Abrupt Climate Change
the Gold Rush):
The Atlantic Monthly January, 1998
"The Great Climate Flip-flop"
by William H. Calvin
One of the most shocking scientific realizations
of all time has slowly been dawning on us: the earth's climate does great
flip-flops every few thousand years, and with breathtaking speed.
The Great Climate
Flip-flop - 98.01
The New York Times
Sunday December 15, 2002
WILLIAM SPEED WEED
In April 3, the high temperature in New York City was
a balmy 77 degrees -- a full 17 degrees warmer than the previous day. New
Yorkers were delighted; many wore shorts. But what if the earth's whole climate
system were to snap warm like that? It would be anything but delightful. Imagine
the global temperature spiking 17 degrees in a decade. Enough polar ice could
melt to cause oceans to surge over New York, Amsterdam and Bangladesh faster
than people could build dikes or relocate to higher ground. A global warming
snap could wreak havoc on regional weather patterns: rain forests would dry up,
tundras would melt. Imagine a centuries-long, Sahara-hot drought setting upon
the West Coast and withering crops (and Californians).
situation bears little resemblance to the global-warming picture, currently in
vogue among policy makers, of a slow, steady warming that creeps along
imperceptibly year by year. This picture is dead wrong, according to a National
Academy of Sciences study published this year. Climate change often isn't
gradual. It's sudden and ferocious. When it happens, we won't have time to
The report, ''Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises,''
collates a mass of geological evidence showing that the earth's climate system
is a jumpy beast: long, dormant spells are overturned suddenly by drastic
events. Instead of smoothly transitioning over 10,000 years from ice age to warm
era, the earth jumps from one ''regime'' to another in just a few years. For
instance, 11,500-year-old ice cores taken from Greenland show that annual
precipitation doubled in three years and that the annual mean temperature jumped
14 degrees in just 10 years. ''That means a third to half of the warming that
took place between the last ice age and today all happened in one decade,'' says
Richard Alley, the Penn State geologist who presided over the study. Two dozen
such climate jumps have occurred in the last 100,000 years.
As for what
causes abrupt climate change, Alley says that ''nobody know what the triggers
are.'' Does that let us off the hook with greenhouse gas emissions? Not at all.
''The climate has changed most drastically when something was forcing it, like a
change in the earth's orbit around the sun,'' says Alley. ''Our emissions today
are definitely forcing the climate.'' William Nordhaus, a Yale economist who
also worked on the report, says that the impact of gradual global warming would
be relatively modest. But the ''abrupt stuff is more dangerous,'' he says.
''What we're triggering is in a sense irreversible. . . . If we flip into that
mode, it may be like that for 5,000 years.''
Friday March 1, 2002
Goodbye cruel world
A report by top US
scientists on climate change suggests that catastrophe could be
We live in a world that has become so
desensitised by watching calamities unfold on global television - both natural
and human-induced - that it takes something really spectacular even to get our
And it usually has to be visually dramatic to register, much
less elicit a deep emotional response - such as the tragic events of September
Recently, I came across a frightening report published by the US
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) - the nation's most august scientific body.
Yet, because there was no visually provocative content, the report had received
only a couple of short paragraphs tucked away inside a few
Here is what the academy had to say: it is possible that the
global warming trend projected over the course of the next 100 years could, all
of a sudden and without warning, dramatically accelerate in just a handful of
years - forcing a qualitative new climatic regime which could undermine
ecosystems and human settlements throughout the world, leaving little or no time
for plants, animals and humans to adjust.
The new climate could result in
a wholesale change in the earth's environment, with effects that would be felt
for thousands of years. If the projections and warnings in this study turn out
to be prophetic, no other catastrophic event in all of recorded history will
have had as damaging an impact on the future of human civilisation and the life
of the planet.
According to the study: "An abrupt climate change occurs
when the climate system is forced to cross some threshold, triggering a
transition to a new state at a rate determined by the climate system itself and
faster than the cause." Moreover, the paleoclimatic record shows that "the most
dramatic shifts in climate have occurred when factors controlling the climate
system were changing". Given the fact that human activity - especially the
burning of fossil fuels - is expected to double the CO2 content emitted into the
atmosphere in the current century, the conditions could be ripe for an abrupt
change in climate around the world, perhaps in only a few years.
really unnerving is that it may take only a slight deviation in boundary
conditions or a small random fluctuation somewhere in the system "to excite
large changes ... when the system is close to a threshold", says the NAS
The committee lays out a potentially nightmarish scenario in
which random triggering events take the climate across the threshold into a new
regime, causing widespread havoc and destruction.
collapse suddenly with forests decimated in vast fires and grasslands drying out
and turning into dust bowls. Wildlife could disappear and waterborne diseases
such as cholera and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and yellow
fever, could spread uncontrollably beyond host ranges, threatening human health
around the world.
The NAS concludes its report with a dire warning: "On
the basis of the inference from the paleoclimatic record, it is possible that
the projected change will occur not through gradual evolution, proportional to
greenhouse gas concentrations, but through abrupt and persistent regime shifts
affecting subcontinental or larger regions - denying the likelihood or
downplaying the relevance of past abrupt changes could be costly."
warming represents the dark side of the commercial ledger for the industrial
age. For the past several hundred years, and especially in the 20th century,
human beings burned massive amounts of "stored sun" in the form of coal, oil and
natural gas, to produce the energy that made an industrial way of life possible.
That spent energy has accumulated in the atmosphere and has begun to adversely
affect the climate of the planet and the workings of its many
We have affected the biochemistry of the earth and we have
done it in less than a century. If a qualitative climate change were to occur
suddenly in the coming century - within less than 10 years - as has happened
many times before in geological history, we may already have written our
When future generations look back at this period, tens of
thousands of years from now, it is possible that the only historical legacy we
will have left them in the geologic record is a great change in the earth's
climate and its impact on the biosphere.
· Jeremy Rifkin is the author of
The Biotech Century (Gollancz) and president of the Foundation on Economic
Trends in Washington DC
December 14, 2001
Be prepared: sudden shifts in climate
Data from ancient tree rings and ice cores suggest Earth may soon
experience intense periods of drought and cold.
By Robert C. Cowen |
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
concerned about forecasts of long-term global warming, you might be worried
about the wrong thing.
The US National Academy of Sciences warns that
sudden, unexpected climate change - on a scale that could cause widespread
drought or plunge Earth into a deep freeze - pose a more immediate
The evidence? Embedded in ancient tree rings and ice cores are
signs that quick, drastic change is a fundamental characteristic of Earth's
climate. These data show that the climate can switch abruptly from one mode -
such as an ice age - to another, such as a milder interglacial period,
Humans have no remembered experience of such sudden,
far-reaching shifts. If one were to occur in the near future, human civilization
could be vastly ill-equipped to adjust.
Early Civilizations Casualties of Rapid Climate Change ARCHAEOLOGY: What
Drives Societal Collapse? Science, Jan. 26, 2001 By Harvey Weiss and Raymond S.
Many lines of evidence now point to climate forcing as the
primary agent in repeated social collapse. These climatic events were abrupt,
involved new conditions that were unfamiliar to the inhabitants of the time, and
persisted for decades to centuries. They were therefore highly disruptive,
leading to societal collapse--an adaptive response to otherwise insurmountable
stresses. These past climatic changes were unrelated to human activities. In
contrast, future climatic change will involve both natural and anthropogenic
forces and will be increasingly dominated by the latter; current estimates show
that we can expect them to be large and rapid.
Triggering Abrupt Climate Change
A perspective on potential climate
changes presented by Dr. Robert B. Gagosian, President and Director of Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institution
Over the past two decades, we have heard
about greenhouse gases and the idea that our planet is gradually warming. I’d
like to throw a curveball into that thinking—specifically the “gradually
This new thinking is little known and scarcely
appreciated by policymakers and world and business leaders—and even by the wider
community of natural and social scientists. But evidence from several sources
has amassed and coalesced over the past 10 to 15 years. It points to a
completely different—almost counterintuitive—scenario.
Global warming could actually lead to a big chill in some parts of the world.
If the atmosphere continues to warm, it could soon trigger a dramatic and abrupt
cooling throughout the North Atlantic region—where, not incidentally, some 60
percent of the world’s economy is based.
When I say “dramatic,” I mean: Average winter temperatures could drop by 5
degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States, and by 10 degrees in the
northeastern United States and in Europe. That’s enough to send mountain
glaciers advancing down from the Alps. To freeze rivers and harbors and bind
North Atlantic shipping lanes in ice. To disrupt the operation of ground and air
transportation. To cause energy needs to soar exponentially. To force wholesale
changes in agricultural practices and fisheries. To change the way we feed our
populations. In short, the world, and the world economy, would be drastically
And when I say “abrupt,” I mean: These changes could happen within a decade,
and they could persist for hundreds of years. You could see the changes in your
lifetime, and your grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be confronting them.
And when I say “soon,” I mean: In just the past year, we have seen ominous
signs that we may be headed toward a potentially dangerous threshold. If we
cross it, Earth’s climate could switch gears and jump very rapidly—not
gradually— into a completely different mode of operation.
is an excellent site with many graphic illustrations]
Scientists Now Fear 'Abrupt' Global Warming
Climate: Severe and 'unwelcome' shifts could come in decades, not
centuries, a national academy says in an alert.
By USHA LEE
TIMES SCIENCE WRITER
December 12, 2001
-- Just six months after informing the White House that global warming is indeed
real, largely the result of human activity and likely to cause adverse effects,
the National Academy of Sciences issued an even more disturbing alert
Global warming, the academy reported, could trigger "large,
abrupt and unwelcome" climatic changes that could severely affect ecosystems and
Until recently, most discussion of global warming has
assumed that change would occur gradually, with average temperatures slowly
increasing over the next century. The idea that large changes in climate could
instead occur abruptly and with little warning has been percolating through the
climate research community but had remained controversial. The consensus report
from the academy indicates that the idea has reached the scientific
"We're reflecting the thinking," said Richard Alley, a Penn
State University climate expert and the report's lead author. "We're not driving
"We need to deal with this because we are likely to be surprised,"
A prime example of what scientists mean when they talk about
the possibility of abrupt change involves the Gulf Stream. It is a current of
warm water that runs from the Caribbean Sea across the Atlantic Ocean, keeping
the climate of northern Europe temperate.
Scientists know that in the
past, melting of arctic ice caused a flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic
that reversed the Gulf Stream.
Many scientists believe the current could
reverse again--over a period of a decade or two, rather than a century--leaving
much of Europe far colder than it now is.
"It's as if climate change were
a light switch instead of a dimmer dial," Alley said.
The possibility of
such abrupt changes complicates the task of policymakers in two ways. It could
mean that the amount of time available to adjust to climate change is much
shorter than government officials have thought. It also increases the
uncertainty of predictions, indicating that future climate cannot simply be
projected forward in a straight line from the present.
But officials of
the Global Climate Change Coalition, an industry group, warned against making
policy decisions on climate with science so uncertain.
highlights the uncertainties and complexities that remain," Frank Maisano, a
spokesman for the coalition, said of the report.
Other scientists said
the possibility of abrupt climate change made it even more important that the
federal government establish a reliable climate monitoring system. Federal
agencies have been unwilling to spend the estimated $10 million to $15 million
needed for the system, said Bruce A. Wielicki, a climate researcher at NASA's
Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., who was not involved with the new
Daily University Science News
Warming May Increase Risk Of Sudden Climate Change
climate change research has focused on gradual changes, such as the processes by
which emissions of greenhouse gases lead to warming of the planet.
new evidence shows that periods of gradual change in Earth's past were
punctuated by episodes of abrupt change, including temperature changes of about
10 degrees Celsius, or 18 degrees Fahrenheit, in only a decade in some
A new report from the National Academies' National Research
Council says greenhouse warming and other human alterations of the climate
system may increase the possibility of large, abrupt, and unwelcome regional or
global climatic events.
Researchers do not know enough about such events
to accurately predict them, so surprises are inevitable.
If the planet's
climate is being forced to change -- as is currently the case -- it increases
the number of possible mechanisms that can trigger abrupt events, the report
says. And the more rapid the forced change that is taking place, the more likely
it is that abrupt events will occur on a time scale that has immediate human and
Sudden climate transitions during the Quaternary
by Jonathan Adams,
Mark Maslin, & Ellen Thomas
All the evidence indicates that most
long-term climate change occurs in sudden jumps rather than incremental changes.
Until a few decades ago it was generally thought that all large-scale
global and regional climate changes occurred gradually over a timescale of many
centuries or millennia, scarcely perceptible during a human lifetime. The
tendency of climate to change relatively suddenly has been one of the most
suprising outcomes of the study of earth history, specifically the last 150,000
years. Some and possibly most large climate changes (involving, for example, a
regional change in mean annual temperature of several degrees celsius) occurred
at most on a timescale of a few centuries, sometimes decades, and perhaps even
just a few years.
September 26, 2002
Into the cold?
Slowing ocean circulation
could presage dramatic – and chilly – climate change
By Robert C.
Cowen | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Call it global
warming's dirty little secret. Those much-publicized scenarios of how
carbon-dioxide (CO2) pollution may gradually heat up the earth don't tell you
another key fact: that climate has sometimes changed without warning. It can go
from warm to cold – or cold to warm – in less than decade, and stay that way for
Water-circulation data from the North Atlantic now suggest
the climate system may be approaching that kind of threshold. If man-made
warming or natural causes push it over the edge, the system will chill down many
temperate parts of North America and Europe, even while the planet as a whole
continues to warm.
Terrence Joyce, chairman of the physical-oceanography
department at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, is one of a
handful of scientists trying to raise awareness about this possibility. He says
he is "not predicting an imminent climate change – only that once it started
(and it is getting more likely) it could occur within 10 years."
DISCOVER Vol. 23 No. 9 (September 2002)
Table of Contents
New Ice Age
Worried about global warming? Talk to a few scientists at
Woods Hole. Oceanographers there are seeing big trouble with the Gulf Stream,
which warms both North America and Europe
By Brad Lemley
could happen in 10 years," says Terrence Joyce, who chairs the Woods Hole
Physical Oceanography Department. "Once it does, it can take hundreds of years
to reverse." And he is alarmed that Americans have yet to take the threat
seriously. In a letter to The New York Times last April, he wrote, "Recall the
coldest winters in the Northeast, like those of 1936 and 1978, and then imagine
recurring winters that are even colder, and you'll have an idea of what this
would be like."
A drop of 5 to 10 degrees entails much more
than simply bumping up the thermostat and carrying on. Both economically and
ecologically, such quick, persistent chilling could have devastating
consequences. A 2002 report titled "Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable
Surprises," produced by the National Academy of Sciences, pegged the cost from
agricultural losses alone at $100 billion to $250 billion while also predicting
that damage to ecologies could be vast and incalculable. A grim sampler:
disappearing forests, increased housing expenses, dwindling freshwater, lower
crop yields, and accelerated species extinctions.
reason for such huge effects is simple. A quick climate change wreaks far more
disruption than a slow one. People, animals, plants, and the economies that
depend on them are like rivers, says the report: "For example, high water in a
river will pose few problems until the water runs over the bank, after which
levees can be breached and massive flooding can occur. Many biological processes
undergo shifts at particular thresholds of temperature and precipitation."
Political changes since the last ice age could make
survival far more difficult for the world's poor. During previous cooling
periods, whole tribes simply picked up and moved south, but that option doesn't
work in the modern, tense world of closed borders. "To the extent that abrupt
climate change may cause rapid and extensive changes of fortune for those who
live off the land, the inability to migrate may remove one of the major safety
nets for distressed people," says the report.
[Read the complete National Academy of Sciences report on
Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable
Large, abrupt climate changes have
repeatedly affected much or all of the Earth, locally reaching as much as 10
degrees C change in 10 years. Available evidence suggests that abrupt climate
changes are not only possible but likely in the future, potentially with large
impacts on ecosystems and societies.
This report is an attempt to
describe what is known about abrupt climate changes and their impacts, based on
paleoclimate proxies, historical observations, and modeling. The report does not
focus on large, abrupt causes-nuclear wars or giant meteorite impacts - but
rather on the surprising new findings that abrupt climate change can occur when
gradual causes push the earth system across a threshold. Just as the slowly
increasing pressure of a finger eventually flips a switch and turns on a light,
the slow effects of drifting continents or wobbling orbits or changing
atmospheric composition may "switch" the climate to a new state. And, just as a
moving hand is more likely than a stationary one to encounter and flip a switch,
faster earth-system changes - whether natural or human-caused - are likely to
increase the probability of encountering a threshold that triggers a
still-faster climate shift.
The new paradigm of an abruptly changing
climatic system has been well established by research over the last decade, but
this new thinking is little known and scarcely appreciated in the wider
community of natural and social scientists and policy-makers. At present, there
is no plan for improving our understanding of the issue, no research priorities
have been identified, and no policy-making body is addressing the many concerns
raised by the potential for abrupt climate change. Given these gaps, the US
Global Change Research Program asked the National Research Council to establish
the Committee on Abrupt Climate Change and charged the group to describe the
current state of knowledge in the field and recommended ways to fill the
POLITICS- A BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM
We point out that global warming
has been part of earth's climate for millions of years. It isn't a "liberal vs.
conservative" issue, it's a geological fact. Right now, liberals favor funding
for global warming research and conservatives are against it. Liberals want
support for the academic institutions where most of them work. Conservatives
want to protect the profits of the companies that give them their
The whole argument is absurd. This is not a political issue,
it's a people issue. Liberal or conservative, it's something we've got to be
concerned about. And as far as global warming not happening-that's just a
fantasy. It's happening all right. But it's also true that it's part of the way
the earth's climate works. We haven't caused it. But perhaps we've sped it up,
and if we stopped bickering and started funding the in-depth science that's
needed, maybe we could understand it well enough to prepare for the future. But
two sides sitting across a table, one blaming human activity and the other
saying that it isn't even happening-that gets us nowhere.
next step is to fund more study and monitoring of ocean currents, especially the
North Atlantic Current. The oceans are the key to the weather. With a good
monitoring system in place, we might be able to gain many years of warning of
impending climate change, so that we could take the steps necessary to prevent
or at least forestall it. Unfortunately, the artificial debate about whether or
not global warming is real has frozen congress solid. There is not enough money
for studies like this, and many congressmen fight it constantly, doing immense
damage to the scientific community with 'funding warfare.' You can change that
by writing your congressman and telling him that you've read The Coming Global
Superstorm and you want funding for climatological and oceanographic research
Let's take this issue off the liberal-conservative table and put it
where it belongs, on the list of things we need to deal with on behalf of our
children and grandchildren.
[Authors Strieber and Bell may be a little
'out there' (!?), but the above statement as it stands does seem to get it
Sunday April 1, 2001
President Who Bought Power and Sold the World
George Bush's decision to
ignore global warming and pull the plug on Kyoto is payback for the energy
industries which backed him. The story behind the singular determination of Bush
to fly in the face of world opinion, the sentiments of most Americans and even
many in his own government reveals adherence to ideological rigor and a payment
of debts to the business interests that helped him to the White House - above
all, oil and coal. Oil runs through every sinew and vein of the Bush
administration; rarely, if ever, has a Western government been so intimately
entwined with a single industry.
Yahoo! Full Coverage: Climate Change (Coverage Updated Daily)
Surviving Climate Change
[Many links relating to climate change