National Research Council: Abrupt, near-term impacts to rival dinosaur extinction

10 12 2013

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With little fanfare and a noticeable lack of press coverage, the National Research Council released its report:  Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises last week.  The 200 page report suggests that a wave of species extinctions rivaling the dinosaurs’ demise might well be coming within the century — and that the time has come to set up early warning systems to detect this and other imminent climate catastrophes.

One of the authors, Anthony Barnosky, made this comment on the report:  “Our report focuses on abrupt change, that is, things that happen within a few years to decades: basically, over short enough time scales that young people living today would see the societal impacts brought on by faster-than-normal planetary changes.”

The study was sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation, U.S. intelligence community and the National Academies, which is made up of The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council.

Abrupt Changes Already Underway

Some of the abrupt changes are already taking place, according to the report.

  • The disappearance of late-summer sea ice in the Arctic, with predictions that it may be gone entirely within decades, which “would have potentially large and irreversible effects of various components of the Arctic East Coast system including disruptions in the marine food web, shifts and habitats of summary mammals, and erosion of vulnerable coastlines.”

Because the Arctic region interacts with a large-scale circulation systems of the ocean and atmosphere, changes in the extent of sea ice could cause shifts in climate and weather around the northern hemisphere. The Arctic is also region of increasing economic importance for diverse range of stakeholders, and reductions in Arctic sea ice will bring new legal and political challenges this navigation routes for commercial shipping open and marine access to the region increases for offshore oil and gas development, tourism, fishing and other activities.

  • Rapidly increasing extinction of plant and animal species at a rate already “probably as fast as any warming event in the past 65 million years, and it is projected that its pace over the next 30 to 80 years will continue to be faster and more intense.”   The report cites the following scenarios for species extinction.

If unchecked, habitat destruction, fragmentation, and over-exploitation, even without climate change, could result in a mass extinction within the next few centuries equivalent in magnitude to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. With the ongoing pressures of climate change, comparable levels of extinction conceivably could occur before the year 2100; indeed, some models show a crash of coral reefs from climate change alone as early as 2060 under certain scenarios.

  • Destabilization of the west Antarctic ice sheet, an “abrupt change of unknown probability,” carries the threat of sea-level rise “at a rate several times faster than those observed today. “

Early Warning System 

In the face of these threats, the report urges development of an Abrupt Change Early Warning System (ACEWS) to closely monitor signals of tipping points drawing near, digest the data and feed it into the best predictive models that can be developed.   “We watch our streets, we watch our banks,” the report’s chief author, climatologist James White of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told the Los Angeles Times. “But we do not watch our environment with the same amount of care and zeal.”  In a press statement releasing the report, Mr. White said “The time has come for us to quit talking and take action.  Right now we don’t know what many of these thresholds are.  But with better information, we will be able to anticipate some major changes before they occur and help reduce the potential consequences.”

The executive summary of the report concludes with this rather dire warning:

“Although there is much to learn about climate change and abrupt impacts, to willingly ignore the threat of abrupt change could lead to more costs, loss of life, suffering and environmental degradation.  The time is here to be serious about the threat of the tipping points so as to better anticipate and prepare ourselves for the inevitable surprises.”


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