Puddled meltwater very likely primed this ancient edge of the Antarctic’s Larsen Ice Shelf to rapidly disintegrate over just several weeks. This view of the splintered mix of frozen bergs is from a Feb. 21, 2002, satellite image.
An expert panel at the National Academy of Sciences is calling for an early warning system to alert us to abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change.
The committee says science can anticipate some major changes to the Earth that could affect everything from agriculture to sea level. But we aren’t doing enough to look for those changes and anticipate their impacts.
And this is not a matter for some distant future. The Earth is already experiencing both gradual and abrupt climate change. The air is warming up slowly, and we’re also seeing rapid changes such as the melting Arctic ice cap.
Anthony Barnosky, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, says abrupt change is the bigger worry.
“When you think about gradual changes you can kind of see where the road is and know where you’re going,” Barnosky said at a news conference unveiling the report Tuesday. “When you think about abrupt changes and threshold effects, the road suddenly drops out from under you. And it’s those kinds of things we’re suggesting we need to anticipate in a much more comprehensive way.”
Scientists know about some potential problems that could change the planet dramatically in a matter of years or decades. For example, sea level could quickly rise by as much as 25 feet if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to crumble into the sea.
Yet committee chairman James White, an earth scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder, says we’re not watching that ice sheet very carefully to measure how much warming seawater is weakening the ice.
“We should be measuring ocean temperatures near the ice sheet,” White said. “We should be measuring, far better, where the outlets are — where the glaciers go into the ocean. We don’t do that.”
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Panel Says Global Warming Carries Risk of Deep Changes
Continued global warming poses a risk of rapid, drastic changes in some human and natural systems, a scientific panel warned Tuesday, citing the possible collapse of polar sea ice, the potential for a mass extinction of plant and animal life and the threat of immense dead zones in the ocean.
In a report released Tuesday, the panel appointed by the National Research Council called for the creation of an early warning system to alert society well in advance to changes capable of producing chaos. Nasty climate surprises have occurred already, and more seem inevitable, perhaps within decades, panel members warned. But, they said, little has been done to prepare.
“The reality is that the climate is changing,” said James W. C. White, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who headed the committee on abrupt impacts of climate change. “It’s going to continue to happen, and it’s going to be part of everyday life for centuries to come — perhaps longer than that.”
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