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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Greenland's Loss of Ice Mass During the Last 10 Years Is Unusually High Compared to Last 50 Years

Greenland's Loss of Ice Mass During the Last 10 Years Is Unusually High Compared to Last 50 Years

ScienceDaily (May 29, 2012) — Loss through melting and iceberg calving during the last 10 years is unusually high compared to the last 50 years

Greenand icebergs. (Credit: Copyright GFZ)
The Greenland ice sheet continues to lose mass and thus contributes at about 0.7 millimeters per year to the currently observed sea level change of about 3 mm per year. This trend increases each year by a further 0.07 millimeters per year. The pattern and temporal nature of loss is complex. The mass loss is largest in southwest and northwest Greenland; the respective contributions of melting, iceberg calving and fluctuations in snow accumulation differing considerably.

This result has been published by an international research group led by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in the latest issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 1 June 2012. The result was made possible by a new comparison of three different types of satellite observations: measurements of the change in gravity by changes in ice mass with the satellite pair GRACE, height variation with the laser altimeter on the NASA satellite ICESat and determination of the difference between the accumulation of regional atmospheric models and the glacier discharge, as measured by satellite radar data.
For the first time and for each region, the researchers could determine with unprecedented precision which percentage melting, iceberg calving and fluctuations in rainfall have on the current mass loss. "Such an increase in mass loss in the northwest after 2005 is partly due to heavy snowfall in the years before," says GFZ scientist Ingo Sasgen, head of the study. "The previous mass gain was reduced in subsequent years. Similarly in eastern Greenland: In the years 2008 and 2009 there was even a mass increase." As the researchers were able to show, this was not due to decreased glacier velocities, but because of two winters with very heavy snowfall. Meanwhile, the loss of ice mass continues here. For all studied regions the melting and calving periods between 2002 and 2011 are extraordinarily high compared to those of the last five decades.
The work was created in the framework of the Helmholtz Climate Initiative REKLIM of the Helmholtz Association and the EU project ice2sea. Due to the study, the researchers can get a little closer to understanding the current developments of the Greenland ice sheet. Ingo Sasgen: "We now know very well how calving glaciers and melting contribute to the current mass balance, and when regional trends are largely caused by rainfall variations. And we also know where our measurements must be improved." One such area is north-western Greenland, where the comparison of data indicates an abrupt increase in the calving rate, which was detected by the radar data inadequately. The REKLIM/ice2sea scientists want to find out what causes this increase and if it has a continuous or episodic character. A necessary prerequisite is a sufficiently long time series of measurements that is to be created by the continued precise gravity measurements in the context of the new satellite mission GRACE-FO (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment – Follow On).

Jeff Masters: Unprecedented May heat in Greenland; update on 2011 Greenland ice melt

Unprecedented May heat in Greenland; update on 2011 Greenland ice melt

by Dr. Jeff Masters, wunderblog, May 31, 2012

The record books for Greenland's climate were re-written on Tuesday, May 29th, when the mercury hit 24.8 °C (76.6 °F) at Narsarsuaq, Greenland, on the southern coast. According to weather records researcher Maximiliano Herrera, this is the hottest temperature on record in Greenland for May and is just 0.7 °C (1.3 °F) below the hottest temperature ever measured in Greenland. The previous May record was 22.4 °C (72.3 °F) at Kangerlussuaq (called Sondre Stormfjord in Danish) on May 31, 1991. The 25.2 °C at Narsarsuaq on June 22, 1957, is the only June temperature measured in Greenland warmer than yesterday's 24.8 °C reading. Wunderground's extremes page shows that the all-time warmest temperature record for Greenland is 25.5 °C (77.9 °F) set on July 26, 1990. The exceptional warmth this week was caused by the combination of an intense ridge of high pressure and a local foehn wind, said the Danish Meteorological Institute. 

The unusual May heat has extended to Scotland, which had its hottest May temperature on record on May 25 at Achnagart: 29.3 °C (85 °F). 

Greenland's Narsarsuaq has seen a string of 3 consecutive days over 70 °F this week:  the 3rd, 7th, and 12th warmest days there since record keeping began in 1941. The ridge of high pressure responsible is expected to stay in place several more days, bringing additional 70 °F days over southern Greenland. The warm May temperatures could be setting the stage for a big Greenland melt season this summer -- the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) is predicting a 50-60% that the southern two-thirds of Greenland will experience above-average temperatures this summer. They forecast just a 10-15% chance of below-average temperatures. 

Figure 1. Difference between the number of melt days in 2011 and the average number of melt days during the period 1979-2010. Large sections of the island experienced twenty more days with melting conditions than average. Image credit: Arctic Report Card -- John Wahr.

Why Greenland is important
If the massive icecap on Greenland were to melt, global sea level would rise 7 meters (23 ft). Temperatures in Greenland are predicted to rise 3 °C by 2100, to levels similar to those present during that warm period 120,000 years ago. During that period, roughly half of the Greenland ice sheet melted, increasing sea level by 2.2-3.4 meters (7.2-11.2 ft.) However, the 2007 IPCC report expects melting of the Greenland ice sheet to occur over about a 1,000-year period, delaying much of the expected sea level rise for many centuries. 

While Greenland's ice isn't going to be melting completely and catastrophically flooding low-lying areas of the earth in the next few decades (sea level is only rising about 3 mm per year or 1.2 inches per decade at present), the risk later this century needs to be taken seriously. Higher sea levels will cause increased erosion, salt water intrusion, and storm surge damage in coastal areas, in addition to a loss of barrier formations such as islands, sand bars, and reefs that would normally protect coastal zones from battering by waves and wind. Additionally, coastal zones are sites of incredible economic and agricultural activity, which would also be negatively affected by higher sea levels. 

Currently, melting ice from Greenland is thought to cause about 0.7 mm/year of global sea level rise, which is about 20-25% of the global total, according to an international research group led by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, in an article published the latest issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 1 June 2012. In 2007, the IPCC estimated that Greenland ice melt was responsible for only 10-15% of the total global sea level rise. Ice loss in Greenland is accelerating, and if current ice loss trends continue for the next ten years, Greenland's contribution to sea level rise will double to 1.4 mm/yr by 2022. The increased ice loss in Greenland is being driven by a combination of warmer air temperatures, warmer ocean temperatures, and loss of Arctic sea ice. Ocean temperatures surrounding Southern Greenland have increased by 1-2 °C since 1990 (figure at right).

Figure 2. Monthly unsmoothed values of the total mass (in gigatons, Gt), of the Greenland ice sheet from the GRACE satellites. On the horizontal axis, each year begins on 1 January. Each small + symbol is a monthly value. Between 2003 and 2009, Greenland lost an average of 250 gigatons of ice per year. In 2011, the loss was 70% greater than that. Image credit: Arctic Report Card -- John Wahr.

Update on the 2011 Greenland melt season
According to the 2011 Arctic Report Card, it was another very warm year in Greenland in 2011, which led to substantial melting of the ice. Here are some of the highlights from the report:

(1) The area and duration of melting at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet in summer 2011 were the third highest since 1979.

(2) Increased surface melting and below average summer snowfall in recent years has made the icecap steadily darker. In 2011, the icecap had the lowest reflectivity (albedo) of any year since satellite measurements of reflectivity began in 2000.

(3) The area of glaciers that empty into the sea continued to decrease, though at less than half the rate of the previous 10 years.

(4) Total ice sheet mass loss in 2011 was 70% larger than the 2003-2009 average annual loss rate of -250 gigatons per year. According to satellite gravity data obtained since 2002, ice sheet mass loss is accelerating.

Wunderground's Greenland page.
Wunderground's sea level rise page.
Danish Meteorological Institute's extremes page for Greenland.

Andrew Weaver, HuffPo: The Science Funded by Your Canadian Tax Dollars

The Science Funded by Your Tax Dollars

by Andrew Weaver, Professor and Canada Research Chair, University of Victoria, Huffington Post Canada, May 29, 2012
research is typically conducted within one of three different settings: universities, federal and provincial government laboratories or industry. Different overarching mandates govern research in each of these sectors.
University research is typically curiosity-driven. Individual researchers seek to answer scientific questions that interest them. They submit research grant proposals to federal funding agencies in the hope that they will convince their peers that these research questions and proposed methodologies are sound and worthy of support. Each individual research grant typically lasts between two and five years.
A successful university researcher will have to juggle several research projects with each one on its own funding cycle. Most university researchers are required to get all of their research support through external grants and have little, if any, ongoing direct research funding from their institutions. Over the years, their research interest will move from area to area as they seek to explore new scientific issues. However, it is this curiosity-driven research that typically leads to the greatest scientific discoveries.
One of the most important outcomes of university-based research is the training it provides for both graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral fellows. These so-called highly qualified personnel (HQP) take their knowledge and skills into the workplace upon completion of their degrees or fellowship terms. Both industry and government rely upon these university-trained scientists to fill the ranks of their own scientific staff. A consequence of the short term funding cycles and continuous turnover of HQP is that academic researchers are usually not able to sustain long term monitoring programs or dedicate many years to a single project. This niche is filled by scientific research conducted in the federal and provincial government laboratories.
Federal and provincial government research is almost always targeted and mission-oriented. For example, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO) in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia is Canada's largest oceanographic research facility. This federal government laboratory houses researchers from a number of federal departments: Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), Environment Canada (EC) and National Defense (DND).
BIO is charged with providing:
"advice and support to government decision making on a broad range of ocean issues, including sovereignty, safety and security, environmental protection, the health of the oceans, safe and accessible waterways, the sustainable use of natural resources (fisheries, minerals, oil & gas) and the integrated management large ocean management areas."
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has 19 research centres across Canada each with their own different focus. In St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Atlantic Cool Climate Crop Research Centre has a mission to "develop technologies which diversify and add value to rural economies in cool summer regions."
On the other hand the Brandon Research Centre in Manitoba is an experimental farm that:
"conducts research on crop production, including fertilization requirements of crops, ecology and control of weeds, biology and management of crop diseases, genetics and breeding of barley, management of pastures and cattle, land resource management, and impacts of agriculture on the environment."
While university research is usually curiosity-driven and government science typically focuses on research in service of society, industry research has a different set of motivators. Industry research is normally conducted in order to sustain market competitiveness or to increase shareholder value.
The taxpayer ultimately pays for research conducted or funded by the government. Shareholder investments and corporate loans or profits provide the income source for industry resource. As a consequence, university and government research is expected to be publicly available, unless it is considered classified or secret as in the case of some research that might be conducted within the Department of National Defense.
Industry research is less open. For example, the taxpayer should expect to have access to the results from federally funded health research on potential side effects of a particular drug. However, a start up biomedical drug company would likely not want to publicly disclose all of its research until patents protected its products. What would a company do if its internal research determined that its products or actions were harmful to people or the environment? Would the company want to publicly disseminate this research? Should it be required to do so? What are its current legal requirements do so? What does fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders suggest that the company should do?
The distinction between public and privately funded research becomes blurry in the area of university-industry partnerships. University researchers are almost always asked to sign confidentiality agreements when they engage in research in collaborative projects with industry. Yet very often, industry contributions to a research program are matched by funds from government granting agencies. It is difficult to determine what if any of this research should be publicly available.
Whether scientific research is undertaken in industry, government or university based facilities, it makes little difference as to its role in the formulation of policy.
Science can never be used to prescribe a particular policy. However, science is able to examine the implications of various policy options. Policy can also be developed or modified to reflect the latest science. In the end, the formulation of policy requires engaging a variety of stakeholders including special interests, religious groups, and industry. It also requires dealing with ethical, political, legal, financial and social issues including any potential application of the precautionary principle.
Science should feed into policy discussions, but in and of itself science cannot and should not dictate what policy directions should be taken. At the same time, science and scientific uncertainty should not be deliberately misrepresented or suppressed by special interests in order to influence public policy in a particular direction.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is fracking the cause of the repeated quakes in the same location in Italy, near Bologna, in the Emilia Romagna region

Italy quake: Search for survivors in Emilia Romagna

[Readers, please see the video by Dutchsinse at the end of this article, as well as the list of earthquakes and their geographic location.]

The epicentre was near Modena, close to a similar (6.0) quake 9 days earlier.

Rescuers in northern Italy are continuing to comb through the rubble for more survivors after a strong earthquake killed at least 16 people.
BBC News, May 29, 2012
About 350 people were injured after the magnitude 5.8 quake hit the Emilia Romagna region -- the second deadly tremor in just over a week.
A woman was pulled out alive in the evening in Cavezzo, but officials say at least one more person is missing.
The 6.0-magnitude tremor on 20 May killed 7 people and left thousands homeless.
The quake also caused significant damage to Emilia Romagna's cultural heritage, destroying churches and historic buildings.
The number of people made homeless has now gone up from 6,000 to 14,000 after the two quakes, the Italian government says.
The woman who was saved in Cavezzo reportedly spent 12 hours in the rubble in her kitchen. The 65-year-old managed to survive because a piece of furniture had toppled over, preventing her from being crushed by the wreckage.
She was taken to hospital.
Prime Minister Mario Monti said earlier his government would do everything possible to restore normal life to the area, which was "so special, so important, so productive for Italy."
Government troops are now deployed in the affected areas, and an emergency cabinet meeting will be held on Wednesday.
Tuesday's quake struck 40 km (25 miles) north of Bologna at a depth of 9.6 km (6 miles) at about 09:03 local time (07:03 GMT).

Thousands of residents ran out of buildings after the tremor, which was felt as far away as Venice and the Austrian border.

The towns of Mirandola, Medolla and Cavezzo were closest to the epicentre, but the northern cities of Milan and Bologna were shaken too.

Among the dead were 4 people in Mirandola, including 2 who were in a factory that collapsed. Three people also died in San Felice, and 2 in Cavezzo.

In Mirandola, the San Francesco church collapsed, leaving only its facade standing.
Three people were killed at a factory that had only been cleared for re-entry on Monday, following the earlier quake, the Corriere della Sera news website says.
A parish priest in the town of Rovereto di Novi is reported to have been killed by a falling beam when he went back into his church to save a Madonna statue.
"It's a disaster, I've never seen anything like it," Cavezzo Mayor Stefano Draghetti was quoted as saying by Reuters.
Christopher Gilbert, a Londoner living in Modena, told the BBC that he had felt "a rolling earthquake lasting around 15 seconds."
Chris Brewerton, living in Mantua, about 58 km north of Modena, told the BBC: "The chair starts shaking and there's a feeling of waves below me.
"I rush out into the garden; the shutters and garage door are banging, the ground below me swaying."
Industry hit
There have been several aftershocks since, including a large one at about midday which sent people out into the streets in cities up to 100 km away, the BBC's Mark Duff reports from northern Italy.
In Pisa, offices were evacuated as a precautionary measure while there were moments of panic in Venice, where a statue fell to the ground.
Pictures from the worst-affected areas show factories and office blocks reduced to rubble.
Calls to emergency services have overloaded the telephone network in some areas, causing a system blackout. Train services have been halted in some parts of northern Italy.
Emilia Romagna -- one of Italy's most agriculturally productive areas famous for many delicacies -- has been struggling to recover from the previous quake.
Reports say that Tuesday's tremor dealt a blow to the region's world-famous balsamic vinegar industry -- after the previous 6.0 quake 9 days ago hit Parmesan production.
A friendly match between Italy and Luxembourg ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships, due to be played in the northern city of Parma on Tuesday, has been called off.

OK, I don't know if these particular quakes were caused by fracking, but there were fracking quakes in Oklahoma (more than 50 in a single location), and in Ohio, and in Arkansas, and in the U.K.  There are some things (not related to fracking) that Dutchsinse buys into that I don't, but anyway, here is his video:
Video by Dutchsinse:

y/m/d h:m:s
MAP 4.4  2012/05/29 18:28:02   44.950   10.981 13.1  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 5.1  2012/05/29 11:00:26   44.916   10.934 10.0  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 5.4  2012/05/29 10:55:58   44.859   10.991 9.9  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 4.7  2012/05/29 08:40:58   44.853   10.990 10.1  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 4.7  2012/05/29 08:25:52   44.814   10.948 10.0  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 5.8  2012/05/29 07:00:04   44.814   11.079 9.6  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 4.2  2012/05/25 13:14:05   44.860   11.142 10.0  NORTHERN ITALY
MAP 4.5  2012/05/23 21:41:18   44.802   11.296 9.1  NORTHERN ITALY

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fat Lady Preparing to Sing: U.S. Crushing Warmest Spring Record

Fat Lady Preparing to Sing: U.S. Crushing Warmest Spring Record

by Steve Scolnik, CapitalClimate, May 18, 2012 

As suggested last week, the U.S. is well on its way to crush the record for warmest spring since national temperature data began in 1895. Here's an indication of just how far that record could go. The previous record spring in 1910 had a national average temperature of 55.1 °F. However, the March 2012 temperature exceeded March 1910 by 0.5 °F to set a new record for the month. April 2012 then exceeded April 1910 by 1 °F (see the charts to the right).

At this point, May 2012 would have to be 1.5 °F cooler than May 1910 to avoid exceeding the record. What are the chances of that? Somewhere between slim and none. Here is the temperature departure from average for May 1-24:

Note that the chart is in °C. Nearly all of the country is above average, with large areas over 2 °C higher. How did May 1910 compare?

Most of the country was below average. In fact, May 1910 was 1.8 °F below the 1981-2010 average overall.

If the last 7 days of the month completely reversed the May 1-24 pattern shown above so that May averaged equal to the climatological mean, Spring 2012 would still be 1.1 °F warmer than the old record, as big a margin as the difference between the current record and the 10th place year of 1977. If May averages as much as 2 °C above climatology, which looks quite plausible, the spring average would be an eye-popping 2.3 °F above the old record (see the chart at the top of the post).

Meanwhile, daily high temperature records, while not at the incredible March rate, continue to outpace low records by a huge ratio (click to enlarge):

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jeff Masters: Scorching May heat wave hits much of the U.S.; severe weather expected in the Midwest

Scorching May heat wave hits much of the U.S.; severe weather expected in the Midwest

by Dr. Jeff Masters, wunderblog, May 27, 2012

An exceptionally strong high pressure system anchored over the central U.S. is bringing record-smashing May heat to much of the country this Memorial Day weekend. Dozens of daily high temperature records fell on Saturday, including several all-time records for the month of May. Vichy-Rolla, Missouri, hit 98 °F, beating its all-time May heat record of 95 °F set on May 15, 1899. Columbus, Georgia, hit 97 °F, tying the record hottest May day on record. Saturday's high of 100 °F in Tallahassee was the second highest May temperature since record keeping began in 1892. Pensacola's 98 °F on Saturday was its second highest May temperature since record keeping began in 1879 (the record May temperature in both cities is 102 °F, set on May 27, 1953.) Nashville, Tennessee, hit 95 °F on Saturday, just 1v°F shy of their all-time May heat record. That record could fall today, and numerous all-time May heat records will be threatened in the Midwest, Great Lakes, and Tennessee Valley. 

As is often the case when one portion of the country is experiencing record heat, the other half is seeing unusually cool conditions, due to a large kink in the jet stream. Billings, Montana, received 1.3" of snow Saturday, and Great Falls had received 2.3" as of 6 a.m. this morning. The dividing line between the warm conditions in the Eastern U.S. and cool conditions to the west lies over Nebraska and Kansas today, and NOAA's Storm Prediction Center (SPC) has placed portions of these states in their "Moderate Risk" area for severe weather -- the second highest level of alert.

SciAm: Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?

Although there is an urban legend that the world will end this year based on a misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar, some researchers think a 40-year-old computer program that predicts a collapse of socioeconomic order and massive drop in human population in this century may be on target

Remember how Wile E. Coyote, in his obsessive pursuit of the Road Runner, would fall off a cliff? The hapless predator ran straight out off the edge, stopped in midair as only an animated character could, looked beneath him in an eye-popping moment of truth, and plummeted straight down into a puff of dust. Splat! Four decades ago, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer model called World3 warned of such a possible course for human civilization in the 21st century. In Limits to Growth, a bitterly disputed 1972 book that explicated these findings, researchers argued that the global industrial system has so much inertia that it cannot readily correct course in response to signals of planetary stress. But unless economic growth skidded to a halt before reaching the edge, they warned, society was headed for overshoot—and a splat that could kill billions.
Don't look now but we are running in midair, a new book asserts. In 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Chelsea Green Publishing), Jorgen Randers of the BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, and one of the original World3 modelers, argues that the second half of the 21st century will bring us near apocalypse in the form of severe global warming. Dennis Meadows, professor emeritus of systems policy at the University of New Hampshire who headed the original M.I.T. team and revisited World3 in 1994 and 2004, has an even darker view. The 1970s program had yielded a variety of scenarios, in some of which humanity manages to control production and population to live within planetary limits (described as Limits to Growth). Meadows contends that the model's sustainable pathways are no longer within reach because humanity has failed to act accordingly.
Instead, the latest global data are tracking one of the most alarming scenarios, in which these variables increase steadily to reach a peak and then suddenly drop in a process called collapse. In fact, "I see collapse happening already," he says. "Food per capita is going down, energy is becoming more scarce, groundwater is being depleted." Most worrisome, Randers notes, greenhouse gases are being emitted twice as fast as oceans and forests can absorb them. Whereas in 1972 humans were using 85 percent of the regenerative capacity of the biosphere to support economic activities such as growing food, producing goods and assimilating pollutants, the figure is now at 150 percent—and growing.
Randers's ideas most closely resemble a World3 scenario in which energy efficiency and renewable energy stave off the worst effects of climate change until after 2050. For the coming few decades, Randers predicts, life on Earth will carry on more or less as before. Wealthy economies will continue to grow, albeit more slowly as investment will need to be diverted to deal with resource constraints and environmental problems, which thereby will leave less capital for creating goods for consumption. Food production will improve: increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will causeplants to grow faster, and warming will open up new areas such as Siberia to cultivation. Population will increase, albeit slowly, to a maximum of about eight billion near 2040. Eventually, however, floods and desertification will start reducing farmland and therefore the availability of grain. Despite humanity's efforts to ameliorate climate change, Randers predicts that its effects will become devastating sometime after mid-century, when global warming will reinforce itself by, for instance, igniting fires that turn forests into net emitters rather than absorbers of carbon. "Very likely, we will have war long before we get there," Randers adds grimly. He expects that mass migration from lands rendered unlivable will lead to localized armed conflicts.
Graham Turner of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization fears that collapse could come even earlier, but due to peak oil rather than climate change. After comparing the various scenarios generated by World3 against recent data on population, industrial output and other variables, Turner and, separately, the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, conclude that the global system is closely following a business-as-usual output curve. In this model run the economy continues to grow as expected until about 2015, but then falters because nonrenewable resources such as oil become ever more expensive to extract. "Not that we're running out of any of these resources," Turner explains. "It's that as you try to get to unconventional sources such as under deep oceans, it takes a lot more energy to extract each unit of energy." To keep up oil supply, the model predicts that society will divert investment from agriculture, causing a drop in food production. In this scenario, population peaks around 2030 at between seven and eight billion and then decreases sharply, evening out at about four billion in 2100.
mayan calendar, apocalypse, destruction, global warming, 2012, occupy wall street, arab spring, end of the world
Figure courtesy of PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency

Meadows holds that collapse is now all but inevitable, but that its actual form will be too complex for any model to predict. "Collapse will not be driven by a single, identifiable cause simultaneously acting in all countries," he observes. "It will come through a self-reinforcing complex of issues"—including climate change, resource constraints and socioeconomic inequality. When economies slow down, Meadows explains, fewer products are created relative to demand, and "when the rich can't get more by producing real wealth they start to use their power to take from lower segments." As scarcities mount and inequality increases, revolutions and socioeconomic movements like the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street will become more widespread—as will their repression.

Many observers protest that such apocalyptic scenarios discount human ingenuity. Technology and markets will solve problems as they show up, they argue. But for that to happen, contends economist Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge in the U.K., policymakers must guide technology with the right incentives. As long as natural resources are underpriced compared with their true environmental and social cost—as long as, for instance, automobile consumers do not pay for lives lost from extreme climatic conditions caused by warming from their vehicles' carbon emissions—technology will continue to produce resource-intensive goods and worsen the burden on the ecosystem, Dasgupta argues. "You can't expect markets to solve the problem," he says. Randers goes further, asserting that the short-term focus of capitalism and of extant democratic systems makes it impossible not only for markets but also for most governments to deal effectively with long-term problems such as climate change.
"We're in for a period of sustained chaos whose magnitude we are unable to foresee," Meadows warns. He no longer spends time trying to persuade humanity of the limits to growth. Instead, he says, "I'm trying to understand how communities and cities can buffer themselves" against the inevitable hard landing.

Friday, May 25, 2012

SciAm: Climate Armageddon: How the World's Weather Could Quickly Run Amok [Excerpt]

Climate Armageddon: How the World's Weather Could Quickly Run Amok [Excerpt]

Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate "flips" could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years
Fred Guterl, The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, The eminent British scientist James Lovelock, back in the 1970s, formulated his theory of Gaia, which held that the Earth was a kind of super organism. It had a self-regulating quality that would keep everything within that narrow band that made life possible. If things got too warm or too cold—if sunlight varied, or volcanoes caused a fall in temperatures, and so forth—Gaia would eventually compensate. This was a comforting notion. It was also wrong, as Lovelock himself later concluded. "I have to tell you, as members of the Earth's family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilization are in grave danger," he wrote in the Independent in 2006.
The world has warmed since those heady days of Gaia, and scientists have grown gloomier in their assessment of the state of the world's climate. NASA climate scientist James Hanson has warned of a "Venus effect," in which runaway warming turns Earth into an uninhabitable desert, with a surface temperature high enough to melt lead, sometime in the next few centuries. Even Hanson, though, is beginning to look downright optimistic compared to a new crop of climate scientists, who fret that things could head south as quickly as a handful of years, or even months, if we're particularly unlucky. Ironically, some of them are intellectual offspring of Lovelock, the original optimist gone sour.
The true gloomsters are scientists who look at climate through the lens of "dynamical systems," a mathematics that describes things that tend to change suddenly and are difficult to predict. It is the mathematics of the tipping point—the moment at which a "system" that has been changing slowly and predictably will suddenly "flip." The colloquial example is the straw that breaks that camel's back. Or you can also think of it as a ship that is stable until it tips too far in one direction and then capsizes. In this view, Earth's climate is, or could soon be, ready to capsize, causing sudden, perhaps catastrophic, changes. And once it capsizes, it could be next to impossible to right it again.
The idea that climate behaves like a dynamical system addresses some of the key shortcomings of the conventional view of climate change—the view that looks at the planet as a whole, in terms of averages. A dynamical systems approach, by contrast, consider climate as a sum of many different parts, each with its own properties, all of them interdependent in ways that are hard to predict.
One of the most productive scientists in applying dynamical systems theory to climate is Tim Lenton at the University of East Anglia in England. Lenton is a Lovelockian two generations removed— his mentors were mentored by Lovelock. "We are looking quite hard at past data and observational data that can tell us something," says Lenton. "Classical case studies in which you've seen abrupt changes in climate data. For example, in the Greenland ice-core records, you're seeing climate jump. And the end of the Younger Dryas," about fifteen thousand years ago, "you get a striking climate change." So far, he says, nobody has found a big reason for such an abrupt change in these past events—no meteorite or volcano or other event that is an obvious cause—which suggests that perhaps something about the way these climate shifts occur simply makes them sudden.
Lenton is mainly interested in the future. He has tried to look for things that could possibly change suddenly and drastically even though nothing obvious may trigger them. He's come up with a short list of nine tipping points—nine weather systems, regional in scope, that could make a rapid transition from one state to another.

Each year, the sun shines down on the dark surface of the Indian Ocean, and moist, warm air rises and forms clouds. This rising heat and the moisture form a powerful weather system, a natural pump that pulls up water and moves it in vast quantities hundreds of miles to the mainland. This is the Indian monsoon, which deposits rainfall on thousands of square miles of farmland. About a billion people, most of them poor, depend for their daily bread on crops that depend in turn on the reliability and regularity of the Indian monsoons.
India is a rapidly developing country with hundreds of millions of citizens who want to move into the middle class, drive cars and cool their homes with air-conditioning. It is also a country of poor people, many who still rely on burning agricultural waste to heat their homes and cook their suppers. Smoke from household fires has been a big source of pollution in the subcontinent, and it could disrupt the monsoons, too. The soot from these fires and from automobiles and buses in the ever more crowded cities rises into the atmosphere and drifts out over the Indian Ocean, changing the atmospheric dynamics upon which the monsoons depend. Aerosols (soot) keep much of the sun's energy from reaching the surface, which means the monsoon doesn't get going with the same force and takes longer to gather up a head of steam. Less rain makes it to crops.
At the same time, the buildup of greenhouse gases, coming mainly from developed countries in the northern hemisphere, has a very different effect on the Indian summer monsoons: it acts to make them stronger.
These two opposite influences make the fate of the monsoon difficult to predict and subject to instability. A small influence—a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and a bit more brown haze—could have an out- size effect. Lenton believes that the monsoons could flip from one state to another as quickly as one year. What happens then is not a question that Lenton can answer with certainty, but he foresees two possibilities.
One is that the monsoons grow in force and intensity, but come less frequently. We have already seen hints of this in the newspapers. In the last few years rains have grown erratic and less frequent, but when they do come, they tend to dump an enormous amount of water, and in places where they wouldn't normally do so. This is almost as bad for farmers as drought, since the rain falls on parched ground with extra force, and much of it runs off without soaking into the ground, and it causes damage to boot by washing away soil and plants. The flooding that devastated Pakistan in 2011 is a case in point. If this trend continued and strengthened in intensity, it would be bad news for the two thirds of the Indian workforce that depends on farming. It would be nasty for the Indian economy—agriculture accounts for 25% of GDP. A permanently erratic and harsh monsoon would depress crop yields, increase erosion on farms, and cause a rise in global food prices as India is forced to import more food.
The other possibility is even worse: the monsoons could shut down entirely. This would be an unmitigated catastrophe. A sudden stopping of monsoon rain, which accounts for 80% of rainfall in India, could throw a billion people into danger of starvation. It would change the Indian landscape, wiping out native species of plants and animals, force farms into bankruptcy, and exacerbate water shortages that are already creating conflict. The Indian government would almost certainly be unable to cope with a disaster of such proportions. Refugees by the hundreds of millions would stream into big cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, looking for some hope of survival. It would create a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. Lenton foresees a similar danger of sudden change in the West African monsoon, the second tipping point.
Tipping point number three in Lenton's list is the sea ice of the North Pole. For years the ice has been thinning and retreating more and more during the summer. Soon it may disappear completely during the summer months. We may already have reached this tipping point—a transition to a new state in which the North Pole is ice-free during summer months is already at hand. Eventually the North Pole may flip and be free of ice year-round. The knock-on effects of such a transition would be huge—they would cause a marked increase of warming at the pole, since open water absorbs more of the sun's energy than ice-covered seas. The effect of a year-round, ice-free North Pole would be like heating Greenland on a skillet.

The fourth tipping point is Greenland's glaciers, which hold enough water to cause sea levels to rise by more than 20 feet. It takes a while for that much ice to melt, of course. Currently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections say it will take on the order of a thousand years. Scientists currently don't have a good handle on how such a big hunk of ice melts. For plenty of reasons it could happen much more quickly—recent observations suggest that the melting has not only exceeded what models predict, but has also begun to accelerate. A marked retreat of ice in coastal areas has led to an infusion of ocean water, which is relatively warm and promotes melting.
All this leads Lenton to conclude that the Greenland ice sheets could make a transition to an alternate state in 300 years, rather than a thousand or more. Such a quick melting of Greenland would have a knock-on effect on the ocean currents that run up the Atlantic, bringing warmth to northern Europe and Scandinavia, the Atlantic thermohaline circulation. A sudden change in this current could plunge much of Europe back into an ice age. Scientists were getting nervous about this possibility a few years ago, until further research suggested that any switch in current is a long way off—perhaps a thousand years off. Lenton argues that an accelerated melting of Greenland would throw more freshwater on the northern Atlantic than these reassuring calculations have taken into account. "The canary in the coal mine is the Arctic losing its summer sea-ice cover," says Lenton. "I am really worried about the Greenland ice sheet. It's already losing mass and shrinking."
If Greenland flipped into a completely ice-free state, it would cause massive rises in sea level—on the order of 6 or 7 meters. Even if this took 300 years to happen, "it would be an absolute disaster," says Lenton, "a real game changer." At such a rate of sea-level rise, it would become more and more difficult to protect coastlines. Low-lying areas would have to be abandoned. That includes cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, not to mention the entire state of Florida and vast swaths of Indochina.
Tipping point number six—the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—is even scarier. It has enough ice on it to raise sea levels by about 80 meters. The ice is melting, but slowly—most worst-case scenarios give the ice centuries to melt. But there are some niggling doubts about whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could calve into the sea more quickly than expected, as the glaciers contract. If that happened, it would push sea levels up by 5 meters in as short a time as a century. Most experts consider this unlikely, but if it did happen, Lenton thinks the sheet could flip in as little time as 300 years—three times faster than most models predict.
Water and ice aren't the only worries. The Amazon rain forest, the seventh of Lenton's tipping points, is also in jeopardy. Rain forests are always pretty wet, but they have dry seasons, and those dry seasons turn out to be a limiting factor on the survival of flora and fauna. As loggers reduce the number of trees that produce moisture to feed the gathering rains, the drier the dry seasons get, and the longer they last. Lately dry seasons in the Amazon have gotten more severe and have put a crimp on the survival of many of the trees that form the forest canopy, which is the backbone of the rain-forest ecosystem. As the dry season continues to lengthen, the flora draw more and more water from the soil, which eventually begins to dry out. The trees get stressed and begin to die. There's more fodder on the forest floor for wildfires. This is not hypothetical; it's already begun to happen. We saw this during the estimated 12,000 wildfires that occurred in the Amazon during the drought of 2010. As the forest loses more and more trees, it loses its ability to feed the weather patterns with warm, moist air.

If and when the Amazon flips into a drier state, it would have an big effect on weather patterns. The Amazon is basically a big spot of wet tropics. Knock out the trees and lose that moist air, and the regional circulation pattern changes as well.  A similar flip could occur in Canada's boreal forests (tipping point number eight). A die-off of these forests would release much of the 50-100 billion tons of carbon now trapped in permafrost.
The basic weather patterns that we've grown used to on weather maps are also subject to rapid change. Among them is what's called the El Niño–Southern Oscillation — the ninth and last of Lenton's tipping points. El Niño involves movement of a blob of warm water on the west side of the Pacific Ocean toward the east, bringing with it moist warm air. When this warm water cools and circulates back westward, El Niño comes to an end and La Niña begins. These two patterns alternate roughly every 5 years. From observations, scientists have begun to see a more erratic trade-off between these two patterns. They fret that the weather patterns could flip to some different state—perhaps a more frequent switching off between the patterns. That would have a detrimental effect on the Amazon, says Lenton, exacerbating trends that already threaten to destroy the rain forest.
The real nightmare scenario is when all these changes begin to reinforce one another. The Arctic loses its summer sea ice, causing Greenland's ice to melt and encouraging the boreal forests to change as well. The freshwater runoff changes the thermohaline dynamics and affects the jet stream. The El Niño–Southern Oscillation and the Amazon interact in such a way as to reinforce one another, perhaps affecting the monsoon in India and Africa. "It wouldn't be such a silly thing to say that if you meddle with one, you might affect the other," says Lenton. "Which direction the causality would go is not always obvious. We know it's connected, we know it's nonlinear, we know they somehow couple together. When you see one change, you see changes in the other."
"Then we start talking about domino dynamics," says Lenton. "The worse case would be that kind of scenario in which you tip one thing and that encourages the tipping of another. You get these cascading effects."
It would take a perfect storm of climate flips to get us to this particular worst-case scenario. If it does come to pass, however, at least it will happen quickly.