Global Warming Speed Imperils Habitats

Having global temperatures at levels not seen in humanity’s lifetime is scary enough, but the worst news may be how fast the globe is warming. That is truly unprecedented.

Previous major temperature swings took place over tens and hundreds of thousands of years – we’re doing ours in a mere hundred. That means that with previous temperature swings, the planet and every living thing on it had plenty, plenty of time to adjust. This time, we don’t.

A warming planet means that habitat zones are shifting, usually either more toward the poles, or upward. That means if you’re adapted to living in the climate that normally exists at the base of the Rocky Mountains in California, you’re going to have to start moving up the slopes, or north to Canada. Naturally, there’s physical limit to how long this strategy will work! In Australia, they’ve monitored species that have moved southward (toward to pole) as that subcontinent has warmed, until they’ve run up against its edge. As the climate continues to shift, they’ll have no place left to move and will die out.

A couple of recent studies highlight the issues:

  1. At the current pace of change, 57% of plants (which have a harder time “moving”) and 37% of animals are likely to see a 50% reduction in their habitats by 2080. Which is not far away an a species migration time frame. (source: Nature Climate Change)
  2. Worse, as the temperature rises, the pace of habitat shifting actually accelerates, which means that the above figures are understatements. (source: Nature Climate Change)
  3. As an example for a specific species, a study has created an index which tracks the “Mean Temperature of the Catch” worldwide, and found that it is definitely rising significantly. For us humans, this means that the species available for food are changing rapidly, and the bounty that used to exist in our territorial waters has “left the building”. (source: Nature)

    Atlantic Cod Wikipedia Commons

    “The Atlantic Cod is a species that has shifted its range northward during the past several decades.” Climate Central
    Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

And it’s complicated. Although the habitat zone may move as a unit, all the plants and animals don’t – mammals move faster than plants, for example, and the insects in between – so food chains get disrupted and species suffer. Even species that can move may go extinct because their food couldn’t move with them.

Living things can adapt to changing climates in two ways: move, or evolve. With our fast pace of warming, there’s no time for natural selection to do its thing for most species. And with our past pace of warming, even moving is proving to be a short-term solution at best.

Temperatures may be flat – but there’s no free lunch

The most commonly used measurement of global warming is the Global Annual Mean Surface Air Temperature Change (see graph at right and note below). When you read about “rising temperatures,” this is the number they’re talking about. If you look closely at the far right of the graph you can see that this temperature measurement, after shooting up for the previous couple of decades, leveled off over the last 10 years or so. This despite the fact that we’re still pumping out prodigious amounts of greenhouse gasses.

Several attempts have been made to explain this very short-term pattern in such a way as to show we might be out of the woods on global warming, mainly by weakening the “sensitivity” of our climate models. Hey – those sensitivity factors were inferred from a lot of real data covering centuries and millennia – it makes no sense to me to start fiddling with them based on 10 years worth. I don’t believe in free lunches.

In fact, the recent (and very short by ecosystem timeframes) leveling of the mean global air temperature is likely a case of borrowing from Peter now, only to have to pay Paul back later. I like this explanation because (a) it makes sense, and (b) doesn’t involve a free lunch.

According to a paper in the American Geophysical Union’s Geophysical Research Letters, the reason the air temps aren’t rising is that the global warming energy has gone into heating the deeper ocean waters. Normally, that doesn’t happen – the surface water’s warm first and since warm water floats over cold water, the deeper ocean is slow to heat. But – enter the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which during the past decade has been pushing colder water up from the depths, and circulating the warm water down. With the cold water on top, the ocean has been absorbing more of the heat energy of global warming, leaving the surface air temperatures unchanged.

Trouble is, when the next PDO cycle starts, that pattern will reverse, and much of that absorbed energy will re-enter the atmosphere, and we’ll pay for this decade of “flat” temperatures with a decade of rapidly increasing temperatures. In fact, say the scientists, this is exactly what happened in the late 80s and 90s (1998 remaining one of the hottest years on record).

That’s the trouble with looking at one number (mean global surface temperature) as a proxy for the complex phenomenon of climate change. We have to remember that “Global Warming” refers to the entire 3D globe, not just the surface.

We’re coasting now, but hang on to your hat!

Note 1: The graph from NOAA (see the original at Temperatures are shown as a departure (“anomaly”) from the 1951-1980 average. So over the last 10 years or so, the mean surface temperature has been holding steady at 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.08 degrees Fahrenheit) over the 1951-1980 average.

Permafrost melting – do we care yet?

A recent paper in the journal Science by Anton Baks et. al. has studied the effects of past climate warming on the planet’s permafrost and concluded that a 1.5˚C  global rise in  temperatures over the long term baseline will create a significant weakening of the permafrost. We’re already halfway there (0.8˚C) and will hit that target by mid-century.

Permafrost cracking pattern in the high Arctic.
Photo credit: Brocken Inaglory via Wikimedia Commons
When the permafrost melts, the buried plant matter is exposed to sunlight (UV rays in particular), the the process of bacteria converting that stored carbon to CO2 and methane accelerates, releasing perhaps 40% of these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That can’t be good, no matter what.

Just how bad it is, however, is still scientifically uncertain, as is the rate of warming up there.

On “just how bad it is,” there are mitigating factors. One, the bacteria convert a lot of the biomass to CO2 which is much less threatening than methane. No one knows what that ration will be, but the scary articles usually assume its all methane. Not so. Two, the process takes time – decades will pass between the arrival of the warming and the actual increase in atmospheric heat trapped as a result. By that time, the total greenhouse gas releases from all the usual suspects may drown out the permafrost contribution.

On the rate of change front, however, there is plenty of reason to worry. Studies by NASA in 2012 indicate that the permafrost is melting much faster than the global average – in fact, they’ve already risen by 2.2-3.9 degrees C (or 4-7 degrees F) over the last century. Another study shows that the actual recorded rises in methane and CO2 over the world’s permafrost is much, much greater than predictions by the IPCC and others. One thing we’re certainly learned from three decades or so of climate predictions is: the consensus is always low, and often very low, compared to what actually shows up.

We need more study on the permafrost front, certainly. My takeaway is this: it’s one more time bomb ready to go off, and when you add up all the similarly under-studied and under-reported time bombs (melting of the glaciers comes to mind), we need to be very, very worried. Even if the odds are low, it’s the only planet we have and we can’t afford to guess wrong.

It keeps getting scarrier…

A new report from the World Bank – not exactly a radical left-wing organization, eh? – has this to day:
  • Even if all emissions-reductions commitments are kept, we’ll hit 4 degrees Celsius (that’s over 9 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by the end of the century. If they aren’t, we’ll hit it by 2060.
  • The impact of a 4-degrees-warmer world will be: “unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services. “
  • The observed changes in climate have been escalating, not stabilizing and certainly not slowing down.
What will the 4 degree world look like?
  •  Extreme heat – with consequences (heat-related deaths, forest fires, harvest losses) that “could be expected to vastly exceed the consequences experienced to date, and potentially exceed the adaptive capacities of many societies and natural systems.”
  •  Rising sea levels – expect a rise of 0.5 – 1.0 meters (that’s over 9 feet) at a minimum with several meters more in the centuries to follow (there’s a lot of momentum in climate change – we can’t just shut it off today and expect things to return to normal tomorrow).  You’ve seen the maps – this affects a huge percentage of the area where we live.
  • Everything we rely on for our daily lives will be affected: clean water, crops, food animals, even just the ability to travel around safely. Life as we know it, basically, will be drastically altered, mostly for the worse.
Any hope?

The report states what we’ve known for the last two or three decades, that we have the “technical and economic” means to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. It even holds out hope we can keep the warming below 2 degrees (I don’t share that hope – the 2 degree number was a politically chosen one, and at the time it was chosen, the full effects of feedback loops was not incorporated into the scientific models).
Trouble is, the technology and money won’t help if we don’t have the political will to use them. So far, it’s been nearly completely lacking. Let’s hope the Climate Change talks going on in Doha this week get us started on the path.
You can get the report here:

It’s not the heat, its….oh, wait

Climate scientists have been telling us for a couple of decades now that, even though global warming is the cause, we’d be seeing its effects in other areas besides straight temperature rises. For the record, not only have their predictions come true by and large, but they have been too conservative…but that’s another column. For today, it’s worth noting during these unprecedented heat waves that the temperature effects are finally showing up as well. There’s a very good article on the subject at Climate Communication (view it here). Here’s a sample, looking at a very simple and easy to understand data point, the ratio of record highs to record lows over the last 60 years. If normal, random variations in climate were occurring, you’d expect that ratio to be close to 1.0. In other words, in any given period, you’d expect just as many record highs and record lows to occur. Random changes, 50-50 chances. Back in the 1950s, when the effects of human greenhouse gas generation was just kicking in to high gear, the ratio was 52/48 in favor of record highs. Pretty close to random. In the last three years, the ratio went from 56/44 to 73/27 (in 2011) and is 90/10 so far this year.

Beef: the new delicacy

Doing the math:
Cost: 60% of world’s agricultural land
Benefit: 5% of protein and 2% of calories

Normally, when a food item is really expensive, we eat it rarely and call it a delicacy. Trouble is, the expense of tying up that much agricultural land (significant contributions to world-wide hunger and global warming) isn’t borne by the consumers of beef, so we in the “developed” world think it’s much cheaper than it really is, and eat it all the time.

It’s not the heat…

When most people think of Global Warming, they think “getting hotter.” But that’s not what we’re going to notice first. Scientists have said for awhile now that the first thing we’ll notice is extreme weather (fueled by the heat).

Thing is – it takes a lot of degrees of heat for us to notice it personally, but only a little extra heat for storm systems to take notice.

Weather followers have been noticing for years now that the hurricanes seem stronger and more frequent, the droughts longer and more intense, the forest fire season longer and more intense, 100-year floods occurring several times a decade, etc. etc. But there’s always been the caveat: these events are local events, and you can’t pin local weather events on a global phenomenon like global warming.

No longer.

Two (count ‘em) new studies published in yesterday’s issue of Nature – one of the planet’s most prestigious science journals – does exactly that. In one study, the heavy flooding in the UK was studied and researchers showed that global warming was the only explanation the fit the data. In the second, the increase in rain intensity in the Northern Hemisphere was again shown to be explicable only in terms of global warming.

Global warming isn’t a future problem. It’s here.

Here’s a link the the Nature article: [click]

Cancun made progress; so did global warming

As Bill McKibben puts it in this eloquent post, physics and chemistry don’t negotiate. Yeah, they made good “progress” in Cancun, but that doesn’t mean that Global Warming gave an avuncular nod and said “Hey, you did such a good job, we’ll just slow the process down for a decade or so and give your compromise time to work.”

McKibben’s contention is that we already live on a different planet (“Eaarth” – the title of his new book). Here’s why:

“As of January 2008, our best climatologists gave us a number for how much carbon in the atmosphere is too much. At concentrations above 350 parts per million (ppm), a NASA team insisted, we can’t have a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” We’re already past that; we’re at 390 ppm. Which is why 2010 will be the warmest year on record, almost a degree Celsius above the planet’s natural average, according to federal researchers. Which is why the Arctic melted again this summer, and Russia caught fire, and Pakistan drowned.”

Read the rest of his post here.