A Stunning Year in Climate Science Reveals that Human Civilization is On the Precipice
The First Anniversary of 'Climategate', Part 1: The Media Blows the Story of the Century
This week marks the one-year anniversary of what the anti-science crowd successfully labeled ‘Climategate’. The media will be doing countless retrospectives, most of which will be wasted ink, like the Guardian’s piece — focusing on climate scientists at the expense of climate science, which is precisely the kind of miscoverage that has been going on for the whole year!
I’ll save that my media critiques for Part 2, since I think that Climategate’s biggest impact was probably on the media, continuing their downward trend of focusing on style over substance, of missing the story of the century, if not the millennia.
The last year or so has seen more scientific papers and presentations that raise the genuine prospect of catastrophe (if we stay on our current emissions path) that I can recall seeing in any other year.
Perhaps the media would have ignored that science anyway, but Climategate appears to be a key reason “less than 10 percent of the news articles written about last year’s climate summit in Copenhagen dealt primarily with the science of climate change, a study showed on Monday.”
But for those interested in the real climate science story of the past year, let’s review a couple dozen studies of the most important findings. Any one of these would be cause for action — and combined they vindicate the final sentence of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.”
1. Nature: “Global warming blamed for 40% decline in the ocean’s phytoplankton”: “Microscopic life crucial to the marine food chain is dying out. The consequences could be catastrophic.”
If confirmed, it may represent the single most important finding of the year in climate science. Seth Borenstein of the AP explains, “plant plankton found in the world’s oceans are crucial to much of life on Earth. They are the foundation of the bountiful marine food web, produce half the world’s oxygen and suck up harmful carbon dioxide.” Boris Worm, a marine biologist and co-author of the study said, “We found that temperature had the best power to explain the changes.” He noted, “If this holds up, something really serious is underway and has been underway for decades. I’ve been trying to think of a biological change that’s bigger than this and I can’t think of one.”
2. Science: Vast East Siberian Arctic Shelf methane stores destabilizing and venting: NSF issues world a wake-up call: “Release of even a fraction of the methane stored in the shelf could trigger abrupt climate warming.”
Methane release from the not-so-perma-frost is the most dangerous amplifying feedback in the entire carbon cycle. This research finds a key “lid” on “the large sub-sea permafrost carbon reservoir” near Eastern Siberia “is clearly perforated, and sedimentary CH4 [methane] is escaping to the atmosphere.”
The permafrost permamelt contains a staggering “1.5 trillion tons of frozen carbon, about twice as much carbon as contained in the atmosphere,” much of which would be released as methane. Methane is is 25 times as potent a heat-trapping gas as CO2 over a 100 year time horizon, but 72 times as potent over 20 years!
The carbon is locked in a freezer in the part of the planet warming up the fastest (see “Tundra 4: Permafrost loss linked to Arctic sea ice loss“). Half the land-based permafrost would vanish by mid-century on our current emissions path (see “Tundra, Part 2: The point of no return” and below). No climate model currently incorporates the amplifying feedback from methane released by a defrosting tundra.
The NSF is normally a very staid organization. If they are worried, everybody should be.
It is increasingly clear that if the world strays significantly above 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide for any length of time, we will find it unimaginably difficult to stop short of 800 to 1000 ppm.
Dust-Bowlification may be the impact of human-caused climate change that hits the most people by mid-century, as the figure below suggests (“a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”):
The PDSI in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here). The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”
4. Nature Geoscience study: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred and “Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century” — Co-author: “Unless we curb carbon emissions we risk mass extinctions, degrading coastal waters and encouraging outbreaks of toxic jellyfish and algae.”
Marine life and all who depend on it, including humans are at grave risk from unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases. This can’t be stopped with geo-engineering and there is no plausible strategy for undoing it.
Ocean acidification may well be the most under-reported of all the catastrophic climate impacts we are risking.
5. Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100 [see figure] and these related findings and studies:
- Satellite data stunner: “Our data suggest that EAST Antarctica is losing mass…. Antarctica may soon be contributing significantly more to global sea-level rise.”
- Nature: “Dynamic thinning of Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheet ocean margins is more sensitive, pervasive, enduring and important than previously realized.”
- New study of Greenland under “more realistic forcings” concludes “collapse of the ice-sheet was found to occur between 400 and 560 ppm” of CO2
- Climate researcher: “It is my assessment that we have had the strongest melting since they started measuring the temperature in Greenland in 1873.”
- Science: CO2 levels haven’t been this high for 15 million years, when it was 5° to 10°F warmer and seas were 75 to 120 feet higher — “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in CO2 levels of about 100 ppm.”
This is from a special issue of 16 articles in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (Biological Science), “Biological diversity in a changing world,”– which notes “Never before has a single species driven such profound changes to the habitats, composition and climate of the planet.”
The NASA news release explains the importance of the work by researchers Maosheng Zhao and Steven Running,:
“These results are extraordinarily significant because they show that the global net effect of climatic warming on the productivity of terrestrial vegetation need not be positive — as was documented for the 1980’s and 1990’s,” said Diane Wickland, of NASA Headquarters and manager of NASA’s Terrestrial Ecology research program….
“This is a pretty serious warning that warmer temperatures are not going to endlessly improve plant growth,” Running said….
“The potential that future warming would cause additional declines does not bode well for the ability of the biosphere to support multiple societal demands for agricultural production, fiber needs, and increasingly, biofuel production,” Zhao said.
UPDATE: A commenter notes that questions about the statistics used in this paper have been raised here. It does look to me like the authors should have put in more of a disclaimer about statistical uncertainty. I viewed (and still view) the original results as credible because they’re consistent with the findings of the Global Carbon Project — see slide 26 here, which is based on this 2009 Nature Geoscience article. See also “Nature on stunning new climate feedback: Beetle tree kill releases more carbon than fires.” The bottom line is that this study joins others in raising the serious warning that, contrary to the popular view, a world of ever increasing carbon dioxide may not lead to increased vegetation and may in fact lead to a decreased land sink. That would be particularly true if the NCAR drought projection comes true.
A biogeochemist quoted by Nature explained that “perhaps [the] most likely explanation is that increasing temperatures have increased rates of decomposition of soil organic matter, which has increased the flow of CO2. If true, this is an important finding: that a positive feedback to climate change is already occurring at a detectable level in soils.”
Another major study in the February 2010 issue of the journal Ecology by Finnish researchers, “Temperature sensitivity of soil carbon fractions in boreal forest soil,” had a similar conclusion. The Finnish Environment Institute, which led the study, explained the results in a release, “Soil contributes to climate warming more than expected”
There were so many important climate science findings this year I didn’t get to write on all of them. This one in particular was misunderstood:
Reasonable worst-case scenarios for global warming could lead to deadly temperatures for humans in coming centuries, according to research findings from Purdue University and the University of New South Wales, Australia.
The study notes that even a 12°F warming would be dangerous for many. In fact, we could well see these deadly temperatures in the next century or century and a half over large parts of the globe on a very plausible emissions path.
Right before Climategate broke, scientists were increasingly starting to realize that humanity might well ignore the increasingly strong evidence that we needed to take action. They even held a conference on “4°C and beyond” just weeks before the scandal broke. Some of the top climate modelers in the world finally did a “plausible worst case scenario,” as Dr Richard Betts, Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office Hadley Centre, put it in a terrific and terrifying talk (audio here, PPT here).
This is the “plausible worst case scenario” for 2060 from the UK Met Office that occurs in 10% of model runs of high emissions with the carbon cycle feedbacks [temperature in degrees Celsius, multiple by 1.8 for Fahrenheit]:
As the Met Office notes here, “In some areas warming could be significantly higher (10 degrees [C = 15F] or more)”:
- The Arctic could warm by up to 15.2 °C [27.4 °F] for a high-emissions scenario, enhanced by melting of snow and ice causing more of the Sun’s radiation to be absorbed.
- For Africa, the western and southern regions are expected to experience both large warming (up to 10 °C [18 °F]) and drying.
- Some land areas could warm by seven degrees [12.6 F] or more.
- Rainfall could decrease by 20% or more in some areas, although there is a spread in the magnitude of drying. All computer models indicate reductions in rainfall over western and southern Africa, Central America, the Mediterranean and parts of coastal Australia.
- In other areas, such as India, rainfall could increase by 20% or more. Higher rainfall increases the risk of river flooding.
In fact, though, this is ‘only’ the 5.4°C case, and if it doesn’t happen in the 2060s (which it probably won’t), it is merely the business as usual projection (!) for 2100 (see “M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F“).
CONCLUSION: Unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases threaten multiple catastrophes, any one of which justifies action. Together, they represent the gravest threat to humanity imaginable. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the mainstream media ignored the overwhelming majority of these studies and devoted a large fraction of its climate ‘ink’ in the last 12 months to what was essentially a non-story is arguably the single greatest failing of the science media this year.
I didn’t have space here to report on the many studies that bolstered the case for our understanding that recent warming has been unequivocal and that humans are the primary cause. But indeed the case is so strong that this year, even the normally staid U.S. National Academy of Sciences labeled as “settled facts” that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”
This post is re-posted from Climate Progress. Joe Romm is Editor of Climate Progress, and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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