If you care about the planet, and are worried about climate change, this was a pretty lousy week.
First the discouraging news out of Poznan that several countries in the developed world — most notably Canada, the US, Japan and Australia — spent all their time at the climate summit deflecting progress at every turn, making an international climate deal on Copenhagen next year seem distant and remote.
But the news became even more disheartening as the week went on, and it came from an seemingly innocuous epicenter: The American Geophysical Union annual autumn meeting in San Francisco… To be honest, if you don’t want to ruin your holidays, maybe you should stop reading right now.
I hate being a poopy bum — or the Climate Grinch Who Stole Christmas — but the scientists at this conference seem to be speaking with one voice, and it was ominous: climate change is barreling along at an unprecedented rate. Events are happening in the natural world that weren’t expected to happen for 50 or 60 years; in a few studies presented at the meetings, climate scientists and geophysicists reported things they didn’t expect to see this century!
Here are just a smattering headlines — with a few summaries and comments — that should scare the bejesus out of you. With apologies to Tim Burton, it’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
More than 2 trillion tons of ice have melted in the Arctic since 2003. (AP)
Why is this story frightening? Well, for one thing, when land ice melts and flows into the ocean, that raises the sea level, and Greenland alone has melted enough to add 11 Chesapeake Bays to Atlantic waters over the last five years.
And the rate is increasing each year. But that’s not the scariest part.
In the IPCC* Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007 (and so largely comprised of scientific studies published in journals before 2005) — the report that so many right-wingers and inactivists wrongly believe greatly exaggerates the climate change risk — the world’s best scientists didn’t expect significant melting in either Antarctica or Greenland before 2100.
It’s happening now. One study publicized earlier in the week suggested that Greenland ice loss in 2008 was three times larger than the loss experienced in 2007 — even though a potent La Nina event kept world temperatures from rising as high as they might have, so 2008 was one of the cooler years in the last 15.**
Has the Arctic melt passed the point of no return? (The Independent)
The High Arctic is getting dramatically warmer, and much, much faster than expected. The early computer climate models predicted that the arctic might be ice free during the summer sometime around 2070 — give or take a few years.
Now an ice-free Arctic summer is expected to happen in the next 10 to 12 years. One computer model, the one considered the most advanced, is predicting that it may happen by 2013 or 2014. The Independent explains: the first three paragraphs capture the nuances nicely.
Scientists have found the first unequivocal evidence that the Arctic region is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world at least a decade before it was predicted to happen.
Climate-change researchers have found that air temperatures in the region are higher than would be normally expected during the autumn because the increased melting of the summer Arctic sea ice is accumulating heat in the ocean. The phenomenon, known as Arctic amplification, was not expected to be seen for at least another 10 or 15 years and the findings will further raise concerns that the Arctic has already passed the climatic tipping-point towards ice-free summers, beyond which it may not recover.
The Arctic is considered one of the most sensitive regions in terms of climate change and its transition to another climatic state will have a direct impact on other parts of the northern hemisphere, as well more indirect effects around the world
The computer models — that inactivists love to disparage — have been predicting arctic amplification for years. These studies underline the urgency we should all be feeling as 2008 draws to a close, and provide even stronger proof that computer models predicting catastrophic global warming have been — at once — eerily accurate, and way too conservative.
Global Warming Threatens Arctic Feedback Loops (Greentech Media)
This is one that I’ve been expecting for eight or nine months. Once again, if climate change science is accurate, we would eventually expect to see increasing methane concentrations in our atmosphere. Methane is a serious greenhouse gas, boasting 21 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Sadly, in 2007, for the first time in more than a decade, atmospheric methane levels surged.
Scientists, ever-so-cautious, didn’t jump the gun. A methane surge could be explained by many different natural phenomena. But quietly, many were woried that this was the first sign that the frozen tundra in Siberia (and in Canada and Alaska) was starting to melt, thereby release methane to the atmosphere; a dangerous tipping point that could greatly accelerate global temperature change.
As this story relates, not only are parts of Siberian tundra melting, but parts of the deep undersea shelves off the Siberian coast are thawing, resulting huge bubbling cauldrons of methane surging to the surface.
If the arctic releases its CO2 and methane, that’s more than 950 billion tons of carbon. That’s more than all the greenhouse gases dancing around in the atmosphere now after 200 years of humanity burning fossil fuels until the cows come home.
The killer quote from the Greentech story:
While Semiletov said he couldn’t predict the worst would happen based on his current data, the melting of the world’s subsea permafrost could triple the atmosphere’s current share of methane, which would be “enough for a climate catastrophe,” he said – that is, an average global temperature increase of up to 6 degrees Celsius.
But there is always hope. A few glimmers of optimism are worth writing about, and I’ll do so in the next day or two.
* IPCC — Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Prize with Al Gore in 2007.
** That still makes it one of the hottest years ever