The Future Has Arrived Earlier Than Predicted… Take Global Warming, For Example

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on October 20, 2009 with No Comments

Fragilecologies Archives
13 February 2006

pen5Back in the Dark Age days of climate studies (before the early 1970s), there was considerable concern about the possibility of a global cooling of the atmosphere. The earth was moving rapidly toward the apparent next Ice Age, given the growing amount of circumstantial, as well as anecdotal, evidence at the time. The anecdotal evidence was pretty convincing to physical and biological scientists: Arctic sea ice was shifting southward into Atlantic shipping lanes; the growing season in England had become shorter by two weeks since 1940; the armadillo which had migrated as far north as the state of Kansas because of warmer decades had begun to retreat back toward the state of Texas. Due to a return to colder temperatures, fish caught on the northern coast of Iceland were appearing off the country’s southern coast, because cold water was moving toward the equator and away from the poles. In fact, Iceland in the 1970s was referred to as the thermometer for the Earth’s climate changes.

A flip in scientific concern took place in the mid-1970s away from a cooling and toward a belief in a foreseeable warming of the global climate system. The two opposing views existed side by side until the end of that decade. In fact, at the First World Climate Conference (WCC) held in late 1979 in Geneva, Switzerland by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 16 keynote speeches were presented, one of which addressed the economic costs to a society associated with a global cooling (not warming, even though warming arguments were starting to dominate). www.davidsuzuki.org

Climate-related headlines in the late 1970s were eye-catching. Several focused on a key disturbing consequence of global warming: concern about the degree of stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The ice sheet is pinned to the land, and scientists have suggested that were it to fall into the ocean it would abruptly raise sea level by several meters. Such a catastrophe would swamp coastal settlements worldwide — no exceptions — bringing the coast of the world’s oceans deeper inland. It was shown to be a low probability, but one with devastating consequences worldwide. The fate of the West Antarctic ice sheet remains a major scientific issue of concern.

It seems that, as each decade since the 1970s has progressed, we witness some of the signs that scientists had been warning us about related to the gradual warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. For example, sea level continues to rise; 96 percent of the world’s glaciers are receding; warm climate ecosystems are moving upslope to higher altitudes into previously cooler climates and latitudes; exotic species and disease vectors are appearing in new locations poleward, adjusting to warmer winters and hotter summers. Droughts seem to be recurring with greater frequency and intensity in some drought-prone locations, and floods seem to be doing the same in flood-prone locations. Arctic sea ice has been disappearing at an increased rate and is now at its smallest surface area in a century.

Many of these changes are taking place earlier than expected, at rates faster than expected, and in places where they were often unexpected. We are starting to see stronger storms, some of which are called “superstorms.” In fact we are watching the development of “seasons of superstorms.”

whitecoral Bleached coral. Photo by Ray Berkelmans, AIMS

While a lot of the computer model-based climate change scenarios yield foreseeable consequences of global warming out to the year 2050, 2070, or even 2100, we are already witnessing some of what scientists expect to take place in the distant future taking place now in different parts of the globe. Coral reefs are dying worldwide. Permafrost is melting. Each year seems to be ranked in the hottest ten on record. Tropical storms in the Atlantic and Pacific are increasing in frequency and intensity; and so forth. These are changes that have already been suggested verbally as well as in print for a couple of decades. They are no longer speculative changes. They are real.

Compounding physical and biological changes that are accompanying global warming (all observers admit that the climate has warmed in the 1900s by about 0.7 deg C) are demographic changes, such as in population growth and migration, land transformation and land use patterns, heightened exploitation of a wide range of natural resources, and increases in water and food shortages in many parts of the globe. In addition, there is a movement of populations worldwide toward coastal areas, areas that are increasingly going to be at risk to tropical storms, storm surges and sea level rise.

Scientists have repeatedly argued that for a degree warming in the mid-latitudes there would be a corresponding warming in the polar regions of 3 to 4 degrees. In other words the earliest visible signs of the impacts of global warming will likely appear first in the higher latitudes. And, they are! For example, a recent talk at St. Olaf University highlighted some results of a survey of changes in the Arctic and the Antarctic:

Sea ice extent in the Arctic has decreased by nearly 30% since the middle of the last century and the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by about a half degree Centigrade over a corresponding period, a greater change than anywhere else on the planet. This warming has led to the disintegration of several Peninsula ice shelves that had previously acted as a buttress, slowing the discharge of interior ice to the sea.

These reasons, only a few of the reasons that have led me to believe that the future has arrived earlier than expected, earlier than expected even by climate experts.


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