Saturday, August 13, 2016

256.3 - A dark overview of the effects of climate change: now

A dark overview of the effects of climate change: now

I promised myself that I would talk some about global warming* this week. It's one of those vital topics that is always percolating in the background but all too often  - usually, even - gets drowned out by the shout of some spiking event or interest. Kind of like (to show how technologically out of touch I am) something that keeps getting posted to Reddit but never gets to the first page.

But it is something that should have and maintain our interest because of its importance both now and in the future. And contrary to what you would think if you relied on the corporate media's notion of what's important, which now consists mostly of what's the latest dumb thing Donald TheRump said and who's ahead in which poll in which state, and which when they can be bothered to address global climate change it consists mostly of some version of this-one-said-this-and-the-other-one-said-this as if there really was some scientific controversy about this, despite what that would make you think, it is getting worse.

I'm going to talk about that and I warn you in advance I am going to paint a very dark picture.

Start with the simple fact that 2015 was the hottest year by far in the historical record, breaking the record set way, way back in 2014.

Four major agencies in three countries track temperature records, each using their own data sets and their own methodology. They are, in the US, NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which have records dating to 1880; the Met office, which is the UK's national weather and climate service and has records dating to 1850; and the Japan Meteorological Agency, whose records date since 1891. All four said 2015 was the warmest on record and by a long shot.

(For the US in particular, according to NOAA, 2015 was the second-warmest year on record for the lower 48 states, second only to 2012.)

More significantly, according to NOAA's annual State of the Climate Report, released August 2, surface heat was not the only record set: 2015 also showed the highest CO2 levels, the highest sea surface temperatures, the highest level of heat in the upper oceans, the highest ocean levels, and the record low extent of Arctic sea ice.

What's more, the heat levels measured in the first months of 2016 all but guarantee that barring some dramatic turnaround, 2016 will be the hottest year on record and probably will break the 2015 record by a margin even greater than that by which 2015 beat out 2014.

Meanwhile, glacial melt in Greenland is accelerating and new research published in the peer-reviewed science journal Nature says that Antarctica’s vast ice cap is less stable than previously thought.

Glacial melt
Previous forecasts were that the world's seas could rise as much as a meter - about three and a-quarter feet - by the end of the century. But those forecasts did not take into account any melt from Antarctica, where increasing snowfall was expected to keep the ice sheet in balance. That is, any ice lost would be replaced by increasing snowfall so that the net loss of ice from Antarctica would be zero and so have no impact on sea levels.

This new study reveals that that assumption is incorrect and unless there is a major reduction on the use of fossil fuels, the actual rise could be double the previous forecast: around two meters or about 6-1/2 feet, a rise which could swamp many coastal cities.

And now, in what has to be considered an ominous event, a long-predicted and feared feedback loop may be making an appearance. A feedback loop, just in case you don't know even though I expect you do, it one where an effect of a process causes more of that same process. A causes B, but having more B means you get more A, which causes more B, and so on.

Here, the feared feedback loop is that the warming climate would result in the thawing of the permafrost in the Arctic. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground - it's not ice, it's ground. As it thaws, soil decomposition accelerates, which releases methane as a natural byproduct.

As a greenhouse gas, methane is 30 times more powerful than is CO2 but because there is so little of it compared to the amount of CO2, it hasn't had nearly the impact. But as more is released as the permafrost thaws, there is more warming, which melts more permafrost, which releases more methane, and so on and so on until a tipping point is reached where a self-reinforcing cycle takes over.

One related fear has been the development of methane "burps" where instead of the slow release from decomposition there is a sudden release of methane that had been trapped below the surface. That fear may be coming to pass.

On the remote Belyy Island in the Kara Sea off the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia, researchers have found patches of trembling or bubbling grass-covered ground. When the researchers prodded such mounds with their feet, they described them as like "jelly." When the mounds were punctured they released carbon dioxide at a concentration 20 times above the normal level of concentration and methane at 200 times the normal level.

Now to be accurate, we can't say for certain that this is caused by global warming, particularly since there aren't temperature records for the region to see if Belyy Island is warming. But it is what you would expect if a feedback loop of melting permafrost releasing methane which adds to warming was getting under way.

After the Paris Climate Summit last December, much was made over a provision in the final agreement setting a goal of a maximum of a 1.5C increase in global temperatures over pre-industrial times. That's significantly below for former target of 2C, which really was just a guidepost to try to head off the worst effects. This new goal, we were told, indicated how serious the governments of the world were in dealing with climate change.

Unfortunately, it was a meaningless exercise in political feel-good:

- Based on the data gathered by meteorologist Ed Hawkins from the Reading University, the average global temperature as the new limit is declared is already 1C over pre-industrial levels and there were even instances where the temperature reached 1.38C over that level.

- Researcher and professor Chris Field from Stanford University said the 1.5C goal "now looks impossible or at the very least, very, very difficult."

- Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, calls the 1.5C target "wishful thinking," saying "I don't know if you'd get 1.5C if you stopped emissions today" because of the inertia in the climate system. That is, the stuff we've already put out there would keep the planet warming for some years even if we totally stopped using fossil fuels immediately. We are locked in to it getting warmer than it is.

What's even more, the actual pledges nations made to cut their emissions not only are non-binding, they would, according the the UN's own analysis, lead to a temperature increase of 2.7C by the end of the century, a third higher than the old target and 80% higher than the new one.

All we get is talk-talk while the world is sick with fever.

And we are going to talk more about this after the break.

*Okay, it shouldn't be necessary to say this but I suppose from time to time it should be: You will sometimes run into nanny-nanny naysayers who try to make much out of the fact that a fair number of folks now talk about "climate change" rather than "global warming," treating the shift as if they had uncovered some nefarious plot.

So for the record: The two terms are synonyms. They mean the same thing, refer to the same set of effects, are based on the same scientific facts and observations.

Some folks don't like "global warming" because they think it implies that everywhere will get warmer and by the same amount, which is not what will happen: Some areas will gain more heat than others and some may even cool because of changing weather patterns, even as the Earth's overall average surface temperature rises. Others don't like "climate change" because it doesn't say how the climate is changing. If we were experiencing global cooling, it would still be climate change even as the environmental effects would be significantly different.

I use the terms interchangeably. If you do meet one of those nanny-nanny naysayers, don't be distracted.

Sources cited in links:

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