Thoughts on climate crisis speed — Polar ice “retreated faster than anyone expected, record smashed to smithereens”

UPDATE: A complete list of 2012 climate series pieces is available here: The Climate series: a reference post.

This post is not about the Arctic, but it starts there. The Guardian (my emphasis and paragraphing):

[Arne] Sorensen has sailed deep into ice at both poles for 30 years, but this voyage is different, he says. The edge of the Arctic ice cap is usually far south of where we are now at the very end of the melt season.

More than 600,000 square kilometres (sq km) more ice has melted in 2012 than was ever recorded by satellites before. … “This is the new minimum extent of the ice cap,” he says, the “frontline of climate change“. “It is sad. I am not doubting this is related to emitting fossil fuels to a large extent. It’s sad to observe that we are capable of changing the planet to such a degree.”

But that’s not my main point. This is closer:

The vast polar ice cap, which regulates the Earth’s temperature and has been a permanent fixture in our understanding of how the world works, has this year retreated further and faster than anyone expected.

Here’s what that means, ice-wise:

The previous record, set in 2007, was officially broken on 27 August when satellite images averaged over five days showed the ice then extended 4.11 million sq km, a reduction of nearly 50% compared to just 40 years ago.

But since 27 August, the ice just kept melting – at nearly 40,000 sq km a day until a few days ago. Satellite pictures this weekend showed the cap covering only 3.49m sq km. This year, 11.7m sq km of ice melted, 22% more than the long-term average of 9.18m sq km. The record minimum extent is now likely to be formally called on Monday by the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Colorado.

The record hasn’t just been broken, it’s been smashed to smithereens, adding weight to predictions that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer months within 20 years, say British, Italian and American-based scientists on board the Arctic Sunrise. They are shocked at the speed and extent of the ice loss.

If you’re hearing a theme, it’s that things are happening faster than anyone anticipated. That’s my main point. All of our models are wrong in the same direction — the bad one.

Climate predictions are consistently wrong to the slow side

Nearly all recent predictions of global warming speed have been wrong to the slow side. The crisis is proceeding faster than expectations, and that should scare the whole of humanity.

Scientists are conservative by nature, so their predictions are near the conservative end of their data. Paid deniers — the “tobacco scientists” of our day — have relentlessly attacked the honest investigators, making them even more conservative than usual.

But every story we’ve gotten lately has been about speed — how the speed and extremity surprises everyone. Look again at Figure 1 from the Copenhagen Diagnosis (pdf) document prepared by the world’s climate scientists for the December 2009 Copenhagen climate conference:


The predictions were made in 2000 or so. The data was laid in later, through 2009. Wrong to the slow side. At what point should we, you and I, start building unexpected speed into our personal models and expectations?

My personal climate model

My personal climate model goes like this:

■ Based on Figure 21 from the Copenhagen Diagnosis (pdf; click for high-res version), I put 1½°C arriving shortly after 2020. Call it 2022 for a clean decade from now.

Note: All science in this field is done in °C. For the same in Fahrenheit, see the end of this post. The conversion is 5:9 — roughly double to get the Fahrenheit number. 1°C = slightly less than 2°F.

■ We’re at .8°C now [2012] with an equal amount, totaling 1½°C, in the pipeline and guaranteed. When we get to 1½°C, will 3°C (the start of “mass extinction“) also be in the pipeline? If that 1:2 ratio (0.8°C now : 1.5°C coming) holds, I’d say Yes. [Update: As of mid-2014, the total including the pipeline is now 2°C.]

■ If true, we’ll know in a decade if the “mass extinction” scenario is inevitable. Would I love to be wrong? Of course; I plan to be alive in a decade. But should we plan on having more time than a decade to dither and coddle the rich? You pick — choices are Yes and No.

■ Using Figure 21 again, when does 3°C actually arrive? The most aggressive scenario gives us actual 3°C between 2050–2060.

■ If so, that’s all she wrote. In 2055, say, when 3°C shows up, I’ll bet all I own that 6°C is in the pipeline. 2055 will mark the start of a new geological era.

Even if I’m off by, say, twenty years, it’s still our children’s lifetime we’re talking about. I’m going to check this carefully, but I don’t think I am off. Remember, recent predictions have been consistently wrong to the slow side. That’s what this post is about.

Do we want to close the door on the Age of Large Mammals?

Geologic eras are very large divisions. The Mesozoic (“middle life” or large reptiles) Era sits between two mass extinctions, the one that opened the door for big dinosaurs (about 250 million years ago) and the one that closed it (about 65 million years ago). That’s 185 million years by my math.

We’re now in the Cenozoic (“new life” or large mammals) Era. That started 65 million years ago and is still going on. But a mass extinction on the order of either of the previous two would close that door and open another. Do we end the “era of large mammals” at that point?

Either way, we’ve triggered a world-historical event — assuming we’re around to record it.

Bottom line

If I’m right (and everyone playing this game has been wrong to the slow side), mark your calendars. Sometime in the next 10 years or so, we’ll know if we’ve pulled back from the brink or leaped over it. By that I mean: If I’m right and we reach 1½°C by 2025 — the U.S. has just 35 years to pack its bags and move to Canada, a country that will still be able to grow things and maintain a national electrical grid.

Ready for the near-term geopolitical question of the century? What are the odds the Canadian government will let us all in? (Me, I place that at zero, but that’s just a guess. Some people think we’re universally loved.)

The next climate post will review the five-pronged approach I think is needed to put the current effort into a higher gear, and then we’ll press on from there. Stay tuned. This is not over; just urgent. And this time the planet is helping to make the case.

Help for the Centigrade-disabled: 0.8°C = 1½°F; 1½°C = 3°F; 3°C = 5½°F; 6°C = you don’t want to live there (more or less).


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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