Friday, June 1, 2012

Climate Armageddon: How the World's Weather Could Quickly Run Amok

I tend to avoid these sorts of predictions and try not to make them myself.  When it comes to climate change, what we know beyond reasonable debate is already frightening enough.  But this little doomsday prediction appeared in Scientific American—a magazine with a long tradition of respecting facts.

Climate Armageddon: How the World's Weather Could Quickly Run Amok [Excerpt]

Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate "flips" could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years
By Fred Guterl | May 25, 2012

Adapted from The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, by Fred Guterl (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).

The eminent British scientist James Lovelock, back in the 1970s, formulated his theory of Gaia, which held that the Earth was a kind of super organism. It had a self-regulating quality that would keep everything within that narrow band that made life possible. If things got too warm or too cold—if sunlight varied, or volcanoes caused a fall in temperatures, and so forth—Gaia would eventually compensate. This was a comforting notion. It was also wrong, as Lovelock himself later concluded. "I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilization are in grave danger," he wrote in the Independent in 2006.

The world has warmed since those heady days of Gaia, and scientists have grown gloomier in their assessment of the state of the world's climate. NASA climate scientist James Hanson has warned of a "Venus effect," in which runaway warming turns Earth into an uninhabitable desert, with a surface temperature high enough to melt lead, sometime in the next few centuries. Even Hanson, though, is beginning to look downright optimistic compared to a new crop of climate scientists, who fret that things could head south as quickly as a handful of years, or even months, if we're particularly unlucky. Ironically, some of them are intellectual offspring of Lovelock, the original optimist gone sour.

The true gloomsters are scientists who look at climate through the lens of "dynamical systems," a mathematics that describes things that tend to change suddenly and are difficult to predict. It is the mathematics of the tipping point—the moment at which a "system" that has been changing slowly and predictably will suddenly "flip." The colloquial example is the straw that breaks that camel's back. Or you can also think of it as a ship that is stable until it tips too far in one direction and then capsizes. In this view, Earth's climate is, or could soon be, ready to capsize, causing sudden, perhaps catastrophic, changes. And once it capsizes, it could be next to impossible to right it again.

The idea that climate behaves like a dynamical system addresses some of the key shortcomings of the conventional view of climate change—the view that looks at the planet as a whole, in terms of averages. A dynamical systems approach, by contrast, consider climate as a sum of many different parts, each with its own properties, all of them interdependent in ways that are hard to predict. more
And for those who like to stick to the data—here is the climate change data that should jolt everyone into action (but probably will not).

Climate Change: Carbon Dioxide Levels In World's Air Reach 'Troubling Milestone'


WASHINGTON — The world's air has reached what scientists call a troubling new milestone for carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant.

Monitoring stations across the Arctic this spring are measuring more than 400 parts per million of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. The number isn't quite a surprise, because it's been rising at an accelerating pace. Years ago, it passed the 350 ppm mark that many scientists say is the highest safe level for carbon dioxide. It now stands globally at 395.

So far, only the Arctic has reached that 400 level, but the rest of the world will follow soon.

"The fact that it's 400 is significant," said Jim Butler, global monitoring director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Lab in Boulder, Colo. "It's just a reminder to everybody that we haven't fixed this and we're still in trouble."

Carbon dioxide is the chief greenhouse gas and most of it lasts about 100 years in the air, but some of it stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. Some carbon dioxide is natural, mainly from decomposing dead plants and animals. Before the Industrial Age, levels were around 275 parts per million.

For more than 60 years, readings have been in the 300s, except in urban areas, where levels are skewed. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal for electricity and oil for gasoline, has caused the overwhelming bulk of the man-made increase in carbon in the air, scientists say.

It's been at least 800,000 years – probably more – since Earth saw carbon dioxide levels in the 400s, Butler and other climate scientists said.

Until now.

Readings are coming in at 400 and higher all over the Arctic. They've been recorded in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and even Mongolia. But levels change with the seasons and will drop a bit in the summer, when plants suck up carbon dioxide, NOAA scientists said. more

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