Last month a news item about climate change caught my attention. It seems president Johnson had been warned about the effects of climate change back in his term, some fifty years ago. The following is an article I submitted to the Tahoe Mountain News., only this month
Abrupt Climate Change by George W. Drake C.Ph. based on the Nye lecture, 14-12-16, at the AGU fall meeting last year.
Although Dr. White’s talk (referenced above and available online) was about evidence from ice core samples showing climate at the AGU fall meeting.
Although Dr. White’s talk (referenced above and available online) was about evidence from ice core samples showing climate change in eons past had often been abrupt, his most striking point was that the changes we are observing in real time at the present appear to be indicative of our undergoing abrupt climate change now.
Although he said there were numerous indicators demonstrating this point, including ground water loss, ocean acidification and species extinction, he chose to elaborate on Arctic Sea ice. Due to warming and melt over the past thirty or forty years, the Arctic Sea ice is now almost entirely composed of ice less than a couple of years old. Historically, the age was in excess of five or ten years. Older ice is substantially thicker than newer ice and melts more slowly. The result is that the Arctic sea is on the brink of going completely ice free. Unlike the Antarctic or Greenland, the Arctic Ocean has little effect on sea levels around the world, yet the implications of abrupt climate change are profound.
One of the beneficial side effects of such a phenomenon is the opening of a new frontier here on Earth. Many lands once almost totally unusable to humans will soon be mainly inhospitable only to the extent that winter nights will be long. In view of the surge in people driven from their homelands by rising sea levels, this frontier can be expected to fill in rapidly. Unfortunately, abrupt climate change has negative effects as well.
Currently, many scientists don’t look beyond 2050, perhaps because the global rise in sea level is forecast to be manageable in that time frame–only something like one meter in a century–maybe less than one-half a meter in one-half a century. But this fails miserably to reflect the possibility of abrupt climate change. If abrupt climate change occurs in the Antarctic and Greenland, the rate is apt to be many times that, say one meter per twenty or thirty years. That’s about as long as most mortgages. By the time you’ve paid off the mortgage, your coastal property is liable to be underwater in more ways than just economically.
Ice cores show, by the way, that such rapid changes in sea level have often occurred in the past.
Finally Dr. White listed three items he regards as essential if we hope to deal with climate change: We must regard it as generational–if we really love our children, we have to act; we have to deal with population, which can only happen through empowering women; and we have to see a much better distribution of wealth throughout the world–at least care for the poorer people on the planet.
I think this a good time to discuss why scientists have been slow to call all this to our attention. As many of you know, I’ve spent a career in their company. I taught college level mathematics for over forty years and routinely went to scientific conferences. Suffice it to say that scientific types I met there are not slandered by the stereotype of “booooring.” Going out on a limb is not characteristic of many of them. More than anything else, it is in their nature to wait until they are absolutely sure before they raise their hand to point out a natural consequence. Nothing is so humiliating as being wrong. Pointing things out can be professionally dangerous.
That is why hearing about abrupt climate change through a public lecture at the AGU conference is terribly frightening to me. Maybe we have already moved to a new climate in California. Maybe the last several winters have not been so much the exception as the new rule. What if the drought lasts, not for just a few more years, but for a few more decades? How long can runoff and pollution feed a lake with no natural outlet before it becomes green instead of pristine?
These are not happy questions. Let’s hope they are not ones we ever have to ask again. Pray for rain, or, better, snow. And stop ignoring science. Let’s do what we can to prepare for climate change while there may still be time.