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Sobering New Numbers on Global Warming

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The Copenhagen Accord was largely window dressing meant to disguise the fact that so many had wasted so much time and so much money while accomplishing next to nothing.  But, possibly by accident, it did contain one crucially important number.  It formally recognized "the scientific view that the (permissible, eventual) increase in global temperature should be below two degrees C(elsius,)" about  3.6 degrees Fahrenheit between the base year and 2050. 

So, what does that mean in a practical sense?  Scientists presently estimate that we  can pour about 565 additional gigatons (Gtons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below an increase of two degrees.  As Bill McKibben writes in Rolling Stone, "'Reasonable,' in this case, means four chances in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter."

There are a number of problems with the agreed upon two degree C increase but a few stand above the others.  First, mid-century is twenty-seven years away but the worldwide rate of carbon emission is not falling; it's not even static.  It's increasing at a rate of about three percent per year and at that rate we will exceed the 565 Gton limit in sixteen years.  Stated another way,  world Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions are currently around 50 billion tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) per year and are growing rapidly. As the  terrestrial and marine ecosystems (carbon sinks) are unable to absorb all of the world's annual emissions, concentrations of GHGs in the atmosphere have increased, to around 445ppm of CO2e today and increasing at a  rate of around 2.5ppm per year. There have been efforts to use more renewable energy and improve energy efficiency (e.g. curly-q light bulbs) but these efforts have been marginal at best.  Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency's chief economist has said that, ". . . new data provide further evidence that the door to a two-degree trajectory is about to close."  In the same interview he added, "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees." That's almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction."

That's a pretty gloomy prediction but what if Dr. Birol is only half right?  Let's say the increase over the next fifty years is only three degrees Celsius.   At the Copenhagen summit, a spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: "Some countries will flat-out disappear." Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes, believes "Any number much above one degree involves a gamble, and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up." Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser, contributed this assessment, "If we're seeing what we're seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius (the amount we've already warmed over the base year), two degrees is simply too much."  NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet's most prominent climatologist, was even blunter: "The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster."

A spokesman representing a number of small island nations said that even a two degree C increase the world's mean temperature would threaten a great many small islands. 

Islands that have already disappeared are:

Lohachara and Suparibhanga Islands: These Indian islands, where more than 10,000 people lived, have already disappeared into the sea (Bay of Bengal). Scientists who have studies this case of disappearance have attributed the cause to global warming.
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New Moore Island, an uninhabited, tiny island in the Bay of Bengal, claimed by both India and Bangladesh, has disappeared beneath rising seas.  In other words,    thanks to a global warming caused rise in sea level, New Moore is no more.  On the plus side, I suppose, at least the dispute between India and Bangladesh has been settled.
Bermeja Island: This small island which was near Gulf of Mexico has already disappeared into the ocean. It featured prominently in the maps used between 16th and 19th centuries.

The list of endangered islands includes:
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Carteret Islands: These islands are also known as Carteret Atoll, Tulun Islands or Kilinailau Islands. Located in the South Pacific, these islands are expected to be totally submerged by 2015.

Maldives, a smallisland nation in the Indian Ocean. The high point is only 8 feet. Other places in the island are much lower. It the ocean level rises further, this island will disappear.

Vanuatu Island, also called the Republic of Vanuatu is another island nation in the South Pacific which may be submerged due to rising ocean level.

Tuvalu Islands, located between Australia and Hawaii, is, at its highest point, only 15 feet above sea level. Home to nearly 11,000 people, they have already started evacuating due to the rising waterline. New Zealand has agreed to grant refuge to 75 Tuvaluans every year. It is estimated that this island will disappear in 50 years from now.

Kiribati Island, officially known as the Republic of Kiribati. It is located in the central tropical Pacific Ocean and  also experiencing rising water levels.


Marshall Islands, formally called the Republic of Marshall Islands is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This island may become another victim of rising ocean levels.

Tonga Island, officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, is located in the South Pacific Ocean. If ocean levels rise, this island is likely to be at least partially, if not totally, submerged.

The Tyndall report  (Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act) also concludes that the present world's commitments to reduce emissions are consistent with at least a 3 degree C rise (50-50 chance) in temperature: a temperature not seen on the planet for around 3 million years, with serious risks of 5 degree C rise, a temperature  not seen for around 30 million years.

Let's look at the potential impact of these numbers from a different angle.  One thing we know for certain is that no life on earth is permanent.   Some species, in fact some whole genera, become extinct from completely natural processes.  Others are helped along by unnatural causes.  There have been five major extinction events in the history of our planet but one is particularly pertinent here, the Permian-Triassic extinction.  Occurring about 252 million years ago, the extinction at the Permian-Triassic boundary, the most deadly of the five major events, took place with increasing speed over a period of somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years.  It wiped out over eighty percent of the genera on land, and over 95 percent of those in the oceans.  It took ten million years for the planet to restore the level of biodiversity that existed prior to the Permian-Triassic extinction.  While its cause and its course are still open to some debate, a widely accepted theory holds that it started with an increase in the earth's mean temperature of about four degrees C precipitated by an eruption of the Siberian Traps.  I need to be clear here.  I'm not predicting that we are all going to become extinct in the near future.  My purpose is to give some perspective on the magnitude and power of the forces of nature with which we are tampering.

Here's another very graphic way of looking at how anthropogenic activities can effect a large land mass very quickly. The unexpectedly rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap provides a dramatic and sobering picture of the problem we face.

Greenland's Ice Melt from July 8, 2012 to July 12, 2012



NASA CAPTION: Extent of surface melt over Greenland's ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. In the image, the areas classified as "probable melt" (light pink) correspond to those sites where at least one satellite detected surface melting. The areas classified as "melt" (dark pink) correspond to sites where two or three satellites detected surface melting. The satellites are measuring different physical properties at different scales and are passing over Greenland at different times. As a whole, they provide a picture of an extreme melt event about which scientists are very confident. Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

NASA's cryosphere program manager, Tom Wagner explained  that, although this specific event may be part of a natural variation, "We have abundant evidence that Greenland is losing ice, probably because of global warming, and it's significantly contributing to sea level rise."  Other NASA scientists agreed with Dr Wagner's assessment saying that, while it is not possible to say definitively that the loss of the Greenland ice is the result of human activity, it is highly unlikely that anything other a significant change in climate could have caused this event.


Other statistics are equally alarming.  A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone and the oceans are thirty percent more acidic. Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter than normal, setting the stage for more frequent and stronger hurricanes and more devastating floods.  Kerry Emanuel, a highly regarded atmospheric scientist, a hurricane expert, director of MIT's Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate program and a staunch conservative added, " . . . and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up. "

In June,  just a week after the conclusion of the Rio de Janeiro conference, Arctic sea ice hit the lowest level ever observed in any June in recorded history, tropical storm Debbie poured over twenty inches of rain on Florida, the largest fire in New Mexico's history burned on and, in Colorado Springs, the most destructive fire in Colorado's history destroyed 346 homes, breaking a record set only the week before.

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Rodger Knight is a retired probation officer and amateur historian with a particular interest in the Depression and war years. He has a BA in English and History from Cal State University, San Bernardino and, for two years, was a graduate student (more...)
 

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This article and a followup post, More Sobering Ne... by Rodger Knight on Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 at 10:27:20 AM
Global Warming is one of three Ticking Time Bombs.... by Mark Goldes on Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 at 2:21:08 PM
(This is not a critisizm of Mr. Knight because we ... by Paul Repstock on Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 at 2:38:57 PM
So - Manila has been flooded by HEAVY rainfall for... by mrk * on Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 at 2:54:05 PM
For a lot of people, logic is only a style of rhet... by Bob Stuart on Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 at 3:52:55 PM
... by Michael Byron on Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012 at 4:55:56 PM
that American politicians like Senator Inhofe have... by Archie on Thursday, Aug 9, 2012 at 2:00:28 PM