The American Museum of Natural History/NY (AMNH-NY) conducted a survey about the likelihood of a mass extinction event. The majority of the 400 scientists polled were convinced that a “mass extinction of plants and animals is underway,” posing a threat to humanity in the next century. According to that same poll, the public is “dimly aware” of this threat of an extinction event.
The AMNH-NY survey took place in the year 1998; thus, “the next century” that they referenced is here now. Also, since 1998, above and beyond additional loss of habitat for plants and animals, the state of the climate has deteriorated considerably. Here’s why: Global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from burning fossil fuels, i.e., oil, gas, and coal, have increased, on an annualized basis, by nearly 50% over the past 16 years (Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee). Ipso facto, the world’s climate has turned turbulent.
Perilously, the planet does not divulge extinction events. Rather, extinctions are clandestine, shrouded in mystery, and occur far away from where humans tread. Extinctions start under the water, at the top of the world, and in far away places unpopulated, remote, and hidden from the wandering eye of the human species, unbeknownst until it is too late.
Ergo, stating the obvious, the worst possible outcome for the planet is an extinction event because geologic history shows that 75% to 90% of all life is wiped out. But, without question, an extinction event takes some time to complete, like centuries or millennia, or longer, something along those lines.
Still, what if an extinction event is on steroids, happening much, much faster than geologic history indicates?
This article explores the possibility that an extinction event is on steroids, right now, threatening all humanity.
To prove the point, this article examines peer-review scientific articles and leading scientists, their views of the danger of a tipping point (no turning back) occurrence and/or whether the world is already in the zone. As such, the eminent and prestigious National Academies has already weighed-in on three prominent trouble spots where abrupt climate change may be festering right now. Whether those trouble spots trigger a tipping point, only time will tell.
According to: Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change, Anticipating Surprises, National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., December 2013: “The history of climate on the planet— as read in archives such as tree rings, ocean sediments, and ice cores— is punctuated with large changes that occurred rapidly, over the course of decades to as little as a few years.”
At the same time, it is important to emphasize that the geologic history the report references occurred millions of years ago before humans started artificially influencing the climate by emitting tonnes and tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of greenhouse gases. Alas, scientific research shows that climate change may very well be on steroids, changing faster than ever, at breakneck speed when contrasted to the historical record.
The National Academies’ 200-page report, as of December 2013, detailing the risks of abrupt climate change, identifies three primary risk areas of abrupt climate change this century: (1) the ocean; (2) the Arctic; (3) Antarctica. Two of these are already out of the starting blocks, up and running.
Ocean acidification today is unprecedented, much faster than any time over the past 300 million years, “… at least 10 times faster than 56 million years ago,” according to Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Oceans Acidifying Faster Today Than in Past 300 Million Years, National Science Foundation, Press Release 12-041, March 1, 2012.
In that regard, the National Research Council of the National Academies’ report concludes: If ongoing pressures of climate change continue, meaning the burning of fossil fuels, then deeper, more pronounced, abrupt climate changes would likely occur before the year 2100.
As of today, fossil fuels are burning more than ever before. Meantime, research confirms that global warming has accelerated over the past 15 years, not slowed as expressed by global warming contrarians (Source: Magdalena A. Balmaseda, et al, Distinctive Climate Signals in Reanalysis of Global Ocean Heat Content, Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 40, Issue, May 10, 2013, 9, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50382).
Indeed, an extinction event in the ocean is already under observation: “… nearly all marine life forms that build calcium carbonate shells and skeletons studied by scientists thus far have shown deterioration due to increasing carbon dioxide levels in seawater,” Dr. Richard Feely and Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographers, Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, April 2006.
The science is not circumstantial: “…sufficient information exists to state with certainty that deleterious impacts on some marine species are unavoidable, and that substantial alteration of marine ecosystems is likely over the next century,” Victoria J. Fabry, et al, Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Fauna and Ecosystem Processes, ICES Journal of Marine Sciences, Oxford Journals, Vol. 65, Issue 3, Feb. 2008.
Humans are already starting to notice the effects: “The first direct impact on humans may be through declining harvests and fishery revenues….” Sarah R. Cooley, et al, Anticipating Ocean Acidification’s Economic Consequences for Commercial Fisheries, IOP Science, Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2009.
“Ocean acidification is appearing in Washington decades sooner than anticipated….” Ocean Acidification and Washington State, Department of Ecology, State of Washington, 2013. The state of Washington was initially alerted to the inherent danger of excessive carbon dioxide (CO2) in the water when oyster larvae in hatcheries died in large numbers, threatening the state’s $270 million shellfish industry.
“This report really draws attention to a problem that exists internationally but that has really hit hard right here in the state of Washington,” Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rising Ocean Acidity off Washington State Threatens Shellfish, Panel Says, The Associate Press (AP), Nov. 27, 2012.
By all appearances, an extinction event has already started in the ocean as the result of excessive levels of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. And, this dilemma is bound to grow bigger and bigger and escalate ever more rapidly as 1,200 coal-burning power plants worldwide are currently on the drawing boards (75% in China and India), which, in turn, will ramp up the sourcing behind ocean acidification, which is already clocking 10 times faster than anytime throughout geologic history. Does marine life have a fighting chance?
According to Alex Rogers, PhD, professor of Conservation Biology, University of Oxford and Scientific Director, International Programme on the State of the Ocean: “The change we’re seeing at the moment is taking place extremely rapidly… We’re seeing levels of pH [a measure of acidity] in the ocean that probably haven’t been experienced for 55 million years… I find it very difficult to tell people what a scary situation we’re in at the moment. The oceans are changing in a huge way, and I am particularly worried for my grandchildren. The changes we thought would happen in the future… We’re actually seeing them now,” (International Programme on the State of the Ocean, OneWorld Video (UK), August 2011).
Dr. Rogers claims the ocean is in a critical state.
Accordingly, out of dire necessity, the operative question is: How should the world’s governments respond to an ocean that is in a critical state?
Do nothing or do something?
Methane (CH4) is the ugly stepsister to carbon dioxide (CO2). Excessively, it’s a killer.
Methane is over twenty times more powerful, over a 100-year period, per molecule, than is carbon dioxide (CO2). Or, put another way, methane is more effectual than carbon dioxide at absorbing infrared radiation emitted from the earth’s surface and preventing it from escaping into space. Notwithstanding, methane, during its first few years upon entering the atmosphere, is 100 times as powerful as an equal weight of CO2.
As it happens, it appears excessive levels of methane are just now starting to seriously impact the atmosphere in a big way!
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, as of February 2013, methane levels in the atmosphere are measured at 1,874 ppb (parts per billion.) This level, in an historical context, is more than twice the level as any time since 400,000 years before the industrial revolution. In the past, methane has ranged between 300-400 ppb during glacial periods and 600-700 ppb during warm interglacial periods.
The CH4 quagmire, in large measure, is the result of a melting Arctic, which, in turn, exposes methane that has been entrapped for millennia-times-millennia. Here’s the quandary: “We show results from some recent work from submarines, and speculate that the trend towards retreat and thinning will inevitably lead to an eventual loss of all ice in summer, which can be described as a ‘tipping point’ in that the former situation, of an Arctic covered with mainly multi-year ice, cannot be retrieved.” Peter Wadhams, Arctic Ice Cover, Ice Thickness and Tipping Points, AMBIO (Publisher: Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), February 2012, Volume 41, Issue 1.
The statement by Peter Wadhams, PhD, Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, Dept. of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, goes to the heart of the scope of methane’s threat, for example: Rising temperatures in the Arctic (which are already rising 2-3 times faster than temps elsewhere on the planet) could abruptly trigger the release of 50 Gt (gigatonnes) of methane currently frozen in the seabed within a decade, which would be catastrophic.
“It is the summer sea ice loss passing the point of no return, leading to unstoppable catastrophic Arctic methane feedbacks, sooner or later… puts us in a state of planetary emergency today,” John Nissen, AMEG Chairman, Arctic Methane Emergency Group (http://ameg.me/).
Methane emissions slowed in the 1990s, but “… strong growth resumed in 2007,” Euan G. Nisbet, et al, Methane on the Rise-Again, Atmospheric Science, Science Vol. 343, No. 6170, January 31, 2014.
With methane strongly on the rise again, the news could not be any worse regarding the prospects of an extinction event. As a matter of fact, the recent surge in methane feeds right into the wheelhouse of an extinction event.
Alas, the story only gets worse. The seafloor off the coast of Northern Siberia is releasing over twice the amount of methane as previously estimated, according to new research, as of 2013: “We believe that the release of methane from the Arctic, and in particular this part of the Arctic, could impact the entire globe,” Natalia Shakhova, et al. Ebullition and storm-induced methane release from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, Nature Geoscience, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2007, Nov. 24, 2013.
“Impact the entire globe” is not at all positive in any way shape, or form; rather, ultimately, it means heat, lots of heat, leading to runaway global warming, and this forecast is why a group of renowned scientist formed the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, which has already sent major governments a letter pleading for: “Emergency intervention is needed both to save the Arctic sea ice and to reduce the risk of catastrophic global warming from a sudden large emission of methane,” (Source: http://ameg.me/index.php/response).
“We carried out checks at about 115 stationary points and discovered methane fields of a fantastic scale – I think on a scale not seen before. Some of the plumes were a kilometer or more wide and the emissions went directly into the atmosphere – the concentration was a hundred times higher than normal,” says Dr. Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who led the 8th joint US-Russian cruise of the East Siberian Arctic seas (Source: Steve Connor, Vast Methane ‘Plumes’ Seen in Arctic Ocean as Sea Ice Retreats, The Independent (UK), Dec. 13, 2011.)
According to the National Academies’ report, abrupt climate change has already started in the Arctic. Whether a tipping point has been reached, or exceeded, time will tell, but it shouldn’t take too long to know, maybe a few years, maybe longer.
As an aside, it would be absolutely wonderful and spectacular if the climate change denialists prove to be correct about ice in the Arctic. Their claim, which appeared all over the mainstream news this past fall, is that the ice at the Arctic is rebuilding beautifully. And, yes it is true Arctic sea ice “extent” and “volume” did increase, which occasionally happens in any given year. However, the basic science, on a long-term secular basis, doesn’t agree with their hysterics.
Accordingly, “Arctic sea ice extent in February 2014 averaged 14.44 million sq. miles. This is the fourth lowest February ice extent in the satellite data record, and is 910,000 sq. kilometres. below the 1981 to 2010 average,” Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis, National Snow & Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder, March 3, 2014.
In order for Arctic sea ice to recover from more than 30 years of shrinkage, it will require much more than one season of increased sea ice. It will take many, many seasons of increased sea ice. Meanwhile, the Sword of Damocles hangs over the Arctic, threatening all society with runaway global warming.
In that regard, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group sent a Policy Brief to major governments. Here is their conclusion: “AMEG’s conclusion is that there is now a planetary emergency. Only by grasping the nettle and intervening with great determination, as in a war effort, is there a chance of remedying the situation before it is too late. International collaboration to fight this common ‘enemy’ of Arctic meltdown must bring all nations together, in the cause of our very survival.”
“If we burn all reserves of oil, gas, and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse. If we also burn the tar sans and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty,” James Hansen, Storms of my Grandchildren (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
Venus’s atmosphere consists of 96.5% carbon dioxide (CO2), which keeps a lid on the heat as surface temps run 872 degrees F. The Venus Syndrome happens when climate and atmospheric feedback loops are triggered and cannot be switched off, e.g., greenhouse gases build up, causing more warming, in turn, more greenhouse gases are released, causing more warming, and so on and so forth in a maddening continuum of a vicious feedback loop.
Under those circumstances, Earth risks becoming a pressure-cooking inferno.
Subsidize renewables, not fracking.
Post Script: The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel usage hit record levels (IEA: Carbon Emissions from Fuel Usage Hit New Global Record, Deutsche Welle, Oct. 6, 2013). The IEA also warned that, based upon larger levels of carbon dioxide emissions than previously calculated, the world is on a path to an average temperature rise of between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees C, about double the target set at a UN summit in Durbin in 2010.
On a positive note:A student movement at more than 300 university and college campuses is encouraging endowments to divest holdings of fossil fuel companies. As for one example, Divest Harvard declares: “By sponsoring climate change through our investments, our university is threatening our generation’s future,” Randall Smith, A New Divestment Focus on Campus: Fossil Fuels, New York Times, Sept. 6, 2013.
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.