GFB Update 2:10, October 2012  

A monthly newsletter on the vast and underappreciated world of current affairs books

 

Prepared by Michael Marien

In This Issue
Introduction
Book of the Month: The Fate Of Greenland
Feature of the Month: Major Sea Level Rise
Ice Melt Acceleration: Ten Recent Supporting Articles

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Introduction

This issue of GFB Update is unusual, in that it focuses on a single Book of the Month, and one supporting book.  About a dozen other citations are recent articles from The New York Times, Scientific American, and various scientific journals.

 

The Fate of Greenland is an important but overlooked book by four climate scientists, two of whom (Alley and Broecker) are very well-known.  It is by no means alarmist, but it clearly makes the case that the very large Greenland ice sheet is melting rapidly, that if it melts completely sea level worldwide will rise by 24 feet, and that scores of abrupt climate changes have taken place in Greenland over the last 100,000 years, in roughly a decade or less.  The authors "don't believe that the ice sheet could fully disintegrate faster than many centuries, but we might cause enough warming within a few decades to cross the threshold leading to ice sheet loss." (p182)  This caution is amplified by noting that different positive feedbacks amplify each other, and thus "the slight chance of a really big change cannot be excluded." (p170)

 

The conventional wisdom of the moment expects sea level rise by mid-century of 1-2 feet, which is bad enough, given the recent havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy in the New York City area.  But how "slight" is the chance of a "really big change...within a few decades"?  This very important question takes on new urgency in light of two recent articles in Scientific American, on positive feedback loops that may be starting to kick in, notably where loss of sea ice melts even more sea ice, which melts offshore permafrost and triggers the release of methane.  Put these pieces together, and there is cause for serious concern.

 

These articles are woven into the BOM review of The Fate of Greenland, which focuses on the Greenland ice melt.  After completing this review, a shorter version was prepared, shifting focus to the question of Major Sea Level Rise: How Much, How Soon?  This version, some 60% shorter, argues for using scenarios, similar to those employed for hurricane forecasting.  It is presented below as the Feature of the Month.

 

Finally, a number of articles have recently been published on accelerated melting of sea ice, along with a 75-minute documentary film entitled Chasing Ice.  They are summarized in the final section on "Recent Supporting Articles."

Book of the Month

The-Fate-of-Greenland
The Fate Of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change.  Philip Conkling (President, Island Institute in Maine), Richard Alley (Prof of Geosciences, Penn State U), Wallace Broecker  (Prof of Geology, Columbia U), and George Denton (Prof of Geosciences, U of Maine). Photographs by Gary Comer (deceased, 2006; founder, Land's End direct mail).  Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, April 2011, 216p, $29.95 (with 72 color photos).

 

SUPERSTORM SANDY AND FEEDBACK LOOPS

 

When this unusual, important, and somewhat non-technical book was first published in 2011, it was almost chosen as the GFB Book of the Month.  Instead, as a close runner-up, it went to the Recommended List, with several hundred other competing titles.  Yet, literally, the book would not go away.  Rather than retiring it to my bookshelf, it remained in my burgeoning pile of incoming books.  I cited it several times, recommended it to several people, and returned several times to look again at the haunting and strikingly beautiful photos of melting icebergs, shrinking glaciers, and increasingly bare earth of the world's largest island.

 

Since then, I have considered promoting the Greenland book to "BOM" status, despite now being more than a year and a half old (which hardly matters, regarding this long-term and accelerating development).  Two "tipping points" have pushed this book to the fore.

            

In late October, the devastation of "Superstorm Sandy" to the coastal areas of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut resulted from a storm surge of up to 14 feet in some areas.  The New York Times (31 Oct 2012, A18) reported that scientists had warned about the perils of flooding for years.  Moreover, "after rising roughly an inch per decade in the last century, coastal waters in New York are expected to climb as fast as six inches per decade, or two feet by midcentury, according to a city-appointed scientific panel."  Even before Hurricane Sandy, an eerily prescient 9/11-timed feature in the Times ("New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn," 11 Sept 2012, p1) noted the "accelerating" rate of sea level rise and more "frequent flooding" as an uncomfortable reality: "were sea levels to rise four feet by the 2080s, for example, 34% of the city's streets could lie in the flood-risk zone, compared with just 11% now." But reading the neglected Greenland book, which suggests a possible sea level rise of 24 feet if the Greenland ice sheet melts, the illustrative four-foot forecast for NYC may be severely understated by a factor of six-and this does not consider a melt of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which would add another 16-foot sea-level rise!

 

Obviously there are huge uncertainties ahead, but scenarios of a possible 24-40 foot rise in sea level in the next century-and perhaps even in a matter of decades-should not be ignored, despite being far beyond the conventional wisdom of today's climate science.

 The second "tipping point" is an article by John Carey in the Nov 2012 Scientific American  ("Global Warming: Faster Than Expected?" pp. 50-55), which belies the question mark in the sub-title by stating that the latest data "show that the planet is changing faster than expected."  Carey summarizes six "long-hypothesized feedback loops that may be starting to kick in... (and) may be pushing the earth into an era of rapid change."  In brief, they are: 1) loss of sea ice, which allows the sun to warm ocean water more, which melts even more sea ice; 2) greater permafrost melting that puts more CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, in turn causing more permafrost melting; 3) expanded wetlands from increasing rainfall in the tropics, which potentially "could release as much, or more, additional methane as that from Arctic warming"; 4) vegetation changes that turn forests from CO2-absorbing carbon sinks into carbon sources from decomposing dead trees; 5) a very warm summer leading to massive fires pouring carbon into the atmosphere; 6) warmer ocean currents that could slow or stop the system driving global ocean currents: "that change could turn Greenland from cool to warm within a decade."  Imagine two or more of these feedback loops working together to accelerate climate change! [See Epilogue on the Arctic "Death Spiral."]   A 24-40-foot rise in sea level seems inconceivable today, yet it increasingly becomes not a "wild card" but a "not-so-wild" card of, say, 10-40% probability by 2050.  And even this could be an understatement! 

 

The prospects for increasingly rapid climate change require careful monitoring and frequent adjustment.  And thus The Fate of Greenland is given prominence here, with an expanded abstract and highlighted statements of significance.

 

Click here for the full section.

Feature of the Month 
Major Sea Level Rise: How Likely, How Soon? 

 

Forecasters of a major weather event, such as a hurricane, try not to overestimate or to underestimate.  Hurricane forecasting has become highly refined, with periodic updates for alternative scenarios of possible courses that an approaching storm might take, as well as their probabilities.  This short-term foresight, however, bears little resemblance to long-term forecasting, which is far less certain, but nevertheless deserving attention.

 

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal areas of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, due to a storm surge of up to 14 feet.  The New York Times (31 Oct 2012, A18) reported that scientists had warned about the perils of flooding for years.  According to a city-appointed scientific panel, "after rising roughly an inch per decade in the last century, coastal waters in New York are expected to climb as fast as six inches per decade, or two feet by midcentury." Even before "Superstorm Sandy" (as it was widely dubbed), an eerily prescient 9/11-timed feature in the Times (11 Sept 2012, p.1) noted the "accelerating" rate of sea level rise and more frequent flooding: "were sea levels to rise four feet by the 2080s, for example, 34% of the city's streets could lie in the flood-risk zone, compared with just 11% now."

 

But what if this illustrative four-foot rise in sea water for NYC is severely understated by a factor of six or more?  This possibility is raised in a remarkable book on The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change (MIT Press, April 2011, 216p, with 72 color photos), by Philip Conkling (Island Institute in Maine), Richard Alley (Penn State U), Wallace Broecker (Columbia U), and George Denton (U of Maine).  These climate scientists--two of whom, Alley and Broecker, are well-known--made several trips to Greenland to study ice core records and currently melting ice.  The ice core provide evidence of scores of abrupt climatic changes over the last 100,000 years, often 10C or more in roughly a decade or less.  "Greenland appears to be poised at the edge of another rapid climate change... (and we should) pay attention to  Greenland because in the fate of Greenland lie clues to the fate of the world."  (p.23; emphasis added)

 

Click here for the full section.

Six Recent Supporting Articles on Ice Melt Acceleration

 

The following articles were recently published at www.sciencedaily.com:

 

(8 March 2011)  Melting Ice Sheets Now Largest Contributor to Sea Level Rise.  A new 20-year NASA-funded satellite study by Eric Rignot et al, published in Geophysical Research Letters, notes that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at a rapidly accelerating pace, and are expected to become the dominant contributor to global sea level rise much sooner than model forecasts have predicted.  "If present trends continue, sea level is likely to be significantly higher than levels projected by the IPCC."

 

(11 March 2012) Greenland Ice Sheet May Melt Completely With 1.6 Degrees of Global Warming According to a new study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid,  "Today, already 0.8 degrees C of global warming has been observed.  Substantial melting of land ice could contribute to long-term sea level rise of several meters."  Previous research suggested a threshold in global temperature increase for melting the Greenland ice sheet of 3.1 degrees.

 

(24 June 2012)  Significant Sea-Level Rise in a Two-Degree Warmer World.  Even if global warming is limited to 2C, global mean sea level could continue to rise...the best estimate is 2.7 meters by 2300.  In New York City, "one meter of sea level rise could raise the frequency of severe flooding from once a century to once every three years."

 

Click here for the full section.

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