Monday, April 27, 2015

Climate Change In The Raw

Imagine a highway full of cars, all traveling at very high speed, and all of them simultaneously going out of control.  Something along those lines may be in store with climate change if we can't very quickly decarbonize our economies and our societies.

I've done a few online courses in climate change, fairly mundane stuff.  I'm doing one now that's head and shoulders above the rest.  This course is being presented by experts from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, one of the most prestigious organizations in this field.  The Potsdam Institute is funded by the German government.  This course is funded by the World Bank.

This week's lectures explore what awaits us if, despite all the warnings, our governments allow 4 degrees Celsius of warming which, by the way, is what the consensus concludes is likely to happen. I prefer to go through the week's lectures non-stop so I don't fall behind and can avoid the necessity of reviewing everything at week's end before taking the test.

Much of the information is pretty well known to anyone who reads news reports - sea level rise; disease and pest migration; both cyclical and sustained drought and flooding and so on.  Other impacts are less well known but equally problematical.

Rate of change is something not commonly discussed yet it should be central to our governmental responses.  Some impacts will be gradual, linear and mild. Others will be abrupt, potentially severe and unpredictable.  The critical point to take from this is that we really don't have the luxury of time to waste in taking effective action.  We're not overtaken by events beyond our control yet, not yet, but that point is far closer than most of us seem to believe.

Carbon capture and sequestration.  Leaving aside all of its drawbacks and pitfalls, CCS probably won't be ready for large scale implementation until around 2025.  However it will then take at least two decades to implement on a scale that will even remotely put a dent in our emissions problems.  That's time we just don't have.  In other words it could turn out to be a gimmick, a blunder with enormous consequences if we cling to the faint hope of CCS instead of going cold turkey on fossil fuels as quickly as possible.

One lecture discussed the "cascade."  This describes the synergy of climate change impacts on other climate change impacts.  In effect they become greater than the sum of their parts.  Some of these challenges include the loss of coral reefs triggering a collapse in marine biodiversity; abrupt changes to the Indian Monsoons, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet (itself being accelerated by black soot from wild fires in the tundra and Boreal forests); the potential collapse of the Amazon rainforest and the effects that will have not only on natural carbon sequestration but also precipitation patterns (Sao Paulo, etc.); the retreat of glaciers, especially in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush; the decline of the Atlantic Ocean conveyor; and something called the marine biological carbon pump.  To these you can add sea level rise, ocean acidification, biome loss (habitat destruction) and so on.  At some point we have to anticipate some or many of these impacts sort of ganging up on us, each bolstering the others, and that is going to be a wild ride.

Two new terms entering popular lexicon are "3 Sigma events" and "5 Sigma events."  3 Sigma events are what we now consider rare, extreme weather events. They're severe but we've endured them in the past.  They're going to become the new normal.  They will increase in duration, intensity and frequency.

5 Sigma events are coming.  We've had no experience of them.  They're unprecedented and and will render some parts of the world (the tropics and mid-latitudes of the northern hemisphere) uninhabitable.  Toward the latter part of the century these will become common.

By about 2080 the coolest summer months are projected to be "substantially hotter" than the warmest month we've known in human history.  As for the hottest months, fortunately most of us won't have to deal with that.

Ecosystems are changing everywhere, especially in the Arctic.  In temperate latitudes, Spring is now arriving 2-weeks earlier than the historic normal.  Crop zones are shifting away from the equator.  Frost line defences are failing, enabling the migration of pests and diseases.

As for the 2C target, getting ourselves on track to limit warming to 2C by 2100 has many payoffs ranging from giving ourselves vital time to implement adaptation strategies to giving species in peril essential time to migrate and avoid some loss of biodiversity.

There was a discussion about the need to move promptly on upgrading and replacing infrastructure that was designed and constructed for the demands of a climate that is now gone and won't be returning.  We need to design infrastructure to meet the climate loads that will be here in just a decade or two and that's a huge challenge.

Those are some of the most salient points covered in this week's lectures. They're pretty stark, especially in the context of what awaits us if we don't act boldly and without delay.  Do we have the will to do that?  I have my opinion as I'm sure you have yours.


Anonymous said...

Dana said...

I was wondering whether you had seen this.

The Mound of Sound said...

Dana, there are a number of renewable transit fuel projects like Audi's. Notice that they have constructed a "plant" to turn out 160 litres per day. And that plant requires wind, solar and hydro power energy to produce a barrel of syn-oil (158.987 litres to a barrel).

Next time you're passing through this town we'll get together and have a beer and I'll show you an amazing way that we can harvest countless millions of barrels of clean energy transit fuel and massively improve the BC economy in the process.

Anyong said...

Where can I avail myself of that information MOS??

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi, Anyong. Google "MOOC" which stands for massively open online course. Many universities put them on in a broad range of subjects. In Britain you can try FutureLearn which offers MOOCs from several universities. This Potsdam Institute programme came through another aggregator called Coursera.

Most of them have a list of upcoming courses, almost all of them free. You simply register with FutureLearn, Coursera, etc. and then sign up for courses of interest. They then contact you about three times prior to the start date. When the course begins just log in and dig in. Courses usually consist of taped lectures, normally with print outs, and assigned readings. Most have weekly or periodic tests.

Don't worry if you miss a course start date. Many of them are repeated every six months to a year or so.

There's no obligation to complete the course or to take any exams. You can select specific sub-topics of particular interest and ignore the rest. It's up to you.

I've done courses on war studies, food security, international law and climate change. There are dozens of fields of interest.

Steve said...

The earths HVAC system is too big and complicated for humans to fine tune, we better leave it to the sky God.

Northern PoV said...

Thanks Mound, an interesting and sad account.
Years ago I read that the "latency" of the effect of carbon was such that, should we shut down all emissions today (ie ~15 years ago) we would still be living on a much hotter less hospitable planet by mid-century.

I believe that most of the science community knows this and downplays it cause - it will cause such despair.

The high-tech crowd in California believes we will pull an energy 'black swan' out of the hat to save us, but we'll need a fix-the-climate black swan as well,

I do not believe there is a government anywhere in the world (or a political party that has a chance at power) that is taking this seriously. We are all in virtual denial.

And in case you don't already know it already here is an interesting source of climate news:
More about the cascade effect of climate change and the role methane is playing.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ N PoV - I think the latency of CO2 is well more than 150 years. We've already locked in about 1.5C by 2100 based on existing atmospheric emissions. The major impacts we're currently experiencing result from just 0.8C of warming to date. The additional warming, latent heating, we've already locked in will be enough to trigger severe weather events, notably heatwaves and drought, of much greater duration, intensity and frequency.

Scientists are now monitoring "tipping events" such as the thawing of the tundra and subsequent melting of the permafrost beneath triggering the release of massive amounts of once safely sequestered methane. That has the makings of a 'runaway' event that we've been warned must be averted at all costs. Unfortunately that horse may already be out of the barn. Sea bed methane is another increasing concern as the northern oceans warm.

Glaciologists are pretty sure that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have also passed a tipping point although it will be several centuries until they're fully melted (at least we hope so). Hard to tell whether that will mean 80-metres of sea level rise or more.

What infuriates me is that we think we can save ourselves by cutting our emissions without also addressing our overpopulation and per capita consumption crises. We, the human species, have become completely dependent, mortally dependent, on perpetual exponential growth and consumption of resources at levels far beyond Earth's carrying capacity.

An example of this is America's breadbasket region, the Great Plains, where the Ogallala aquifer has supported irrigation in no fewer than eight major grain states. In 60-years we have almost emptied the aquifer. To refill it, natural "recharge," is estimated to require 2,000 years. We've become so dependent on that groundwater that we've used up 2,000 years worth of it in less than a century.

There's a similar problem with desertification in southern Europe - Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece - where the terraced fields have turned to desert, exposing bed rock. Restoring arable soil to those areas is likewise estimated to take 2,000 years.

Meanwhile, in the course of just two centuries we have extracted and burned hundreds of millions of years of fossil fuels. What could possibly go wrong with that?