Looming Danger of Abrupt Climate Change

The National Research Council of the National Academies (NRCNA) has pre-published (available to the public as of December 2013), an extensive 200-pg study: “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change, Anticipating Surprises.”

The goal of the report is to prepare society to anticipate the ‘otherwise unanticipated’ before it occurs, including abrupt changes to the ocean, atmosphere, ecosystems and high latitude regions. The NRCNA time scale for “abrupt climate change” is defined as years-to-decades.

“The history of climate on the planet— as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores— is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years.”  ((<i>Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change, Anticipating Surprises</i>, (Prepublication Version), National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., December 2013.))

U.S. intelligence agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the National Academies sponsored the NRCNA report. The National Academies consists of: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council.

The NRCNA report mentions three primary areas of risks of abrupt climate change this century, as follows:

Arctic Sea Ice – Abrupt Climate Change Already Underway

According to the NRCNA analysis, the rapid decrease of Arctic sea ice over the past three decades is likely to have an irreversible impact on the Arctic ecosystem. This event of “abrupt climate change” is already in motion, disrupting the marine food web, habitat of mammals, erosion of coastline, and shifts in climate and weather patterns throughout the Northern Hemisphere. This has already been witnessed via 100-year floods and severe embedded droughts as well as bouts of extreme weather conditions throughout the hemisphere.

Interestingly, the report does not focus on the danger of an abrupt release of methane in the Arctic on a near-term basis. Rather, the NRCNA report discounts an abrupt outbreak of methane release, believing this will stretch out over a long period of time, unlikely this century.

However, there is a wide range of scientific opinion about the Arctic methane issue, and another more portentous position is described in the following article ((Saving the Global Climate from Runaway Arctic Methane Release and Sea Ice Loss, John B. Davies, Arctic News, December 19, 2013)), as follows:

The warming of the Arctic seems likely to lead to the total melting of the Arctic Sea Ice in late summer no later than the summer of 2018 and to massive release of Methane from the melting of Methane Hydrates beneath the ESAS [Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf] by the same date leading to runaway Global Warming and the end of most life of earth.

That stark forecast by John B. Davies is supported by some of the world’s most recognized minds in the field of Artic sea ice, such as, Peter Wadhams, PhD (Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, University of Cambridge), who has, since 1976, accurately measured Arctic ice thickness by way of submarines.  ((“Submarine-based Science in the Arctic” {Peter Wadhams}, Oceans 2025 Science Meeting, May 11-13, 2010))

Obviously, Davies’ call for “the end of most life of earth” is a very rambunctious, gutsy forecast. As well, it is very difficult to accept the idea of the possibility of the end of most life. Situations like that simply do not happen… or do they?

Yes, they do.

As explained in the film: The Day the Earth Nearly Died, BBC / Horizon, December 2002, it did happen 250 million years ago. Almost every living thing suddenly died. Geological studies show that 95% of life forms perished. Scientists call it the Permian Mass Extinction, which was far more terrible than the later extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, killing off 60% of all species on the planet. It took 100,000 years for the earth to recover.

Extinctions certainly do happen.

A new film ((Last Hours (September 2013) presented by Thom Hartmann; producers – George DiCaprio, Earl Katz and Mathew Schmid; director – Leila Conners.)) examines how close we may be:  The film byline says: “Underground, underwater and below the ice, a time bomb is ticking. Scientists are seeing the evidence. Runaway climate change could be closer than we think.”

And, the Bible discusses extinction in Isaiah 24:4-6:

The earth dries up and withers… the exalted of the earth languish… for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.

Regardless of belief in how, when, or if an extinction event will occur, the evidence is inconvertible that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere are the highest in over 400,000 years and on a path that is eerily similar to past extinction events. It is also widely accepted that burning fossil fuels cause excessive amounts of CO2. Ergo, knowing that, what is the way forward? What to do?

There is no worldwide plan on how to move forward to avoid an extinction event.

Thus, when/if it happens, it will truly be the result of an unanticipated abrupt climate change.

Marine and Terrestrial Life

 The National Research Council of the National Academies’ report also foresees eventual mass extinction of several species, sans further climate change, due to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and over-exploitation. This, they claim, would be equivalent in magnitude to the wipe out of the dinosaurs, but it would probably be centuries away.

However, the report goes on to warn, if the ongoing pressures of climate change continue, comparable levels of extinction could occur before the year 2100. So, in plain English, if humankind continues burning fossil fuels like crazy over the next several decades, it’s lights out for many of the planet’s species.

Furthermore, according to the NRCNA report, climate change alone could cause a “crash of coral reefs” as early as 2060. As it goes, coral reefs support nine million marine species. As such, this part of the NRCNA analysis dovetails with a massive loss of species by 2100.

Indeed, as for supporting evidence outside of the NRCNA report, several published scientific peer-review papers have already reported early stage destructive signs of ocean acidification (caused by too much CO2) deteriorating marine life, e.g., “… nearly all marine life forms that build calcium carbonate shells and skeletons studied by scientists thus far have shown deterioration due to increasing carbon dioxide levels in seawater.”  ((Dr. Richard Feely and Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographers, Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, April 2006.))

Once again, in the ocean, as well as on the land, excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) is the problem.

Reiteratively, there is no worldwide plan on how to move forward to avoid an extinction event.

As a consequence, except for a few scientists, the world community will be shocked by the carnage because nobody anticipates it really happening. Otherwise, the governments of the world would be furiously working on solutions, but they are not.

Scientists have been publishing ominous reports for years in vain because they have not been taken seriously enough to prompt corrective action, as for example, a wholesale switching from fossil fuels to renewables, like wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, wave, and hydro.

Destabilization of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Antarctica contains 85% of the world’s ice.

The NRCNA Committee acknowledges big uncertainties about the status of the stabilization of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS), and “… the Committee judges an abrupt change in the WAIS within this century to be plausible, with an unknown although probably low probability.”

The NRCNA report further states:

… a large part of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS), representing 3-4 m [10-13 feet] of potential sea-level rise, is capable of flowing rapidly into the deep ocean basins. Because the full suite of physical processes occurring where ice meets ocean is not included in comprehensive ice-sheet models, it remains possible that future rates of sea-level rise from the WAIS are underestimated, perhaps substantially.

In that regard, the Pine Island Glacier, as part of the WAIS, is a 37-mile long ice tongue. It is of utmost interest to climate scientists because it has a greater net contribution of ice to the sea than any other ice drainage basin in the world. For decades it was considered too dangerous and too remote to explore. Only recently, in 2012-13, a team of climate scientists accomplished exploration of the massive glacier.

During that expedition, the ice melt below the Pine Island Glacier was detailed by the Naval Postgraduate School, Dept. of Oceanography, (Monterey, California) in tandem with Penn State University, NASA, the British Antarctic Survey, and New York University. Their results were published in the Journal of Science on September 13, 2013.

According to Timothy Stanton, oceanographer at the Naval Postgraduate School, “This is the first observation of the actual melt rate underneath the ice shelf.”

Using hot water drills to penetrate the 1,460-foot thick ice shelf, they discovered the warming ocean water is eating away at the underside of the ice shelf at the rate of 72 feet per year in the middle of the channels. Furthermore, the scientists calculate the melt at the “grounding line” to be 144 feet per year.

Considering the fact that the ocean has been absorbing 90% of the earth’s heat  ((Journal of Geophysical Research)), the question of the day is: How long will Pine Island Glacier remain stable? If it destabilizes, Miami is in trouble, as well as all major coastal cities.

Once again, in the ocean as well as on the land, excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) is the problem.

Once more, there is no worldwide plan on how to move forward to avoid abrupt climate change.

With one exception, Scotland, which country currently generates 40% of its electricity from renewables, wind, solar, hydro, and wave. The country plans to go 100% green in 2020. H-m-m, an entire country powered by 100% renewable energy!

Conclusion: Surprises Inevitable

“Lacking concerted action by the world’s nations, it is clear that the future climate will be warmer, sea levels will rise, global rainfall patterns will change, and ecosystems will be altered… The current rate of carbon emissions is changing the climate system at an accelerating pace, making the chances of crossing tipping points all the more likely… surprises are indeed inevitable.”  ((Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change, Anticipating Surprises, (Prepublication Version), National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., December 2013.))

Everybody, sooner or later, sits down to a banquet of consequences.
— Robert Louis Stevenson – Scottish Essayist, Poet, Author, 1850-1894)

Postscript: Good News  ((Solar Storage Plant Gemasolar Sets 36-Day Record 24/7 Output, by Emma Fitzpatrick, Reneweconomy, October 8, 2013)):  The Gemasolar, a Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) facility, is the world’s first large scale power plant that uses molten salt to capture heat during the day so it can produce energy at night. The plant can operate up to 15 hours without any solar feed. For 36 days straight the plant continuously provided power to 27,000 homes near Seville, Spain while avoiding emissions of 30,000 tones of CO2.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.