Climate tipping point
May 13, 2007 6:15 AM   Subscribe

There has been a measurable "surge" of carbon in the atmosphere for the past 4 or 5 years, nearly doubling the annual rate of the 1970-2000 period, which has mystified scientists because it does not match human trends or known natural causes. A new paper (abstract) suggests we may have reached a tipping point with more greenhouse gases escaping from trees, plants and soils than in the past - hotter and dryer weather caused by high levels of CO2 is creating a feedback loop of unusually strong out-gassings of CO2 from vegetation more inside
posted by stbalbach (41 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This is just one of dozens of potential climate surprises that could make the IPCC models woefully under-stated as they depend on a regular, gradual upward climb of CO2 from human-sources and no surprise(s) from nature, however as the geological record shows, natural changes can be fast and catastrophic.

Some Experts on Global Warming Foresee 'Tipping Point', Washington Post, Janurayr 2006.

Warming hits 'tipping point', The Guardian, 2005 - peat bog off-gassing.

With Speed and Violence (2007), readable and fascinating overview of climate tipping points under investigation.
posted by stbalbach at 6:17 AM on May 13, 2007

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand we're off!
posted by From Bklyn at 6:35 AM on May 13, 2007

posted by waxboy at 6:44 AM on May 13, 2007

not too good
posted by Flood at 6:48 AM on May 13, 2007

We asked Dr. Little to talk with us about these latest findings, asking him what the immediate consequences of having past the point of no return might BE. In this exclusive interview he had the following response:


posted by The Straightener at 6:50 AM on May 13, 2007

Look, I tells ya it's a left wing plot, to do what exactly? I'm not entirely sure. But I don't fully grasp the concept, so it MUST be a left wing plot.
posted by mattoxic at 7:06 AM on May 13, 2007

could make the IPCC models woefully under-stated

Every climate scientist I know took a look at the IPCC report and said the conclusions were deliberately under-stated in order to get at least some public and business acceptance for a small first step. The view was that if IPCC told the full story, wingnuts would run around yelling, "The librul pinheads are telling us the sky is falling again! Why do they hate us?"
posted by 3.2.3 at 7:26 AM on May 13, 2007

Soon the whole world will be like Houston, Texas.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:37 AM on May 13, 2007

Thank God the Rapture is almost upon us!
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 7:39 AM on May 13, 2007

Conspiring to present a false picture in the interests of manipulating public opinion would not seem the best way of calming the wingnuts to me.

Meantime, the data have been withdrawn pending further work.
posted by Phanx at 7:45 AM on May 13, 2007

What you're saying is the "surge" is working.
posted by grobstein at 7:47 AM on May 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm sure someone will, in all seriousness, posit that this is a reason we need to cut-down more trees.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:50 AM on May 13, 2007

The Earth and Venus are near each other in the Solar System, and are similar in size, density, and composition. Based on our understanding of the origin of the Solar System, we would expect that their initial atmospheres would have been rather similar. Yet the present atmospheres of the two planets could hardly be much more different than they are. How did this come to be? The reason is thought to lie in what is termed the "Runaway Greenhouse Effect".
posted by wfrgms at 7:56 AM on May 13, 2007

C'mon and meet your maker.
posted by thecaddy at 8:08 AM on May 13, 2007

What you're saying is the "surge" is working.

Why didn't we think of it before? If we destroy the world, the insurgents will have nowhere to hide!

posted by yeloson at 8:09 AM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Soon the whole world will be like Houston, Texas.

Well, once Houston is underwater, we're going to have to move somewhere.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 8:19 AM on May 13, 2007

I was watching this thing on PBS, some sort of nature program... about a turtle. So it's basically two hours of the turtle swimming around in the ocean. Peaceful, right?

Of course not. It was like a litany of horrors; human beings suck. Anyway, the most shocking scene was, there is this giant pool of methane sitting at the bottom of the ocean out in the Pacific somewhere. The cool water above it keeps the stuff from floating to the top and getting released into the atmosphere. Well, guess what! That shit is bubbling out of the ocean at a rolling boil. The recent 1.5 degree shift in temperature was enough for that methane to start escaping. The narrator explained that the last time this happened, 90% of all life in the ocean died. So, we're basically screwed.

Also, the turtle got stuck in one of those trawling nets and died.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 8:21 AM on May 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

What kind of a carbon footprint does a shock-and-awe bombing campaign leave?
posted by Balisong at 8:25 AM on May 13, 2007

gaia the cleanup hitter is stretching in the on-deck circle.
posted by bruce at 8:25 AM on May 13, 2007

So cutting down the rain forests is a good thing. Ha!
posted by smackfu at 8:31 AM on May 13, 2007

Of course my link is dead... I meant trawling nets, naturally.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 8:33 AM on May 13, 2007

Oh, well. Fuck this place, we'll all be living on Mars by the time the apocalypse comes anyway. Stupid environmentalists.
posted by tracert at 8:55 AM on May 13, 2007

This doesn't make me happy.

I feel a little better that the data was withdrawn -- the fact that carbon growth rate has been higher than average "four out of the last five years" isn't particularly disturbing to me, even if carbon emissions were "the same" you'd still expect to get that happening one time in 6 (precisely, 5 times in 32) -- and it'd be much more frequent than that even if the rate were slightly trending up.

But I do frankly feel that between the methane in the permafrost and the methane under the oceans, our whole species is in grave danger. I'd love to be proven wrong, but that's what I feel.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:04 AM on May 13, 2007

You know if the establishment has finally started talking about it that it's probably too late already.
posted by well_balanced at 9:06 AM on May 13, 2007

When is anything bad not worse than we expected?
posted by jon_kill at 9:37 AM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

The neocon denial machine will kick into high gear.

Limbaugh, beads of sweat rolling off of his face, with an odd bulge in his suit where the cooling gelpacks are hidden, blusters, "I can't buy into carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Every high schooler knows that carbon dioxide is required for plans to breathe. Liberals paid more attention to pushing their sexual education agenda than basic biology!"

Coulter, whose spiderlike physique generates more surface area for cooling, has only eyes that are feverish. "As if scientists can tell us what the optimum temperature is. Weren't they saying that the speed of sound couldn't be broken just seventy years ago?"

"Just to be on the safe side, though," Cheney mutters through his ever-present mouthful of blood, "I think it's high time Haliburton diversified into air conditioning and new beachfront properties, about twenty miles inland from the current coasts."

Bush, ducking behind a nativity scene as a nearby Christmas tree spontaneously combusts, "Of course, when we finally cut down the last tree for a new desk in the Oval Office, the Second Coming will ensure that we won't have to worry about the environment anymore. Right, baby Jesus?"
posted by adipocere at 9:48 AM on May 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

I look forward to telling my son nostalgic stories about seafood. "Food that lived in the ocean? Crazy!"
posted by monju_bosatsu at 10:04 AM on May 13, 2007

I'm going out to tend my perennials. I have a feeling they'll be here longer than I will.
posted by pracowity at 10:07 AM on May 13, 2007

Meantime, the data have been withdrawn pending further work.

Ah. So the NOAA has a Julie MacDonald, too.
posted by dhartung at 10:09 AM on May 13, 2007

"Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."
-- Ronald Reagan, 1981.
posted by mwhybark at 11:34 AM on May 13, 2007

Conspiring to present a false picture in the interests of manipulating public opinion would not seem the best way of calming the wingnuts to me. Meantime, the data have been withdrawn pending further work.

Telling the truth hasn't worked much with the public, thanks to wingnuts.

It isn't data. It's model output. It's neither false nor true. It's the result of assumptions. The assumptions were that there would be no further economic expansion on earth (i.e., all the efforts to fight poverty will have to fail), there will be no further increase in population on earth, and that there will actually be fairly aggressive action taken by governments to curtail emissions. Even given these assumptions, the models say we will experience grossly unacceptable increases in sea level over just a couple of generations. Whether that's a conspiracy or manipulating public opinion is a matter of opinion. What scientists are saying is that these are unrealistic assumptions.

As for that methane hydrate that's boiling out, wingnuts have a wingnutty, and completely false, answer for that one, too. And methane hydrate is the totally frightening tipping point that's not even in the models.
posted by 3.2.3 at 1:00 PM on May 13, 2007

And in other news, small poultry enthusiasts have reported to multiple media sources that the sky is in fact falling. As of press time, Chicken Little could not be reached for comment, as he is currently filming scenes for the sequel in Sweden. More news as it develops. AND NOW, SPORTS!
posted by ZachsMind at 1:17 PM on May 13, 2007

Excellent post as always stbalbach.

It is amazing (well known, but still amazing) that people in charge of the most prestigious institutions that deal with Climate Change are climate skeptics. Are these people going to change in 2009 or are we going to deal with them for the next IPCC Assessment Report? I am specifically talking about ... Mary L. Cleave, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Office of Earth Science, said the agency insists on monitoring interviews with scientists to ensure they are not misquoted.

"People could see it as a constraint," Cleave said. "As a manager, I might see it as protection."

Mary Cleave is one of the most powerful women in NASA when it comes to funding and lines of future research in earth sciences. Funny, because she used to be project manager for SeaWIFs, a satellite based marine chlorophyll sensor, which provides one of our best indications for the carbon cycle effects of global warming. How odd this world is, really.

Furthermore, NOAA (Noaa?) has been always on the skeptics side, albeit not very loudly. All those weathermen/women working there, I guess. A quick look at their FAQ page on global warming will establish that. We do not know, we are not sure, lets see, hmmmmm.

One major unknown (and what this post is about) in the climate system is the full carbon cycle. The latest IPCC-AR did not include any models that explicitly describe the carbon cycle, i.e. uptake and redistribution, sources and sinks on land and in the ocean. This was not an omission, it is a difficult problem and our modeling capabilities only now allow for this. I believe it is what IPCC-AR5 is going to be about. The fact of the matter though is that although ocean carbon modeling is achievable, as it is much easier to do, land carbon is harder to constraint and formulate numerically and really very uncertain even from observations. Which shows that we might be approaching or at the tipping point and not really know it. Let alone (ha!) model it.
posted by carmina at 4:42 PM on May 13, 2007

Coping technique: every few years I move 100 or so miles in a northerly direction. I started in San Diego. Luckily they don't have winters in Portland anymore. Alaska, your endless summer awaits.

Drive a Hummer for year-round summer.
posted by valentinepig at 6:38 PM on May 13, 2007

"Runaway Greenhouse Effect"

Oh, shit. If this methane melting is true, we are well and truly fucked. That 2036 asteroid won't be a concern at all.

AFAIK if either the ocean methane reserves or the tundra peat bog methane reserves burp, we go into catastrophic climate change (one will bump the other).

I wonder if there was a scientific reason behind the Mayan calendar after all. Perhaps we've been through this before...
posted by five fresh fish at 7:56 PM on May 13, 2007

carmina, you know what they say don't let the turkeys hold ya down, the truth will prevail, reality has a way of doing that. The modeling is really impressive and only getting better.
posted by stbalbach at 8:48 AM on May 14, 2007

Drive a Hummer for year-round summer.

Heh. Hiya, Paul.
posted by cortex at 11:28 AM on May 14, 2007

I think we need a change in vocabulary.

I guess, yah, the earth on the whole, counting everything is going to get warmer (hence 'global warming'), but the personal impact is going to be all about the fluctuations and new records.

We need to realize we are heading into a period of extreme climate. It's going to get hotter and colder, drier and wetter. It's going to become more difficult to live in more places; the deserts and tundras are going to get bigger. The problem is going to have extreme local impacts.

IMO, whether or not we cut back carbon emissions is irrelevent at this point. The methane trapped in northern peat bogs and ocean floors is escaping into the atmosphere. That dwarfs the contribution we are making. [dwarves?] We. Are. Fucked.

We do have to cut back on our resource usage in most sectors, and our by-product output in many sectors. We need to get smart about water usage, electric generation, transportation, and personal consumption. CO2 output is just one facet of the problem.

Most important: we need to figure out how to sequester the CO2 damn quick.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:09 PM on May 14, 2007

That's a good point, five fresh fish. Global warming, but local freezing (depending on where you are). The Gulf Stream may be weakening, which would throw Western Europe into an Ice Age.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:03 PM on May 14, 2007

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