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Photo showing the calving front of an ice shelf in West Antarctica.

Scientists aim to implement an early warning system for abrupt climate impact after noting severe environmental changes.

Photograph courtesy NASA/GSFC/Jefferson Beck

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published December 3, 2013

The threat of sudden climate change disaster—from the poles melting to farmlands failing—is real and requires an early warning system, an expert panel suggested on Tuesday.

Looking at "tipping points" for global warming disasters, the National Research Council panel report on "abrupt" climate impacts finds noteworthy risks of sharp, sudden sea-level rise, water shortages, and extinctions worldwide in coming years and decades.

"Climate change is real, it is happening now, and we need to deal with it," says James White of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who headed the panel. "Step number one is to recognize the points where we stand on the threshold of abrupt impacts." (See also "Global Warming Report: 5 Takeaways.")

Ultimately, the report envisions an abrupt climate impact early warning system that would be integrated into existing warning systems for droughts, floods, or other disasters and that would build off current ecological monitoring networks.

An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released earlier this year concluded it was "very likely" that burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities were responsible for global warming, most notably more than half of the 1.3°F (0.72°C) rise in average surface temperatures worldwide since 1951.

Worries about tipping points in the climate and resulting abrupt climate disasters, such as ocean currents halting or "runaway" global warming, have figured in climate science for more than a decade, most notably in a 2002 NRC report and in warnings from Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen.

The new report differs from past ones in taking continued global warming as inevitable and looking for impacts on humanity and animals, not just geophysical and weather effects like melting glaciers or drought.

"The report is a break from the past in that it includes abrupt changes in the environment that can result from even small, steady increases in temperature or other climate change effects," says geoscientist Peter Clark of Oregon State University in Corvallis, who was not on the report panel. "I think that is an important point [that] the report is making."

Sea Ice Graphic

Ice, Water, and Extinction

Panelists examined a wide range of abrupt climate impacts, ranging from the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to sharp drops in ocean oxygen levels.

"The rate of climate change now underway is probably as fast as any warming event in the past 65 million years, and it is projected that its pace over the next 30 to 80 years will continue to be faster and more intense," the report says.

In coming decades, the report forecasts a high risk of the disappearance of summertime Arctic sea ice—an abrupt climate change impact already under way—and extinctions in the ocean and on land.

Rapid ecological shifts that threaten farmland as well as wildlife across broad regions, such as tropical forests, are rated as a "moderate" risk.

Unknown Risks

An abrupt slide of the vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the ocean would suddenly sink coasts worldwide under 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) of water. The report rates the risk of this calamity as "unknown" although probably low for this century.

"Unknown means we should be studying this question intently, not pretending it isn't there," White says.

The report does downplay some past scenarios for abrupt climate threats, notably the sudden cessation of Atlantic currents that bring warmer weather to northern Europe and the sudden release of methane, an atmosphere-warming greenhouse gas that is now frozen in permafrost across the Northern Hemisphere.

Clark says those assessments agree with more recent studies.

However, paleoclimate expert Thomas M. Cronin of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Virginia, expressed caution about the report's conclusion that abrupt climate change would likely drive coral extinctions in the ocean or wipe out species in tropical forests. In the latter case, he said, "it is hard to separate human effects, or the timescale of possible extinctions."

On the other hand, Cronin also suggested that the report underplays the threat of the Atlantic Ocean's circulation disastrously halting, or the sudden release of large quantities of methane from warming Arctic permafrosts.

Climate Monitoring

Such disagreement underlines the need for more monitoring of ocean and ice temperatures, and species and weather conditions worldwide, White suggests.

"Knowledge is always good. It is always better to have more knowledge about what is going on," he says. "But we are seeing declines in funding of monitoring of climate, just at the time when we need it most."

The report does not lay out a cost for an abrupt climate impact early warning system, but White points to disasters such as the $68 billion in damages caused by Superstorm Sandy last year for perspective.

Regarding monitoring, he says, "the cost would be not much weighed against the trillions of dollars of assets at risk on the coasts."

24 comments
Denise Katzman
Denise Katzman

Our planet is a Disposable Domain. Due to industry aka ALEC co-opting Politics. We can and must work in a unified realm to defeat both the short term Climate  Change GHG winner Methane and it's long term Climate Change buddy CO2.

Leah Yucor
Leah Yucor

Our common mistakes as human is when we turn our back when something worst s already happening! Isn't it high time now to realize what we did in the past and try finding a solution ASAP now, while we still have time to remedy the impact of the global disasters? Instead of blaming whoever does all this kind of phenomenon? Why not we all try in care to patch things and do our best in helping out saving what are left for us right now? Let us all take part of all the change that we all want..... Let us all participate! Thank you!

craig hill
craig hill

Think not in gradual terms, but sudden lurches, as in methane releases that cause great, sudden heat and an equivalent loss of oxygen in the atmosphere. That is what is in store for us and the world's ecosystems. Like a volcanic explosion burying Pompeii when shortly before it was a thriving urban melange continuing business as usual, until it was suddenly all concluded from above. 

mike floreth
mike floreth

I would like to see a statistical test run on the above graph to see if there is a "break in the relationship in 1995. From the naked eye it appears things were largely unchanged until then. If that is the case current rate of fall curve would be much steeper than the pink line would indicate.


John C.
John C.

I'm more worried that the "fix" for global warming will be designed by the same people who came up with Obamacare. 

Nova Perez
Nova Perez

It's going to take a huge disaster for us to open our eyes and do anything and by that time it might be too late. :(

Paul M.
Paul M.

"FORMER" climate blame believers are better planet lovers.

Prove me wrong but science never agreed on anything beyond "could be" a crisis and have NEVER said or agreed it WILL be a crisis or is; "inevitable". 
If 30 years of science NEVER agreeing on anything past "could be" a crisis is good enough for you to condemn your own children to a climate crisis that only YOU say WILL happen, then we deniers and you remaining believers can agree to disagree. It's as if you wanted this misery to have been real.

What century are you news editors living in?
*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

We live in a viiolent universe and on a violent planet. We may not have noticed this unless we happen to be one of those who have been hit by tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts, asteroid strikes, volcanoes, etc.  Reading about these in books and through the media does not really have much of an effect upon us.  Thus we become complacent, don't want to think about it, and go on with or lives, pityfull as they are, and in general don't worry about it.  Most disasters are localized...but that does not mean that a future disaster will be so.  Take Yellowstone National Park...you don't see it, but there is a volcano there, one called a super volcano that when it blows (not if) it will create a world wide disaster unknown in written history.  We should all stop catering to those who create pollution and be willing to do without such things as coal, oil, gasoline cars etc.  We can each do our part in some small way to reverse what we have all created. We can also take heed to the Boy Scout motto of "Being Prepared". By that we mean preparing to have some of us leave this planet so that our species will survive. At the present time we are doing very little to stop pollution or to vacate the planet.. Threfore we are sending you this greeting in advance. "Happy Super Volcano" , "Happy Sea Rise", "Congatlations You Have Lung Cancer" and "We Prepared, You Didn't, No Visitors Allowed"

Michael Clarkson
Michael Clarkson

In the history of the earth, has ice sheet retreats ever been so rapid?

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

Read well and study on your own after you have read this. 

This is not a game or joke our Sun gives off a Solar Wind all day year round if you live in the State of Alaska you see it in the sky above what a sight it is going through our Earth’s Magnet Polls of the North and the South, North Poll. It’s called the Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis. 

The day will come when you will be able to see it all over Earth as in the year 1859 Solar Flare, It was the largest in 500 years. Two Astronomer’s Hodgson and Carrington told the World that the Solar Flare made a Geomagnetic Storm reach Earth in hours not days. Back then it gave new meaning to Reach For The Skies from Telegraph Operators. For hours sparks flew from the key board. Even after the Batteries were disconnected. Nov 3 and 4, 2003 had a X40+ Class Solar Flare. 

Our Sun’s UV Rays will get stronger as each passing day goes by, read and i will tell you why. 

The Great big forest have be stripped from most of the Earth for Greed of Money by the Wicked. The trees are our Main Source of Oxygen on this Plant.
The Forest Trees scrubs the Pollution out of the air and makes Oxygen from the rain and dirt that it grows in.

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

The Forest Trees do more than just make Oxygen they stop Soil Erosion, just Look at the 1930 Dust Bowl. Greed by our Government taxes led farmers to clear cut all their Forest and farm all the land they were being Tax on. They had to farm it to pay for the Taxes. Why leave the Trees when food crop makes Money. This Did not Help the Depression that effected most all Worldwide. In the next coming  years  more than 100 million will suffer from Malnutrition lack of food and Dehydration lack of water. Many will not make it and die! 

Soon many will run out of Safe Drinking Water from pollution going into the worlds water supply.  

 In the United States of America alone more than 46+ Million Americans Received Food Stamps and that number is going up every day every year for more than 4 years in a row now. Obama building back up America or tearing it down and apart? 

The Pollution and CO2 Carbon Dioxide go into the Tree Bark as a shield from most bugs so they do not eat the tree. 

 Less Forest less Oxygen this is why the moon. That has no Oxygen is very cold on the side with out Sun Light, And hot as ever on the side with Sun Light. Way too cold and too hot to live there. You would need at least 10 times the Energy we use on Earth to even live there and life on the Moon would be very short.

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

With no blank of Oxygen to lessen or reduce the Sun’s UV Rays and Solar Wind they are deadly there on our Moon. Every Mt. Climber and Aircraft Pilot knows the higher you go the thinner the Oxygen and colder it gets. Just spend a night on a Mt. top above 13,000 feet with no Sun Light and you will see or should i say feel the cold stinging any of your exposed skin. If you are new to Mt. Climbing stay below 10,000Ft. The Astronauts and the Cosmonauts and Fighter Pilots that i have been with for years know this very well, and the Radiation Hazards to humans at High Altitudes. 

Soon the Sun’s Solar Wind and UV rays will be way to strong for most to go out in the Sun Light for even a short time. The Geomagnetic Storm to come and the Bad Weather Storms well you have not seen nothing yet and the Sea Level is Rising the Oceans.The Sun Rays is leading to the Drying of Fresh Drinking water. Many Lakes World Wide have set records for all time Low Water Level.  

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

Many Millions have been affected by Floods in China and Pakistan just last year. In 2005 Over a Thousand dead in New Orleans flood, and the list going on. The sounds and rumbling of Volcanoes Around Earth are Waking Up at a Alarming rate. And there shall be famines, and pestilences, and Earthquakes, in divers places such as was not from the beginning of the Creation. The last 30 years On Earth we have broke all High Temp Records and the temp it is still going up. All the Worlds Ice Glacier are melting at an Accelerating Rate. The Glaciers and Polar Ice Caps store more water than all the Fresh Water Lakes on Earth. Many of them are drying up or water levels are going down past the lowest point every recorded. 

Please visit Repeat Photography of Alaskan Glaciers - USGS

The Bad Weather Storms now are Babies compared to what is to come. They will get even bigger and worse less Oxygen the more UV Rays to the Earth and more Water molecules will evaporate and go up into the Earth’s Atmosphere. Less Oxygen the colder without sun light and hotter with it. The Sky full of more water vapor molecules, more snow in the winter and more Flash Floods in the Summer. All earth will see way more fires and the Deserts are growing larger.

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

 If Every Living Person On Earth Were To PLANT A TREE Today We Might Have A Chance.

All over earth they are building underground why? You do not need to ask why if you read the above.
The Earth’s Atmosphere Blanket surrounding it protects life on Earth as Our Lord and GOD will all that seek Him. Then it is written when the tree is full it is harvest time. All the Earth will someday burn away. This is all Foretold in the Bible Read it
and may our Lord Bless all that do so.
  

  "Azald New64"   (all the money on Earth will not stop what is about to take Place i have been telling this for years  planting trees world wide is the only thing that can.)

"GB Hajim " ( i Pray you  Look to go to HEAVEN, sad some think they have endless time hell is one place many will wish they had done other wise.  The day will come soon all will stop their wickness, it will be way to late then.  Our Lord GOD gave you eyes to see please keep telling others to open theirs. Help save the lost your reward will be great, and your Brightness will shine for ever.) 

Please read   DANIEL 12 : 3     

Azald New64
Azald New64

Leave it to NatGeo. This is one of the most constructive articles on the consequences of "climate change" that has ever been written. It doesn't dwell on the unprovable theories about what might be causing it. It is about how to cope and identify practical mitigation steps that man knows how to do today.

In view of the $68bil tab for Superstorm Sandy, and the relatively well-known link of warm ocean surface temperatures to hurricane/cyclone/typhoon intensity, does it not seem logical to try some $10-20mil experiments with localized cooling of oceans in front of these storms with the intent of slowing their rotational speed? We are fairly good at path prediction. It might not work, but we'll never know until we try it.

If successful, this could go down as another step in "preparedness," something that has improved remarkably in the past two-three decades.

GB Hajim
GB Hajim

Weʻre totally screwed. This article has 43 re-Tweets while the Kardashiansʻ Christmas card has over 300,000.

Cameron Spitzer
Cameron Spitzer

Confusion of categories.  This article is about science, not about stuff you heard on angry-talk radio.

John C.
John C.

@Phillip Noe 


When big talking rich green liberals give up their mansions, private jets and gas guzzling Land Rovers I'll start to listen about how I need to taper back my life style.


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