The federal government is launching a new initiative to coordinate research among six national laboratories and other private universities to study one of the most concerning aspects of global warming: Abrupt Climate Change.
Fittingly, the press release announcing the initiative -- dubbed IMPACTS (Investigation of the Magnitudes and Probabilities of Abrupt Climate Transitions) credits Al Gore and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not President Bush, for inspiring the research. The announcement comes at the 11th hour of an administration that has done little but watch as global warming grows more threatening.
Research will focus on four potential "tipping points" that could rapidly accelerate global warming so that dramatic and long-lasting changes would occur over the course of years or decades, rather than centuries.
The program's leader, William Collins of The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Earth Sciences Division, part of the Department of Energy, referred to these as the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse":
The stakes are high. If the West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates, 2.4 million cubic miles of ice would slide into the ocean, and sea levels could rise as much as 20 feet, wiping islands off the map and flooding coastal areas including the U.S. Gulf Coast and both Burma and Bangladesh, which could send millions of refugees streaming into politically unstable parts of Asia.
The program's goal is to develop a powerful computer model that can accurately forecast conditions that might accelerate the melting that is already taking place due to rising ocean temperatures spurred by global warming.
All the carbon that we've released in the last couple centuries burning coal and oil is a big deal. What about adding one-third of the world's terrestrial carbon in one monumental breath?
That's the concern, as boreal and Arctic ecosystems warm up. The methane -- a greenhouse gas 26 times more powerful than carbon dioxide -- now held in soil, peat and permafrost could be rapidly released to the atmosphere, fueling a gigantic new source of carbon. Not only that, but increased freshwater flow could alter the Gulf Stream and other oceanic conveyor belts that now keep Europe unusually warm for its latitude; shut down or alter that conveyor, and Ice Age-like conditions could return quickly to one of the world's most populated and -- currently, at least -- prosperous regions.
The process has already begun, as snow and ice cover retreat, warmer temperatures lead to more days of melting. But how fast might it occur? Already, scientists fear that melting is taking place at two- to three-times the speed previously predicted. The program's goal is a better computer model to better understand the risks.
If all that methane locked in permafrost doesn't put you on edge, how about this: There may be more carbon stored in frozen methane hydrates under the oceans than exists in every drop of oil, whiff of natural gas and chunk of coal we might burn on Earth.
This gas is 72 more potent than carbon, and it may been released in a massive burp 55 million years ago, during a period marked by massive global warming and massive deep-sea species extinctions.
While most ocean methane hydrates should remain frozen, those in the Arctic could be rapidly released, which would warm the climate enough to trigger the melting of permafrost, which is a big enough threat in and of itself, as the second horseman of the apocalypse indicated. Among the other results: the ozone hole would grow bigger and the deep sea would turn into a dead zone.
The program will combine existing computer models to make a more accurate assessment of how methane hydrate releases might occur, and what the consequences are likely to be.
You hardly have to get past the title to see that this is not a scenario we'd like to see: The return of the "Dust Bowl" to the Southwest, only this time persistent or even permanent. It's possible, if the region becomes as rain-starved as models suggest, at the same time higher temperatures increase evaporation.
The program will study how plant cover might stave off or contribute to drought conditions, and also study whether and how a severe drought might affect the North American "monsoon" that now brings as much as two-thirds of the Southwest's summer moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California.
If the models show that one of these events is imminent it would mean, Collins said, "we are facing the largest imaginable negative impacts on human civilization, conditions that will take society outside all normal modes of adaptation very quickly. The consequences will be especially dire for resource-limited populations. This is a huge threat to the security and stability of our nation and the world."
And, one would hope, our next president would take the threat seriously.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.