On the heels of my previous interview with climatologist John Abraham, here’s round two.
In the past month (since he and I last met), U.S. weather has gone wild. Crazy rain and flooding in some areas while extreme drought bakes over 60% of the country. So, while a remaining politically–neutral, yet deeply concerned citizen, I really wanted to get a sense of what the future might have in store for all of us, if the current trends continue.
FutureDude: It’s been a heck of a summer for weather and climate-related events around the world. Since the last time we talked, are their any major climate milestones or new information?
John Abraham: What we’ve seen of the last few years (and it’s gotten really intense this year)— we’re seeing climate change appear with our own eyes. There are a number of indicators from the natural world that we can see. We can see climate change happening today.
One of the things I’ve been watching very closely is the amount of ice and how fast that ice is melting. There are different kinds of ice. There’s ‘land-based ice’. For an example of that you can think of Glacier National Park. Places with ice on the tops of mountains.
There are big ‘ice sheets’ — the two biggest in this world being on the South Pole and on Greenland. And then there is ‘floating ice’ or ‘sea ice’. The biggest region of floating ice is near the North Pole. If you took the ice there away, it would be water.
It turns out that the floating sea ice is disappearing at a really rapid rate, and this year we’re very close to setting a record for the amount of ice we’ve lost. It’s August and there’s another month remaining for the melt and we’ve almost tied the low already. Unless things change, we’re going to reach a record low within a few weeks.
So, when we’re talking about timescale, I know science views time on a number of levels — geological time, for example. Is there what you would term a ‘climate timescale’? How do you look at climate in terms of time?
Boy, that’s a great question! In the climate there are a bunch of timescales. There are really short, quick things that happen and then there are really slow things. The atmosphere reacts extremely quickly.
If an El Nino forms, which is a high-temperature area of the Pacific, the atmosphere changes quickly. If we have a volcano that erupts — that puts a lot of particles in the air — that can cool the planet right away. So the air reacts immediately.
The oceans react sometimes right away and sometimes slowly. If we heat the upper part of the ocean it may take a year or two to respond, maybe even sooner. But, the deep apart of the ocean won’t feel it for a hundred or a thousand years, because it can take that long for that hot water to get down to the bottom.
So the ocean has two timescales. Ice sheets have long timescales as well. Greenland may not melt for a hundred or two hundred years. But, the Arctic ice, the floating ice, that will react faster. So ice has different timescales depending on what kind of ice it is.
I think most people think about these long timescales and believe that they are so slow that it will give us time to react.
It may seem like it, but not exactly. The longer the timescale, the more inertia a process has. Compare the ocean to the atmosphere. The atmosphere is like a motorcycle — it’s easy to accelerate and easy to stop. The ocean is like a train — it takes miles to accelerate, but you can’t stop it easily once it gets going.
While the train is accelerating, you may think we’ve got time to take action. In fact, it’s really more important to take action quicker, because it takes a long time to turn it. So the things that act fast are easy to stop fast. The things that act slowly take longer to stop. So it’s really a double-edged sword.
So, you’re seeing unprecedented changes — things are happening right before your eyes. If our climate continues on its current path, what do you predict for the near future?
Well, considering that the vast majority of human societies haven’t shown much of a willingness at all to do anything about it, the projected future could be quite bleak. People are starting to accept climate change. About 70% of Americans now believe that the climate is warming.
I recently read that a major global warming denier, UC Berkeley professor Richard Mueller, totally reversed his views on climate change.
Not only did he reverse his views, he says it’s actually worse than other scientists have previously thought. According to him, the data points to it being worse than NASA and NOAA have said. So it’s actually far beyond changing his tune. People are starting to realize we are changing the climate. But we haven’t done much for action.
We’ve increased fuel standards for cars and for renewable energy development. But, by far, most of our energy still comes from coal and fossil fuels. If we continue on that track it could get pretty bad.
Now, what does ‘pretty bad’ mean? We could be about five degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the end of the century. You might say that doesn’t sound like much, but think about it. We’re having one of the hottest summers on record. July was THE hottest on record. That record was only point two degrees higher than average. Point two degrees! And we’re talking five degrees!
Wow… (nervous laughter) A small temperature increase on average really matters. That said, we’ve had all of these wild fires and floods. Is that connected to a ‘point two degree’ increase?
All sorts of things are happening, including fish kills here in the Upper Midwest. Fish have literally been dying in lakes because it’s too hot for them to live. Colorado had tremendous wild fires this summer. They also had the earliest melt of their mountain snows — which means runoff had slowed and you had a lot less moisture in the soil.
Now, would they have had fires without that early melt? Maybe? Would they have been as bad? Probably not. So, climate change takes events and makes them more likely and more severe. The point is: these things have real consequences.
Tell me about four and five degree changes. What would we see?
Before climate change, the drought we had this year would have been a one in 300-year occurrence. And it’s now a one in 10 to 20-year occurrence. So, it’s making these things much more common. And as we go further, this drought will become the standard.
How will society react to that? It will be tough.
There are two studies that just came out in the last month that have shown very conclusively that the number of extreme weather events has increased and gotten more severe. One came out of NASA and the other came out of NCAR — the National Center for Atmospheric Research. They didn’t even include this year’s data. It’s not just that this is what climate change is like. This will be a good year in the future.
So, if the climate changes slowly, we could be lucky and still fix things. What if it shifts rapidly?
If we pass a ‘tipping point’ — like the full release of methane in Siberia — we may not be able to regain control. We can still do something about it right now.
One thing that I have found really fascinating lately are these extreme downpours.
Right. Rain is coming in bursts.
I saw this amazing picture of rain over New York City; Manhattan was getting blasted back in July.
And it’s not just the United States… Beijing, Japan, Malaysia. There was a town in India that got hit with 27 inches in one day. You can’t even fathom that! The way that this happens is just common sense. It’s more humid in summer, because the air is able to hold more moisture. As we warm the planet, we’re putting more moisture into the air.
It’s because the heat is causing more evaporation.
That’s right, we’ve measured about a 3 percent increase of water in the air. It doesn’t seem like much, but we’re packing the atmosphere with heat, energy, and water. And it comes out! So, when downpours occur, they’re in bigger bursts and heavier storms. We scientists call them ‘intense precipitation events’ — but really they’re just crazy bad storms.
We’ve talked a lot about the weather. What about sea level rise?
We have what are called ‘tidal gauges’ and they’re near the coasts. We also have satellite altimetry where lasers are used to measure levels. Regardless of how you measure it, the sea level is rising. Just about every material expands as it heats up. Water is the same way. So the oceans are expanding.
Also, as things heat up, ice is melting. Scientists expected Greenland would lose ice and we’ve seen some very large ice sheets break off the edge of Greenland this year. It’s contributing 280 gigatons of water a year to the world’s oceans. The same is true of the South Pole. The best estimate is three to four feet of ocean rise by the end of the century. The rate of rise has doubled since the 70’s.
I bet a lot of people hear three to four feet and think that isn’t that big of a deal. The oceans are thousands of feet deep.
Next time you go to a beach, imagine three to four more feet of water. Beaches are flat all over the world. That water covers more that just beaches, it encroaches into cites.
We have a lot of cities that lie on the coasts. It threatens infrastructure; water in streets can be a real problem. It infiltrates fresh water supply, making it salty (which is a huge problem). Third, it makes storm surges worse. So when you have storms, the higher seas push water levels even higher — thus your natural defenses and barriers to waves are weakened.
Think about Bangladesh: 160 million people live there with 20 to 30 million living within three feet of the ocean. How would you deal with 30 million refugees?
Serious displacement. With most people residing on coasts around the world, three to four feet matters a lot. You’d be talking about hundreds of millions, if not billions displaced by sea level rise.
Miami and New Orleans would be inundated with sea level rise. Try relocating those entire cities. It’s an expensive proposition. People say, “Oh, scientists will invent something and figure it out”. Yeah, we’ll adapt, but at tremendous cost.
Serious food for thought.
Yes. It is.
In late September, I’ll conduct the final interview of this three-part series. By then, I’ll have traveled down under to visit Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to witness, first hand, the damage being wrought by our rapidly shifting and warming climate. It should be quite an adventure!
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