Climate Change in the Record Books, Forests and on the Ice

Posted on 09 August 2013 by Jerry

The effects of climate change are increasing as new worldwide records are set, feedback impacts begin to show, and further results are studied.  While heat records were broken in the U.S. it was difficult to know worldwide effects because of slower data gathering and reporting.

Results are in however and more nations reported new record temperatures in the decade of the 2000s than in any decade since data reporting began in 1850.  According to the World Meteorological Organization, temperatures in the last decade were the highest ever recorded on land and in the sea in both hemispheres.

Scientists are monitoring the pace of climate change.  They are alarmed that three feedback mechanisms appear to be increasing the speed of resulting warming in the present and may even accelerate it in the future.   Their first concern is that melting ice that adds colder fresh water into the northern seas may slow ocean currents that carry heat to the rest of the world.  This slowing of warm ocean currents will change temperatures worldwide often leaving warm water in colder climates.

As an example, a change such as this could cause Greenland to go from moderately cool to warm relatively fast.  Ice cores from the area show that previous shifts occurred very fast, in as little time as a decade.  The feedback concern is that as temperatures warm in Greenland, more ice melts putting more cold water into the ocean slowing currents and increasing temperatures which cause more ice to melt and so on.

A second feedback mechanism involves methane trapped in frozen permafrost around the world.  Recent studies show there is much more of this methane that extends deeper in the soil than previously assumed.  The carbon stores in tundra are now thought to represent double the methane presently in the atmosphere.

The feedback concern identified in a November 2012 article in Scientific American is that warmer temperatures accelerate thawing which allows microbes to begin to consume the organic carbon material turning it into COthat will go into the atmosphere as methane.  This would increase the warming of the atmosphere triggering more thawing of tundra and in turn encouraging microbes etc.

Beyond the methane contained in tundra, there are also large stores of methane hydrate, a mixture of ice and methane molecules, on the sea floor.  Countries seeking to find energy sources for their further development are unfortunately attempting to develop ways to extract this methane for energy use that will also increase its burning and release into the atmosphere. Japan recently reported the successful extraction of natural gas from an off shore methane hydrate deposit.

Unbridled corporate development is what has led to a worldwide expansion of fracking in search of trapped oil and gasses. This expansion of worldwide methane related energy sources is in direct conflict with rising concerns for climate change.  Some would suggest that anticipated climate change controls on further exploitation of coal, oil and gas are what have created the intensity of rapid search and development within the energy industries.

The third and most alarming feedback issue for climate scientists is the loss of planetary ice.  The present rate of loss of ice was not predicted by many of today’s climate models.  This loss, as reported on this blog and elsewhere, is proceeding at a faster rate than anticipated.   Professor Euan Nisbet of the Royal Holloway at the University of London has labeled this the biggest failure of contemporary data modeling.

He comments on the feedback mechanism of the rapid melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, land ice in Greenland and in Antarctica.  He explains that this reduces the reflection of heat back into the atmosphere, increases surface temperatures, further melting more ice, etc. etc.   Nisbet states “feedback just follows feedback, follows feedback.”

These feedback cycles all create great risk that the speed of global warming will be faster than the best scientific models predict.  Scientists know greater delay in an environment of accelerating change is a prescription for an uncontrollable outcome.  The fear is our reaction will come so late that the rate of climate change will exceed our ability to affect it.

Other than the great droughts, rains, and floods which millions of people are experiencing there are a number of more localized effects of climate change that are beginning to show up.  These often make planning for the future difficult and may slow the rate of growth in certain cities.  An example is what is happening in Great Britain.

In rivers, higher highs and lower lows with less time between each is becoming commonplace.  Statistics for 2012 show that Britain saw flooding in one of every five days and drought in one of every four days.  The Tyne, Ouse and Tone rivers experienced their lowest and highest levels within a four-month period of time.  These new highs and lows have not been seen since recordkeeping began in the 1800s.

In Canada and the western United States warmer temperatures have created an onslaught of mountain pine beetles.  The greater warmth has extended their breeding period and total range such that hundreds of thousand of hectares of trees have been killed.  Of concern to scientists is that the trees represented a large carbon sink absorbing a large quantity of CO2 and they have now become carbon sources as the dead trees decompose.

Warming in Siberia is altering the occurrence of various tree types.  Forests of larches that can survive in colder weather are beginning to be replaced by spruce and fir.  The threat is that larches drop all of their thin leaves in the winter allowing sunlight to reach the underlying snow and be reflected back into the space.  Spruce and fir trees keep their needles and absorb and retain the sun’s heat before it can reach the snow.

Hank Shugart, an ecologist at the University of Virginia estimates the feedback from this worldwide change in vegetation alone could give the planet a 1.5 degree centigrade hike.  His conclusion is “We’re playing with a loaded gun here.”

Finally, there may be significant effects on human behavior as a result of warming temperatures.  A new report published in the Science and reported on by BBC News, indicates a strong link between changes in climate and a rise in assaults, rapes and murders.  A link has also been established for group behavior showing a connection between altering climate and group conflicts and wars.

An assessment of more than 60 studies looking at data from around the world showed a correlation between changes in climate and incidents of violence.  For example, domestic violence in India increased during the recent droughts and there were big increases in assaults, rapes and murders during periods of unusual heat in the United States.  Also, rising temperatures correlated with larger human conflicts such as ethnic clashes in Europe and civil wars in Africa.

The data the researchers looked at led them to conclude that by the year 2050 warmer temperatures and extreme rainfall would increase world rates of violence.  Their forecast is for a 16% increase in interpersonal violence and a 50% increase in group conflicts in some regions by 2050.  Considerable detail about the study methodologies was provided.

This research uses words and phrases such as a “substantial” correlation that is disputed by some other scientists.  Dr. Halvard Buhaug of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Norway, believes many of the conflicts cited could be linked to factors of high infant mortality, population density and nearness of international borders.

Dr. Buhaug states “I disagree with the sweeping conclusion (the authors) draw and believe that their strong statement about a general causal link between climate and conflict is unwarranted by the empirical analysis that they provide.”  Further he observes, “I was surprised to see not a single reference to a real-world conflict that plausibly would not have occurred in the absence of observed climatic extremes.  If the authors wish to claim a strong causal link, providing some form of case validation is critical.”

The reality is climate change is accelerating, energy companies are rushing to find new deposits before controls and we must demand action now from our politicians all over the world.  We must embrace renewable energy sources, put controls on the greed of energy businesses and win our race to slow global warming

I would endorse the purchase of the August 8, 2013 issue of Science magazine.  It has a very detailed special section on climate change that is over 50 pages long and contains 10 separate scientific submissions.  It is highly interesting.

Use the following links to obtain more information and/or see source documents: (use the link in the second paragraph of the press release to access the report or its summary).


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