Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tipping Points

With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change by Fred Pearce is not reassuring or comfortable. It is a scientifically-grounded explanation of climate change/global warming/freaky world changes.

It probably could only have been written by Mr. Pearce. He's been following the global-warming story as a journalist since about 1990 and because of that he was able to interview many of the principal researchers in the ongoing struggle to understand the process.

He presents four topics of interest. First, he explains the mechanics of climate change. If you're a little fuzzy on the ocean conveyor or methane clathrates he'll bring you up to speed. Second, he lays out the limits of knowledge. The parameters cover large ranges and he keeps clear the distinction between what is known and what isn't. Third, he covers the slipperiest part of the whole topic: tipping points; how they work and what happens when we reach them. He also discusses what the consequences of climate change are likely to be, bearing in mind the limits of certainty. We're going to say a little here about tipping points, based on the author's remarks.

Skeptics dismiss the concept of tipping points. You can't prove them, they say. Actually, you can prove some of them but it's not clear what will activate them. Some others aren't understood to the point they can be considered certain. It goes the other way too, though. There's no justification for traveling up the Keeling curve with insouciance. Before we jump into a pot of hot tar, common sense tells us we ought to find out how hot the tar is.

I'll go through the main tipping points the author describes.

* Shrinking ice caps. This one is maybe the most basic. As the ice caps shrink the world is absorbing more energy from the sun. Furthermore, the water released lubricates the glaciers' movements, causing the process to accelerate.

* Clearing of rain forests lowers the amount of rainfall downwind from them, whether it's done on purpose or by natural fires that result from drying out. As the vegetation burns and exposes the soil to sunlight, large amounts of CO2 are released.

* As frozen bogs thaw in the extreme north, rotting tundra releases methane, a terribly effective greenhouse gas.

* CO2 dissolved in the oceans is removed by marine organisms that use it to build structural body parts. If the CO2 level rises too high, ocean water becomes too acidic for the organisms to live and this CO2-removal mechanism disappears.

* Clathrates are layers of methane lying in deep ocean trenches where the pressure and temperature are extreme enough to keep them frozen. If ocean temperatures rise enough to thaw some of the methane then inevitably it will enter the atmosphere. But it could be worse: there are layers of methane gas under the clathrates, kept unfrozen by warmth from the earth. If the ocean melts through spots in the clathrates, large amounts of methane will escape.

* Clouds are a subject of considerable uncertainty. As water evaporates we expect to see more white, fluffy clouds that reflect solar energy. That may be why the world hasn't warmed more than it has. But if the atmosphere gets hot enough we'll see fewer fluffy clouds and more high, thin clouds. They admit more solar energy and intercept energy that otherwise would escape.

* The ocean conveyor is a superlong ocean current; one of the things it does is carry heat from the tropics to the north Atlantic, warming the US coast before it swings over and does the same for northern Europe. As it moves north to the Arctic region it cools and drops down to return under the north-moving stream. What if Greenland's ice melts? If it happens fast enough, a real possibility, the fresh water would cause the saltier and heavier water of the current to short-circuit; it would drop down to the return stream prematurely. Northern Europe would see severely cold conditions. Meanwhile, the tropics would warm up because of losing the Arctic cooling.

The author makes the point that this issue is different from the issues we're used to. Usually, when you learn more about a concern you find that it's not as alarming as you thought before. With global warming, the more you learn the more there is to worry about.

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