Sudden 'Switch' In Climate Is Expected By Few But Would Cause Dramatic Effects
By Michael H. Brown
Years ago, when I was researching a potential shift in climate, I found a common ground between scientists who study the weather and those who believe in prophecy.
Among both was this sense that something big was going to happen.
This was also true of seismologists, volcano experts, and even astronomers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena (who study asteroids). Statistically, they felt we were overdue. There was a sense that we are in for a "disruption."
They were especially focused on the climate. The vast majority agreed that it is gradually changing. But what, as I'd like to here explore, if the change were not so slow? However unlikely, what if it flipped into a faster mode?
Such came to mind last week when British leader Tony Blair raised the alarm after a report warning of climatic "tipping points."
I don't intend on getting into the politics of it. Nor am I saying it is likely. I am keying into the idea that those who expect some kind of huge event often look beyond the climate because it usually does changes gradually. The simple question: what if that is not the case in the future?
However unlikely, a sudden and drastic shift in climate is the type of purification, "birth pang," or chastisement that few expect but that is theoretically possible -- based on the data collected by those same scientists.
It springs to mind now too because of recent news that temperatures are heating up faster than expected and ice in Greenland is melting at twice the expected rate. It was headlines last week. It caused Blair and others to fret that the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets could melt and the Gulf Stream shut down (this then leading to a sudden cooling).
Such findings are arriving from government scientists who say that temperatures are a least as warm as at any point during the past 1,200 years, and perhaps much longer. Most expect a 1.4 to five-degree Centigrade increase in global temperatures by the end of the century.
If it keeps up, the oceans will rise due to both ice melt and thermal expansion of the water.
Things can move more swiftly than many believe and there may even be what scientists told me is a "switch" effect.
That is, our climate can reach a tipping point at which there are suddenly steep and speedy increases (that cause huge effects).
At the University of Rhode Island, Dr. Jeffrey P. Severinghaus says that ice cores in Greenland indicate that 11,000 years ago, temperatures spiked up by 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit in mere decades (and perhaps even less than a decade).
Can you imagine if the average high temperature in January in Buffalo became 42 or even 51 instead of the current 33? No more snow, correct; nice for them, although summer temperatures in Dallas would average a high in July of 105 degrees (with just the nine-degree increase) and 114 if things went haywire.
How far can it go?
"The last time the world was three degrees warmer than today -- which is what we expect later this century -- sea levels were 25 yards higher," wrote Jim Hansen, who is director of NASA's Goddard Center for Space Studies in New York, and is the key White House climate modeler. "This was towards the end of the last ice age, so there was more ice around. But, on the other hand, temperatures were not warming as fast as today."
I am substituting "yards" for "meters," so we're not being precise in estimates -- but you get the picture: Large parts of Boston, New York City, and Florida are only twenty feet above sea level.
Huge parts of the earth would become hard to inhabit. This is admittedly highly unlikely. But it is not quite unlikely enough. As for Buffalo, it might have to put up with flooding from Lake Erie.
"We still don't understand the system very well and there is a remote possibility that we are going to be blindsided by something we do not understand," Dr. Severinghaus told me, explaining that we used to think climate changed gradually, like slowly turning up a dial on an oven. "In general terms we know that the earth does tend to act in knee-jerk fashion and a lot of time it doesn't respond like a dial. It responds more like a switch."
In other words, bingo: sudden change. It's the computer models that make it seem like a gradual upturn.
But in reality, temperatures could leap. He believes such has happened 22 times in the past 100,000 years.
"I think there's a very good chance it won't be smooth," said this world-renowned expert. "There might be a two-degree increase that instead of being spread out over fifty years might happen all at once."
Okay, not nine degrees -- and certainly not 18 -- but in a world where a half a degree increase is significant, even a couple of degrees remains a concern.
How could a "runaway" effect occur?
As the frozen sea surface of the Arctic Ocean melts back, there's less white to reflect the sun's heat back into space — and more dark open water to absorb that heat, which then melts the floating sea ice even faster. More than a third of summer sea ice has disappeared in the past three decades.
In the ground next to the ocean, warming can awaken another enormous danger — billions of tons of carbon locked up for eons by was once frozen ground. This would be released -- adding to the atmospheric components that have caused some of the warming to start with. A vicious cycle.
"Climate change that we thought should take thousands of years to happen occur within a generation or two," assert Severinghaus and others -- giving us food for thought as far as future scenarios.
In a short time, the entire earth would look different. There would be water where there is now dry land and desert where there are woods, and woods where there is ice. The vegetation would totally change, as would the wildlife.
Brown pelicans in Montreal? The end of maples?
Emphasize "if." Unlikely. Nearly sci-fi. But something to keep in mind.
In a cold phase, they can fall by about the same amount.
Instead of gradual change, we can reach (and according to scientists in the past have reached) a threshold where the climate initiated an new state. Some believe the oceans were once almost steamy, in dinosaur times.
Food for thought. Food for prayer: "Lord, deliver us in a way that causes the least hardship!"
On a small scale, we are already seeing gyrations. The average global temperature in January 2006 was 39.5 Fahrenheit. This was 8.5 Fahrenheit warmer than the 1895-2006 average, the warmest January in 112 years. The temperature trend for the period of record is 0.1 degrees Fahrenheit per decade!
Last week, 60-degree weather in Upstate New York dropped forty degrees within hours as winds swept through, gusting to hurricane force. At the least, expect some upheaval.
Keep all this in mind.
"There is a threshold in the North Atlantic ocean circulation beyond which the circulation may abruptly collapse," said another scientist named Stefan Rahmstorf, explaining how it could become cold. "We may reach that threshold early in the 22nd century, but it could be much sooner."
That is, it could without prayer. With prayer, anything is possible. With prayer, we will remain in balance.
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