Scientists: Nation Unprepared for ‘Abrupt’ Climate Changes

  On July 12, 2011, crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy retrieved a canister dropped by parachute from a C-130, which brought supplies for some mid-mission fixes. The ICESCAPE mission, or "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment," is NASA's two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011. Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen On July 12, 2011, crew from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy retrieved a canister dropped by parachute from a C-130, which brought supplies for some mid-mission fixes.The ICESCAPE mission, or "Impacts of Climate on Ecosystems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment," is NASA's two-year shipborne investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. The bulk of the research takes place in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in summer 2010 and 2011.Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen  
National Journal
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Dec. 3, 2013, 6:07 a.m.

The good news: A big dis­rup­tion of the At­lantic Ocean cur­rents that bring warm wa­ter north — an idea taken to ex­tremes in the 2004 cli­mate armaged­don flick The Day After To­mor­row — prob­ably won’t hap­pen this cen­tury.

The bad news: Oth­er “ab­rupt” cli­mat­ic changes are big threats, some are already un­der­way and the na­tion isn’t ready.

A new Na­tion­al Re­search Coun­cil re­port on the top­ic urges the cre­ation of an Ab­rupt Change Early Warn­ing Sys­tem to brace for fast-mov­ing cli­mat­ic shifts.

“Sur­prises in the cli­mate sys­tem are in­ev­it­able: an early warn­ing sys­tem could al­low for the pre­dic­tion and pos­sible mit­ig­a­tion of such changes be­fore their so­ci­et­al im­pacts are severe,” the re­port says.

“Identi­fy­ing key vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies can help guide ef­forts to in­crease re­si­li­ency and avoid large dam­ages,” adds the study, sponsored by the U.S. in­tel­li­gence com­munity, the Na­tion­al Ocean­ic and At­mo­spher­ic Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the Na­tion­al Academies and oth­ers.

The re­port cata­logs some ab­rupt changes that are already hap­pen­ing and it casts a wider lens on the no­tion of “ab­rupt,” to in­clude gradu­al cli­mate changes that can bring about rap­id eco­lo­gic­al or eco­nom­ic up­heav­al once they cross a threshold. Think melt­ing per­ma­frost destabil­iz­ing pipelines, rising sea levels top­ping sea walls, or rising ocean tem­per­at­ures and acid­ity reach­ing tip­ping points that doom cer­tain spe­cies.

“Right now we don’t know what many of these thresholds are,” James W.C. White, a pro­fess­or of geo­lo­gic­al sci­ences at the Uni­versity of Col­or­ado and chair of the com­mit­tee that wrote the re­port, said in a state­ment.

“But with bet­ter in­form­a­tion, we will be able to an­ti­cip­ate some ma­jor changes be­fore they oc­cur and help re­duce the po­ten­tial con­sequences,” White ad­ded.

Over­all, the re­port ex­am­ines over a dozen types of changes to oceans, lands and at­mo­sphere. Some ab­rupt cli­mate changes are hap­pen­ing already. They in­clude in­creas­ing dis­ap­pear­ance of late sum­mer Arc­tic sea ice that could have “large and ir­re­vers­ible” ef­fects, such as dis­rup­tion of mar­ine food webs and coastal erosion.

The same melt­ing Arc­tic ice is bring­ing “new leg­al and polit­ic­al chal­lenges” as sea lanes open and na­tions jockey for ac­cess to oil-and-gas sup­plies.

Also upon us: In­creased ex­tinc­tion risks as spe­cies like po­lar bears struggle to ad­apt to changes in tem­per­at­ure and sea ice hab­it­at that is cru­cial for hunt­ing.

Oth­er ab­rupt changes that may loom this cen­tury range from de­creased ocean oxy­gen, which can threaten mar­ine life, to more flood­ing and more in­tense and longer heat­waves. The lat­ter two are already see­ing a de­tect­ible trend, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. The re­port’s au­thors list those three as “mod­er­ate” risks this cen­tury with a “high” chance of sig­ni­fic­ant change after 2100.

But the re­port also con­cludes that two omin­ous threats are un­likely to come to pass this cen­tury. One is dis­rup­tion of the ocean cur­rents called the At­lantic Me­ri­di­on­al Over­turn­ing Cir­cu­la­tion and changes it would bring to ocean and at­mo­spher­ic tem­per­at­ures and the ocean’s abil­ity to store heat and car­bon.

The 2004 sci-fi movie used that idea as a launch­ing pad for a plot about an in­stant ice-age in north­ern cli­mates (not to men­tion some dra­mat­ic mo­ments for the fath­er-son duo played by Den­nis Quaid and Jake Gyl­len­haal).

But the re­port cites re­cent re­search show­ing that the cur­rent is stable and that an ab­rupt change “will not oc­cur in this cen­tury.”

The second dis­aster un­likely to hap­pen this cen­tury is ab­rupt re­leases of car­bon stored in high-lat­it­ude per­ma­frost soils, and meth­ane trapped in ocean sed­i­ments and per­ma­frost. But that doesn’t mean all is well with the trapped Arc­tic gases.

“Ac­cord­ing to cur­rent sci­entif­ic un­der­stand­ing, Arc­tic car­bon stores are poised to play a sig­ni­fic­ant amp­li­fy­ing role in the cen­tury-scale buildup of car­bon di­ox­ide and meth­ane in the at­mo­sphere, but are un­likely to do so ab­ruptly, i.e., on a times­cale of one or a few dec­ades,” the re­port states.

“Al­though com­fort­ing, this con­clu­sion is based on im­ma­ture sci­ence and sparse mon­it­or­ing cap­ab­il­it­ies. Ba­sic re­search is re­quired to as­sess the long-term sta­bil­ity of cur­rently frozen Arc­tic and sub-Arc­tic soil stocks, and of the pos­sib­il­ity of in­creas­ing the re­lease of meth­ane gas bubbles from cur­rently frozen mar­ine and ter­restri­al sed­i­ments, as tem­per­at­ures rise,” it adds.

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