Sunday, February 17, 2019

Lost in the Chaos

With all the chaos that passes for headline news these days, including the deadly cold snap which defined the last week of January, there were several news items over just the last month which probably escaped your notice, but to me, are far more consequential in the long run than the current scandal de jour.

President Trump scoffed at the lately departed cold snap and tweeted that we sure could use “a little of that good old-fashioned Global Warming”.

Actually, no, we don’t.

Let’s talk about that “polar vortex” cold snap. What news outlets did not tell you is that while the US dealt with record cold temperatures, vast areas of the planet recorded temperatures up to 18 degrees ABOVE normal, including Northern Alaska, Spitsbergen (at 78 degrees north latitude), Northern China, AND Antarctica. Wildfires are currently rampant in Australia, where temperatures are routinely over 110 degrees right now.

A paper in the journal Science found that the world’s oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than they thought just 5 years ago, based on a new evaluation of data collected over the last few decades. Shallower waters show an acceleration of warming, when comparing trends from before and after the turn of the 20th century.

A study just released by NASA revealed that a huge cavity, 1000 feet thick and one third the area of Manhattan, has developed under the Thwaites Glacier, which itself is about the size of Florida. This glacier is already melting at an accelerated rate, so the existence of this cavity, which held about 14 billion tons of ice, is of great concern.

Newly published reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Antarctica’s ice loss has risen from 40 billion tons per year in the 1980s to 250 billion tons per year now. The rate of loss has tripled just since 2007.

On the other side of the planet, the ice sheet that covers Greenland is losing ice at a rate of 400 billion tons per year, four times more than in 2003. Scientists are beginning to wonder if the melting of the Greenland ice cap is at a “tipping point.”

What is a tipping point?

A tipping point is when any system changes from one stable state to another. A good analogy is a glass half full of water. It is stable even if you push it around on the table. However, if you start to lift up one side of the bottom of the glass, it will eventually get to the point where it tips over completely. It enters a new stable state, on its side with the water probably running of the edge of the table. Maybe the glass rolls of the edge of the table and smashes to pieces on the floor. That’s what we call an irreversible change of state.

What is a climate tipping point? It is a point where the process Earth’s changing climate becomes irreversible. The Earth enters a new state. Tipping points include unstoppable melting of the Greenland Ice Cap, permanent ice-free summers in the Arctic ocean, or collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to name but a few. Scientists used to think this process would take centuries. Not anymore.

The other take away from these articles is that researchers are no longer talking about taking action to reverse climate change, only slow it. What some of the authors are cautiously saying is that we might have already passed the point of no return.

When will we know for certain that the Earth has arrived at climate tipping point? When we get there.

Published in the Westborough News, February 15, 2019

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