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Newsweeks Science Editor explains why climate change is “even worse than we feared” and how “a consensus has developed during IPY that the Greenland ice sheet will disappear.”

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"Newsweeks Science Editor explains why climate change is “even worse than we feared” and how “a consensus has developed during IPY that the Greenland ice sheet will disappear.”"

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http://rubatomusic.nl/Pictures/jaws.jpgAmong the phrases you really, really do not want to hear from climate scientists are: “that really shocked us,” “we had no idea how bad it was,” and “reality is well ahead of the climate models.” Yet in speaking to researchers who focus on the Arctic, you hear comments like these so regularly they begin to sound like the thumping refrain from Jaws: annoying harbingers of something that you really, really wish would go away.

So writes Newsweek‘s Sharon Begley in one of the most thoughtful climate pieces ever to appear in a major national publication.  She makes the very case I did in my recent post (except without the hyperlinks — the Achilles Heel of MSM science writing).  For more on the International Polar Year, see The IPY: “Arctic sea ice will probably not recover” and their website.

The Begley piece is so outstanding — and so rare — I’m going to reprint it below:

Let me deconstruct the phrases above. The “shock” came when the International Polar Year, a global consortium studying the Arctic, froze a small vessel into the sea ice off eastern Siberia in September 2006. Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen had done the same thing a century before, and his Fram, carried by the drifting ice, emerged off eastern Greenland 34 months later. IPY scientists thought their Tara would take 24 to 36 months. But it reached Greenland in just 14 months, stark evidence that the sea ice found a more open, ice-free, and thus faster path westward thanks to Arctic melting.

The loss of Arctic sea ice “is well ahead of” what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast, largely because emissions of carbon dioxide have topped what the panel””which foolishly expected nations to care enough about global warming to do something about it””projected. “The models just aren’t keeping up” with the reality of CO2 emissions, says the IPY’s David Carlson. Although policymakers hoped climate models would prove to be alarmist, the opposite is true, particularly in the Arctic.

The IPCC may also have been too cautious on Greenland, assuming that the melting of its glaciers would contribute little to sea-level rise. Some studies found that Greenland’s glacial streams were surging and surface ice was morphing into liquid lakes, but others made a strong case that those surges and melts were aberrations, not long-term trends. It seemed to be a standoff. More reliable data, however, such as satellite measurements of Greenland’s mass, show that it is losing about 52 cubic miles per year and that the melting is accelerating. So while the IPCC projected that sea level would rise 16 inches this century, “now a more likely figure is one meter [39 inches] at the least,” says Carlson. “Chest high instead of knee high, with half to two thirds of that due to Greenland.” Hence the “no idea how bad it was.”

The frozen north had another surprise in store. Scientists have long known that permafrost, if it melted, would release carbon, exacerbating global warming, which would melt more permafrost, which would add more to global warming, on and on in a feedback loop. But estimates of how much carbon is locked into Arctic permafrost were, it turns out, woefully off. “It’s about three times as much as was thought, about 1.6 trillion metric tons, which has surprised a lot of people,” says Edward Schuur of the University of Florida. “It means the potential for positive feedbacks is greatly increased.” That 1.6 trillion tons is about twice the amount now in the atmosphere. And Schuur’s measurements of how quickly CO2 can come out of permafrost, reported in May, were also a surprise: 1 billion to 2 billion tons per year. Cars and light trucks in the U.S. emit about 300 million tons per year.

In an insightful observation in The Guardian this month, Jim Watson of the University of Sussex wrote that “a new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common”: someone who doubts not the science but the policy response. Given the pathetic (non)action on global warming at the G8 summit, and the fact that the energy/climate bill passed by the House of Representatives is so full of holes and escape hatches that it has barely a prayer of averting dangerous climate change, skepticism that the world will get its act together seems appropriate. For instance, the G8, led by Europe, has vowed to take steps to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius by reducing CO2 emissions. We’re now at 0.8 degree. But the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is already enough to raise the mercury 2 degrees. The only reason it hasn’t is that the atmosphere is full of crap (dust and aerosols that contribute to asthma, emphysema, and other diseases) that acts as a global coolant. As that pollution is reduced for health reasons, we’re going to blast right through 2 degrees, which is enough to ex-acerbate droughts and storms, wreak havoc on agriculture, and produce a planet warmer than it’s been in millions of years. The 2-degree promise is a mirage.

The test of whether the nations of the world care enough to act will come in December, when 192 countries meet in Copenhagen to hammer out a climate treaty. Carlson vows that IPY will finish its Arctic assessment in time for the meeting, and one conclusion is already clear. “A consensus has developed during IPY that the Greenland ice sheet will disappear,” he says. Cue the Jaws music.

Greenland disappear?  How is that possible?  That would be 15 to 20 feet of sea level rise by itself — just what “alarmists” like Nobelist Gore and James Hansen and Climate Progress have been saying for years.

With that kind of flooding, there won’t be any beaches left for sharks to attack humans on.   Since Begley asked for it (well, maybe not this version), let’s cue the music:

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19 Responses to Newsweeks Science Editor explains why climate change is “even worse than we feared” and how “a consensus has developed during IPY that the Greenland ice sheet will disappear.”

  1. pete best says:

    Does that mean that climate models are not represrenting sensitivity of each warming/cooling component. Can the models be changed to reflect what is happenning and proejct that into the future. Does an amended model show Greenland disappear? If the climate models are run with lowering pollution levels over time does it show any of this empirical work ?

  2. Wonhyo says:

    “a new breed of climate sceptic is becoming more common”: someone who doubts not the science but the policy response.

    While I think it is important not to give up hope, I also think we have to change how policy is influenced. Our current political processes are driven primarily by motivations of greed. Every other consideration is subordinate to the greed and profit motive. We can get a watered down climate/energy bill only after ensuring that every powerful legislator gets a piece of pork in the bill. Thus, much of the money and public debate that could go to climate/energy adaptation are diverted to legislative pork (and delay).

    We must learn to formulate policy based on a survival and adaptation motive, and subjugate greed to these larger goals. Only then will we be able to formulate strong policies and act on them in a timely manner.

  3. Albert says:

    Perhaps we should reward good articles with a little traffic? When people write good articles, would post the link, please?

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/208164

    Thanks!

  4. Steve Bloom says:

    Joe, Jason Box of Ohio State is on and about the Petermann and Humboldt glaciers right now (on a ship provided by Greenpeace) and is blogging his activities. There are lots of great photos. The Petermann, which is the biggest outlet glacier at the top of Greenland, is so huge that it’s hard to get a sense of the scale.

    These glaciers are key to the fate of the ice sheet since they occupy deep channels into its heart and are capable of transporting very large volumes of ice. I supect that if they were in southern Greenland there wouldn’t be an ice sheet today.

  5. Will says:

    Greenland completely melts in a world where temperatures are 3 degrees C above pre-ind temps. We know that by looking at the earth’s history. The question is not “if” Greenland will melt at 2 or 3 (or 5-8) degrees C hotter, but how fast. Do they have a prediction for that?

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    Will, there’s a prediction of several centuries, but it’s obsolete. I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot about this specific question in the next few months. Bear in mind that we’ll lose a big chunk of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet first, although the timing for that is also unclear.

  7. Erik Schimek says:

    Submitting it to Digg, Twitter and other social bookmarking sites is also helpful.

  8. counters says:

    Pete Best,

    Climate models (at least the category we commonly refer to such as GCM’s) are dynamical in nature. One can’t simple flip a switch for a certain component and move its projections in a certain direction. There are potentially many reasons why a GCM wouldn’t capture the same rate of warming or ice loss as we see in the Arctic. However, what is directly suggested in the above article is that we must revise the ‘emissions scenarios’ used in IPCC projections, because our society is following a path of higher emissions than previously hoped.

    I don’t know if that would move the projections closer in line with the shorter-term warming we see in the Arctic. However, we are certainly seeing warning signs in the natural environment that can’t simply be shrugged off.

  9. Special K says:

    The whole issue has become so politicized
    That folks searching for believable sources–
    Like Diogenes looking for an honest man–
    Can’t muster the needed resources.

  10. Greg X says:

    re: climate models

    Dare I assume that the prevailing GCM models, big, complex and processor-hungry though they may be, nonetheless allow for the adjustment of input variables, and, further, that this capability allows multiple scenarios to be run which will cover the range of predicted values for each variable?

    It would then follow that:

    a) these scenarios have in fact been run, that somewhere the results of those scenarios have been compiled, providing answers to such questions as ‘If industrial output of CO2 follows *this* curve for x years, it will increase the mean sea level by *this* much’; or

    b) those scenarios have *not* been run, implying that control of the GCM’s is not in the hands of scientists, but rather, bureaucrats; or

    c) these scenarios have indeed been run, but nobody’s publishing the results.

    What *that* might imply, I will leave to your imagination.

  11. counters says:

    Greg,

    No need to worry about crazy implications or hypothetical situations. You can find the source and input datasets for the CCSM3 here: http://www.ccsm.ucar.edu/models/ccsm3.0/#src.

    Rather than make ridiculous assumptions, you can run the model for yourself and see what happens. Hell, you can even make direct modifications to the source and see what happens.

    Have fun!

  12. Aaron Lewis says:

    #11 counters
    Ah, sure! I will just add in code for ice dynamics, Arctic carbon feed backs, correct the center of rotation issue, and run the revised model on my lap top. (I can remember when the computer at NCAR was only a 64 bit machine.)

    Nobody seriously considers that the current models reflect the future of the cryosphere. At best, they offer insight to some dynamic processes. (Not including sea level change.)

    Since it takes a grant to get enough computing resources to run the model, the fact that the compressed code is online somewhere does not really make it available. The Federal government is the largest source of climate research money, and thus effectively, the code is under the thumb of federal bureaucrats – like it or not. If they think some abstract of a research proposal is good, you get funding, computer time, and you have a useful look at the model. Yes, for all practical purposes, the models are under the control of the bureaucrats that hold the purse strings. I would guess that you work for a organization that holds such grants, and that you have forgotten just how expensive computer time really is.

    In addition, there is a cultural aversion among climatologists to saying or publishing anything that might be considered “alarmist.” This goes to remaining “respectable.” That is, respectable scientists that work for respectable organizations are not alarmists – even when they see that the theater is on fire. This goes to Hansen’s notion of reticence.

  13. From Peru says:

    counters :

    How one can access the program model? And anyway, which part is free to download for the public and which not?

  14. Hmpf says:

    Nice article, but the way it’s written – especially the way it ends – it encourages people to think that it’s already too late and nothing can be done (“2 degrees is a mirage…”). This – although it may actually be true – is probably the wrong strategy to get us (humanity as a whole) to work as hard as we can to use what little chance we have to still turn the situation around… I think there should have been more of an emphasis on how important it is, *especially* in a situation that looks increasingly hopeless, to do whatever we can to improve our chances.

  15. jorleh says:

    We know for sure that the aerosols (dirty rubbish) taken away from the atmosphere clears the skies and put us at least 1 degree C up warmer and that in a few months.

    But say one real action taken to get CO2 emissions down. This means real action, not to cry for some action until 2020, or 2050.

  16. Giove says:

    Credit Crunch.

    That might do something?
    An event or an action?

  17. Dorothy says:

    Australian Paleoscientist Andrew Glickson as a word to say about this: Cut carbon emissions 80% by 2020 to avoid catastrophe – http://www.green-blog.org/2009/08/04/paleoclimate-scientist-glikson-cut-carbon-emissions-80-by-2020-to-avoid-catastrophe/.
    There’s a link on this site to his interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)
    http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/connectasia/stories/200907/s2634156.htm

    There’s also Professor Kevin Anderson and Dr Alice Bows, stating in a key paper in the prestigious Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2008:

    “According to the analysis conducted in this paper, stabilizing at 450 ppmv [carbon dioxide equivalent = CO2-e, atmospheric concentration measured in parts per million by volume; roughly the present level at 390 ppm CO2] requires, at least, global energy related emissions to peak by 2015, rapidly decline at 6-8% per year between 2020 and 2040, and for full decarbonization sometime soon after 2050 …Unless economic growth can be reconciled with unprecedented rates of decarbonization (in excess of 6% per year), it is difficult to envisage anything other than a planned economic recession being compatible with stabilization at or below 650 ppmv CO2-e … Ultimately, the latest scientific understanding of climate change allied with current emissions trends and a commitment to “limiting average global temperature increases to below 4oC above pre-industrial levels”, demands a radical reframing of both the climate change agenda, and the economic characterization of contemporary society” (see: Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows, Proc. Trans. Roy. Soc, A, 2008).

    Remember, it’s at 400 ppm, or about 450 ppmv CO2-e, that plants and trees start to lose their ability to absorb nitrogen from the soil.

    I can’t say this strongly enough: We’re being told a whopping lie by our governments. The “safe” 2 degrees Celsius they’re talking about is a purely arbitrary political number and has nothing to do with scientific reality. At present global atmospheric temperature, we now know we can’t save the summer Arctic sea ice and we’re losing Greenland’s glaciers as well. The only pertinent question is, what can we do to sound the alert and get world leaders to take necessary action, besides what we’re presently doing?

  18. Giove says:

    I think that the situation for the climate community is very very similar to the role of Cassandra of Homer Iliad. She knows and and warns all the time about what is going to happen .. but every1 do their things regardless, until its too late). So it is a useful role in a greek tragedy where every1 dies .. but not so much in reality.

    Now the message is partly coming across… the world is getting some awareness (also because there is a generational change in power: the people around 70 I know stubbornly think that world’s resources are infinite.. and that if they are not the system is self stabilizing).

    It seems to me that something is moving: investments and advances are being made every day in energy saving research, fusion power and very high efficiency solar cells, concentration solar plants, tidal power, wind turbine advances, electric and hybrid transportation etc.. The economic attention is being geared to produce green R&D and products. The issue is now in the international diplomatic agenda and the first agreements are being made. Other, better ones, will probably follow.

    But the climate community prophecy is moving and the warning now is that loo little and too late is being done to escape doom. That 80% of the emissions are to be cut to avoid a disaster… what disaster? how big? how soon? What is the probability of surviving it? Can you tell me, a citizen, that i will die in 20 years with 80% probability? Will that get me moving?

    Now taking direct political measures to cut 80% is an enormous disaster in itself that probably would take incredibly deep changes and cause indicible pain in our society. What are the measures that would have to be taken? I have no idea… forcing companies to provide land to build employee houses and in turn bind the employees to live next to their workplaces? Welcome back Feudalism! It reduces people transportation for sure .. Population easying? A bit of ethnic cleansing like in ex Jugoslavia to reassign resourses? All pretty harsh .. are they options? How many people are we ready to starve to death to reach an 80% emission cut? How many wars for territory and resources? (NOTE: I have no idea of any option being considered, the above are just disturbing examples that come to my mind. I am sure though that a policy apt to reach an 80% cut may contain very harsh measures).

    I imagine that to a politician the above is quite worse than losing greenland ice. He probably would commit to changing the face of the planet to avoid it.

    I think climate scientists should not only warn of the loss of greenland ice. They should work doing predictions similar to cold-war scenario loss assessments. “If this happens you lose 100 millions people in the first week, another 200 first month etc etc.”. Difficult work, but I think it has been done in the past. That forecasts did work well in giving politicians a clear view of the options and in avoiding us to become swirling ionized atoms for 50 years .. although there where huge costs involved also in that case.

    Point is, can the climate scientific community closely work with scenario analysts and do predictions which are accurate, detailed and timely enough? Can it support the above analysis that in turn supports the important decisions? I very much hope so and I hope it is already doing it, else it will be as useful as Cassandra was in averting the destiny of Troy.

  19. Michael Y says:

    Friends,

    Things are getting desperate. While political momentum is clearly building, it does not appear to be moving fast enough to avoid the huge feedback loops of the melting permafrost. If the permafrost goes, it’s game over for civilization. Agreed?

    I think we, as a community, need to get behind some quick and dirty geo-engineering NOW, while fighting on CO2 all the while.

    Sincerely,

    Michael Yaziji