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Abrupt, near-term impacts to rival dinosaur extinction seen in climate study

NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio
Arctic sea ice extent from Sept. 16, 2012, compared to the average minimum extent over the past 30 years (in yellow). Some scientists predict the disappearance of late-summer sea ice in the Arctic within decades.

Not to seize on the sensational, but when a report from the National Research Council suggests that a wave of extinctions rivaling the dinosaurs’ demise might well be coming within the century — and that the time has come to set up early warning systems to detect this and other imminent climate catastrophes — it tends to capture one’s attention.

The report, “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises,” came out on Tuesday to remarkably little press attention, for reasons I can’t explain, except maybe it’s just too god-awful grim for the holiday season.

But it’s important work, the kind of enterprise that might actually be able to change some conversations about climate change, and it deserves a higher profile.

You can think of the NRC as the applied-science and policymaker-advising arm of the National Academies of Science and the National Academy of Engineering, which should be credentials enough for any doubters and deniers who have read this far before preparing a flaming riposte.

In this case, the report was also sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and unspecified agencies in “the U.S. intelligence community.”

Tuesday’s report is an update, in some ways, of the council’s 2002 report that termed some abrupt consequences of climate change as “inevitable” — chiefly because the earth’s climate record showed signs of sudden upheavals, or tipping points, at which the pacing of gradual processes shifted from centuries or even millennia to just a few years.

First, the good news

But the arrival times and even overall probabilities of future surprises were highly indistinct back then. A little over a decade later, the report says, scientific advances have now somewhat clarified the likely time scales for certain sweeping changes. Taking the better news first:

…[P]otential abrupt changes in ocean deep water formation and the release of carbon from frozen soils and ices in the polar regions [that] were once of serious near-term concern are now understood to be less imminent, although still worrisome as slow changes over longer time horizons.

By longer time horizons, the authors mean beyond this century. On the other hand:

In contrast, the potential for abrupt changes in ecosystems, weather and climate extremes, and groundwater supplies critical for agriculture now seem more likely, severe, and imminent. And the recognition that a gradually changing climate can push both natural systems, as well as human systems, across tipping points has grown over the past decade. …

In addition to a changing climate, multiple other stressors are pushing natural and human systems towards their limits, and thus become more sensitive to small perturbations that can trigger large responses. Groundwater aquifers, for example, are being depleted in many parts of the world, including the southeast of the United States. Groundwater is critical for farmers to ride out droughts, and if that safety net reaches an abrupt end, the impact of droughts on the food supply will be even larger.

These are the kinds of impacts that are commonly included in discussions of climate change, usually on the supposition that the really bad stuff is at least a few generations off in the future.  But in a particularly poignant comment to the Website, one of the report’s authors, Anthony Barnosky, distinguished the new report in this way:

Tipping points within this lifetime

“Our report focuses on abrupt change, that is, things that happen within a few years to decades: basically, over short enough time scales that young people living today would see the societal impacts brought on by faster-than-normal planetary changes.” (emphasis added)

The report references two rapid and sweeping changes that are already apparent, and a third that is invisible to a worrisome degree:

  • The disappearance of late-summer sea ice in the Arctic, with predictions that it may be gone entirely within decades, which “would have potentially large and irreversible effects of various components of the Arctic East Coast system including disruptions in the marine food web, shifts and habitats of summary mammals, and erosion of vulnerable coastlines.”

Because the Arctic region interacts with a large-scale circulation systems of the ocean and atmosphere, changes in the extent of sea ice could cause shifts in climate and weather around the northern hemisphere. The Arctic is also region of increasing economic importance for diverse range of stakeholders, and reductions in Arctic sea ice will bring new legal and political challenges this navigation routes for commercial shipping open and marine access to the region increases for offshore oil and gas development, tourism, fishing and other activities.

  • Rapidly increasing extinction of plant and animal species at a rate already “probably as fast as any warming event in the past 65 million years, and it is projected that its pace over the next 30 to 80 years will continue to be faster and more intense.” Speaking of the forces driving these extinctions, it says:

If unchecked, habitat destruction, fragmentation, and over-exploitation, even without climate change, could result in a mass extinction within the next few centuries equivalent in magnitude to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. With the ongoing pressures of climate change, comparable levels of extinction conceivably could occur before the year 2100; indeed, some models show a crash of coral reefs from climate change alone as early as 2060 under certain scenarios.

  • Destabilization of the west Antarctic ice sheet, an “abrupt change of unknown probability,” carries the threat of sea-level rise “at a rate several times faster than those observed today. “

Because the probability of reaching this tipping point within the century is “plausible” though “probably low,”  its impact on coastal populations across the globe would be so enormous that the report gives it special focus as a doomsday risk that is not yet well understood.

In the face of these threats, the report urges development of an Abrupt Change Early Warning System (ACEWS) to closely monitor signals of tipping points drawing near, digest the data and feed it into the best predictive models that can be developed.

This may seem a no-brainer, or something that’s already been done, but in fact the amount of instrumentation devoted to measuring and recording climate data on this planet remains embarrassingly small.

“We watch our streets, we watch our banks,” the report’s chief author, climatologist James White of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Los Angeles Times. “But we do not watch our environment with the same amount of care and zeal.”

And in a bit of notable understatement, White told the Boulder Daily Camera that “the planet is arguably our most valuable asset. We need it for clean water, clean air, energy, food. We don’t monitor that with the same kind of zeal as we do other places that we think are precious.”

* * *

The full 201-page text of “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises” can be downloaded here at no charge.

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/05/2013 - 09:45 am.

    Notable understatement, indeed

    I’ve yet to see an industrialist propose a viable alternative to the only environment we have. So far, at least, I’ve also yet to see a public official, or other media-centric personality who’s in fervent denial about climate change, alter their opinion based on facts in front of them. It’s characteristic of true believers that facts are ignored at best, and at worst simply serve to *increase* the strength of the true believer’s view.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/05/2013 - 10:32 am.

    (quote)October 2013 was the


    October 2013 was the globe’s 7th warmest October since records began in 1880, according to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC). NASA rated it the 8th warmest October on record. The year-to-date period of January – October has been the 7th warmest such period on record. October 2013 global land temperatures were the 8th warmest on record, and global ocean temperatures were also the 8th warmest on record. October 2013 was the 344th consecutive month with global temperatures warmer than the 20th century average. Global satellite-measured temperatures in October 2013 for the lowest 8 km of the atmosphere were 11th or 6th warmest in the 35-year record, according to Remote Sensing Systems and the University of Alabama Huntsville (UAH), respectively….

    (end quote)

    If you have the slightest knowledge of statistics, do you know how improbable it is that there have been 344 consecutive months of global temperature being higher than the 20th century averages?

    But hey, someone will pipe up with “no warming recently” and then someone will pipe up with “how nice weather we’ve been having”

    For that, check out the growing list of billion dollar (and up) weather disasters this year at the same link as above. As of the Haiyan super-typhoon, there have been 36 so far–adding up to over a $100 billion in damages.

    Enjoy the oncoming tipping points! They’re coming faster than expected, particularly in the Arctic. Very large methane releases are coming from a thawed Siberian tundra, where 90 degree temperatures were had on the Arctic shores.

    10 years or less.

    It will be entirely obvious.

  3. Submitted by David Bryan on 12/05/2013 - 11:54 am.

    What Can We Do About This Mess?

    Two Little Words:
    Carbon Tax

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/05/2013 - 02:29 pm.

    Not only that

    Nothing would make a bigger difference than encouraging and facilitating alternatives to driving, whether it’s better public transit, better infrastructure for bicycles and pedestrians, a moratorium on building or widening new roads (to discourage sprawl).

    Motor vehicle emissions are responsible for 25% of all the CO2 produced by our modern industrial life.

    Yes, sad to say the Third World countries are “motorizing,” as the jargon has it, but in international conferences, they have said that they will not stop doing this unless the developed countries lead the way. Otherwise, it seems to them that the First World is just trying to hold them back.

  5. Submitted by Lance Groth on 12/05/2013 - 03:59 pm.

    Facts vs Politics

    It would be nice to think that data and warnings from august bodies such as the NRC would be enough to carry the day with “skeptics” (“denialist” is often a more accurate label), but they haven’t so far and I see no reason to think this will change, at least within the United States.

    There is also the undeniable fact that the developing world, especially impoverished areas such as sub-sahara Africa and parts of Asia, need affordable energy just to start to climb out of poverty, so simply telling them not to burn coal or oil is going to fall on deaf ears, environmental costs notwithstanding.

    I’m completely pessimistic that mitigation/emissions reduction is going to be enough to avoid catastrophic consequences. We’re probably already past that point anyway. I’m afraid that more direct, and radical, geoengineering solutions are going to have to be tried.

    I recall that, about the time that “An Inconvenient Truth” came out, Richard Branson announced an “X prize” contest for development of a practical method of directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it. I don’t know if he still offers it or if anyone has tried to make a claim on it. I also recall seeing an episode of a show on t.v. (can’t remember which one, something on the order of Mythbusters but I think it was something else) where a team demonstrated a machine that in fact did remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than it emitted while running, though the gain was modest.

    I do believe that something along those lines is going to be necessary, and then watch the political fighting begin over who will control such machines, how much carbon should be removed from the atmosphere, what should be the target average global temperature, etc.

    There will be no end to the politics of any of this. But we need to do something, and be aggressive about it, because Neal is right, the danger is extreme and imminent.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/06/2013 - 09:15 am.

    Public attitudes

    I recently watched a short videoclip comparing climate change denialism to the denialism of cancer being caused by tobacco and smoking. Down to the surprising reminder that one of the leading denalists of tobacco-cancer causation was “Smokey Joe” Barton also one of the leading denialists in the House today. The point of the clip was to show how quickly public opinion changed not so many years ago to where tobacco-cancer denialism is completely banished from thought and discussion today.

    I’m confident we are near a tipping point on climate change denial as well and the danger I think is 1) to avoid falling into despair and 2) to avoid the inevitable scams and hoaxes that will be perpetrated to solve the problem. I think a carbon tax is an unavoidable necessity but there will be a lot of pressure by the powerful finance industry-well, the military-industrial-Congressional complex- to adopt a cap and trade system that will resemble something like the tax farming of 18th century France. Our present finance system is beginning to look like that to me already and none of us should be surprising if Goldman Sachs and their ilk already have something in the works to “save the planet” while permanently fixing their hold on most of the wealth and resources in the country.

  7. Submitted by John Edwards on 12/08/2013 - 10:33 am.

    A fate for misdirected alarmists?

    “Not to seize on the sensational,” as Ron Meador would say, but . . . when four people die of hypothermia in previously mild California “it tends to capture one’s attention.”

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 12/09/2013 - 12:27 pm.

      Popular News

      So are you implying that a single news story about a couple of people dying from hypothermia is proof that global warming is a hoax? That would be silly to ignore the thousands of peer reviewed articles on the subject that point in the opposite direction.

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