Driving the car forward while looking in the rearview mirror

“Past performance does not necessarily predict future results”–

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  • Superstorms and large cyclones have done immense damage over recent years. Although we cannot say that cyclonic storms are becoming more frequent, their size and power is consistent with warm oceans and generally greater energy aloft. Storm surge along the coasts of Europe and the U.S. has been significantly amplified by sea level rise, increasing property damage and loss of life.
  • Several recent papers indicate that somewhere between 3 and 4 feet of sea level rise is a reasonable expectation by 2100 relative to 2000, assuming emissions are not drastically curtailed. Globally, more than 150 million people live within 3 feet elevation of the ocean. A recent analysis in Nature Climate Change shows that, accounting for population growth, 3 feet of sea level rise will displace about 4.2 million people in the U.S. by the end of the century. It should be obvious that there is no feasible infrastructure solution to sea level rise of this magnitude. For reasons related to the physics of the Earth rotation and the mass of the water involved, the increase will be especially pronounced on the Atlantic Coast of North America as the Gulf Stream slows in response to immense volumes of cold, freshwater dumping into the North Atlantic from the melting ice sheets of Greenland. The only responsible course at this point is to begin the process of strategic retreat from coastlines.
  • Recently greenhouse gas concentrations have entered territory not seen in at least 3 million years. During the Pliocene the concentration of CO2 was equivalent to that of today at 400 ppm, a milestone officially surpassed in March 2015. Temperatures were 2–3 degrees C higher and sea level was 25 meters higher. Measurements at the NOAA facility at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, show that 2015 witnessed the highest rate of growth in CO2 levels ever recorded in a single year. This rate of rise was faster than in several hundred thousand years. Although equilibrium sea level in response to such warming will take several centuries, the transition to above 2 degrees C would be much faster and wreak havoc with much of the biosphere as we know it. It is important to realize that we still have some time to mitigate warming and adapt to the likely changes in the Earth’s systems if we act decisively and soon.
  • The closing months of 2015 and the beginning of 2016 have broken all records for global warmth. February was the most abnormally warm month by a breathtaking margin. Experts such as Stefan Rahmstorf agree that the current strong El Niño has made a contribution to these extreme temperatures, but overall warming of the oceans and the lower atmosphere is accelerating. Moreover, recent work on aerosols shows that until recent years, warming has been masked by particulate pollution throughout much of the northern hemisphere. As skies have cleared, warming has been more fully expressed. Briefly in February the global mean temperature was 2 degrees C above the preindustrial average for the first time in history.
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  • Massive peat fires in Indonesia and wildfires in the American West of historic magnitude are now a common occurrence, made more likely by climate driven factors such as drought, pests, and warming. It is likely that the frequency and magnitude of these fires will escalate in the coming years.
  • Extreme drought across the Amazon basin may now be a regular occurrence, resulting in the death of old trees, a major source of uptake of CO2 in the rainforest, and impaired photosynthesis of remaining trees.
  • As the permafrost region of earth continues to warm, its large pool of carbon has begun to increasingly decompose, burn, or be exported by hydrological processes. Presently photosynthesis during the progressively longer growing season is inadequate to offset increasing carbon loss. Recently 98 permafrost-region experts noted that this region will become a net carbon source to the atmosphere by 2100 regardless of the warming scenario. Net emissions from this source can be reduced, however, if warming is slowed. A tipping point has been passed for the tundra.
  • Perhaps the most stunning finding of 2015 is that the massive Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is now committed to eventual collapse owing to currents in the warming Southern Ocean. This appears to be unstoppable and over a period of a few hundred years will contribute more than 3 meters (~10 feet) to the increase in global sea level. The most important implication of this is not the eventual contribution to sea level rise, but that even in the apparently stable cold of Antarctica, climate change is having a profound impact that is now irreversible.
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Environmental scientist and educator; forest and climate change ecologist.

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