative and positive feedbacks. Negative feedback is a system stabilizing mechanism. Your body temperature mechanism uses negative feedback. When it detects that it is below 98.6 F it signals the body to produce more heat and vice versa. Negative feedbacks amplify changes, either from inputs or internal state changes. As ice melts it gets blacker absorbing more solar energy and melting faster.

The stability of any given climate state is effected by negative and positive feedbacks present. We just exited one of the most stable epochs, the Holocene, where we had a very stable Climate State, and +/- one degree C surface temperature. I'll speculate on stability factors. As the surface temperature became slightly warmer and CO2 increased the rate of growth of the giant Deciduous forests increased, taking up CO2, and thus lowering the near future surface temperature. Same for the Phytoplankon in the oceans. Lower temperatures produced slower growth and less CO2 uptake, changing the global CO2/O2 production balance, and warming the planet. All of this depends on the physical state of the planet and the biological state of the planet. These states are in part inherited from previous epochs. The Holocene worked because the physical and biological states were optimum and stable, and ... very importantly, the feedback mechanisms were dominated by negative feedback.

After reading this you might think that the Climate of the Earth is naturally very unstable and prone to skip from state to state. The evidence from geological epochs certainly bears this out. Climate scientists are always looking for external inputs, as if the Climate were a simple flat system. It must have been an meteor or volcanoes or something. It might have been, but the Earth is perfectly capable of enormous swings in climate on its own. The PETM and the End Permian are good examples. Climate scientists are tearing their hair out trying to find the causes, since these resulted in massive die-offs, finally suggesting that it might have been multiple causes.

I'm giving you a small, but important, piece of my research. I'm working also on the conclusion, but it's going to look something like this:

We are now out of the very stable Holocene epoch and are now in the Anthropocene I epoch. This is noted by the inherited physical and biological states but a rapid transition due to the Anthropomorphic induced degradation. Interestingly this degradation is in all areas of the physical and biological state of the planet. The two primary and large changes are in release of long term sequestered carbon and the devastation of the Deciduous forests. The rate of CO2 released today exceeds all previous known release rates, in some cases by a factor of 40. We should see a significant and steady increase in the global surface temperature, seal level rise, ocean acidification and tree species population decrease and even extinction. This is unstoppable as we are now in an unstable Climate State. During this epoch, the Anthropocene I, Earth surface temperatures will increase by just under 10 degrees C.

The Anthropocene I will eventually give way to the Anthropocene II. This will be measured by significant change in the Physical and Biological state of the Planet, removing those state factors that were inherited from the Holocene and are moderating the Anthropocene I. This will clearly be the analog of the End Permian epoch, where surface temperature increase will exceed 16 degrees C. Most life will be wiped out and it will take the planet 50 million years to recover.

Can we avoid this fate? Yes, absolutely. Can we go back to the Holocene? No, definitely not. I don't have enough time and space in this essay to talk about what to do. It's getting late now and I have to go study for tomorrow's class.

I will try to follow this thread and answer your questions. Remember, I'm just an independent researcher and most of these ideas would be considered out of the mainstream thought in science.

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Pricknick's picture

I look forward to your hypothesis, but there is one thing you claim that no human will question.
That's a good thing.

Most life will be wiped out and it will take the planet 50 million years to recover.

You would have to state what the planet needs to accomplish a recovery. Only one philosopher has accomplished that to my satisfaction. The immortal Doctor Carlin.
You're not alone. Many here wonder and worry about what will be. Que Sera, Sera.

7 users have voted.

Regardless of the path in life I chose, I realize it's always forward, never straight.

GreyWolf's picture


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riverlover's picture

Please consider a second donation to tiny me, suffering mild hives 2X daily from a required medication. Bonus: I don't get sleepy.

How long before bridges fail?

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Hey! my dear friends or soon-to-be's, JtC could use the donations to keep this site functioning for those of us who can still see the life preserver or flotsam in the water.

Lookout's picture

I suspect extinction of humans marks the end of the epoch.

As you mentioned, a major factor is the on going mass extinction. We are a part of a fabric of life that is unraveling. This is both a function of climate chaos and environmental degradation. As species disappear the stability of the system suffers.

The feedback systems are promoting ever more warming. For example, as arctic ice melts, more permafrost is exposed. Melting permafrost releases methane (a strong greenhouse gas) which causes greater warming which leads to more melting and so on. Once the ice caps and glaciers are gone there is less reflectivity (albedo)and the dark ocean absorb more heat. Plus there are many other feedback mechanisms.

I think even if we approached this problem like it was WWII it might be impossible to stop. The CO2 currently in the atmosphere probably guarantees at least the 2 degree C increase addressed in the Paris Accord with its estimated 6 m sea rise. And we're still pouring it into the air - in fact I'll drive my car today. We do what we can - I use some solar, I ride a bike, grow my food, and so on.

You are correct to focus on climate chaos as the existential threat of our time. Thanks for your work.

3 users have voted.

“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Yes the situation is grim. Mother nature has produced stable Climate States in the past, but they all rest on a knife's edge. As I said there are multiple solutions to a given set of Earth inputs, from Smowball Earth to Fireball Earth. Sea levels in previously warm epochs have been 230 ft. higher. There was a climate conference on this in Stockholm, where the presenter made the statement that the oceans will continue to rise with out end, until all of the land ice is melted. This is the understanding that we need now, that is the inevitability of extreme disaster if we do not take action greater than that of WWII globally.

There is a solution and I'll detail it in Part II. It is possible but extremely difficult. Basically we have to take over the natural functions of planet Earth's climate system and keep the planet stable at some future epoch, and then build great deciduous forests at that climate point, selecting species and distribution that work for that set of habitats. It's not quite terra-forming but terra-adjusting. More, later.

1 user has voted.

Capitalism has always been the rule of the people by the oligarchs. You only have two choices, eliminate them or restrict their power.

WoodsDweller's picture

Just a couple of things.
You skipped calcium carbonate as a long term carbon store. IIRC it stores far more carbon than fossil fuels. Rain absorbs CO2 as it falls, reacts with rocks to form calcium carbonate which washes downstream. It sinks to the sea floor and eventually gets subducted, returning to the surface via volcanoes.
Your temperature figures are a little higher than what I've seen. There are models that show 10C warming from the current state, but I have my doubts about them, perhaps they assume a higher percentage of available carbon being emitted as methane so there is a short term spike above "maximum" until it has a chance to degrade to CO2. My understanding is that PETM was 8C above current, basically all the available carbon was vented into the atmosphere, but fossil fuels were sequestered at the time, so that's probably worth another 2C or so.
This whole topic is the crux of the scientific climate debate (as opposed to the circus we see in the media). Abrupt climate change (state change) as a result of positive feedbacks. None of this is reflected in the IPCC 5th Assessment. Science can't be rushed, and it will be another 20+ years before this is accepted into the consensus.
Of note: agriculture was developed in the Holocene, not because early humans just hadn't figured it out yet, but because the climate was not stable enough for agriculture. We've left the Holocene behind.
I'm going to have a second bowl of cereal while I still can.

3 users have voted.

The lesser evil is still evil. Vote your conscience, not your fear.

From MIT's Tech Review:
The researchers have shown that rock formations called peridotite, which are found in Oman and several other places worldwide, including California and New Guinea, produce calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate rock when they come into contact with carbon dioxide. The scientists found that such formations in Oman naturally sequester hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon dioxide a year.

It's even hypothesized that some of the ice ages may have been precipitated by exposed minerals removing large amounts of CO2.

This is a resource that will not automatically create a stabilized Climate State, but something that we will have to use as part of atmospheric carbon removal.

For my numbers I looked at the great extinction of the End Permian when 95% of life on the planet disappeared, even some insect species went extinct. It is thought by some researchers that the ultimate temperature rise may have been in the mid teens, although no one can find a direct cause. In the PETM, 56m years ago, it is thought that there were two spikes, the first caused by CO2 of about 9 degrees C, and a second caused by CH4 bursts causing a second rise.

I don't think that we can find a similar case to the present as we have artificially altered the physical state of the planet by releasing long term sequestered carbon, something different from other eras. We have simultaneously butchered mother natures negative (stabilizing) feedback mechanism by cutting down forests for agriculture. Basically, without understanding how Earth's climate system worked, we butchered it, for profit and for a "modern" automated lifestyle. Now we know better and continuing as we are is "evil". I find it hard to define that word, but this seems a perfect fit.

3 users have voted.

Capitalism has always been the rule of the people by the oligarchs. You only have two choices, eliminate them or restrict their power.

i know in software and hardware development, design teams will draw up what the state machine looks like and the transitions from state to state. However, I do imagine this particular state machine could look very complex.

Thanks for essay.

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Hawkfish's picture

Or more precisely a general circulation model. Climatologists build them all the time. Having them implemented by many independent teams lends credence when their predictions agree (which is most of the time).

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It's like two plus two equals fish! -- The Big Short

Hawkfish's picture

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It's like two plus two equals fish! -- The Big Short