The unthinkable consequences

An Australian National University Climate Institute Visiting Fellow has revealed harsh scientific facts pointing to the coming manmade mass species extinction, stating: “We have entered crisis stage with the atmospheric system.”

Dr Andrew Glikson addressed a group of climate advocates, policymakers and scientists at Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth on July 1, outlining the latest indicators of humanity’s self-destruction.

As he fulfilled the ethical duty of climate scientists to report alarming facts despite the difficulties communicating the issue, he said we were experiencing temperatures “unknown to humans” and: “The consequences of climate observations belong to the unthinkable.”

Dr Glikson described the unfolding synergy of a number of climate tipping points we’re experiencing from our rising fossil fuel emissions as a Pandora’s box we didn’t know how to rebottle.

The paleo-climate scientist pointed to the increased release of methane from melting permafrost, the Arctic and coal seam gas operations, to the accelerating polar ice melts, changes in monsoons and hurricanes, and to the increased occurrence and intensity of extreme weather events worldwide.

Dr Glikson challenged current thinking on climate which maintains that changes will continue to be gradual this century, and that we as humans are somehow able to choose to stop global warming at a certain point – i.e. at the ‘internationally agreed limit’ of +2 degrees.  He said that discounting aerosols in the atmosphere, we’re already at 2.2 degrees above industrial level temperatures.

Dr Glikson outlined that historically, abrupt changes or intense reversals in climate had occurred within a space of just 1-3 years, consistent with dynamic climate systems rather than the widely held concept of a long term linear system with incremental changes.

He used the analogy of raising the temperature of water high enough that it suddenly becomes unstable and boils, violently converting liquid into steam.  Previous tropical periods in Earth’s history showed times of such extreme energy and turbulence – for instance with far stronger destructive hurricanes and monsoons.

Dr Glikson said that the IPCC’s new report had grossly underestimated and chosen not to emphasise fires and the intense, large firestorms now occurring all year around the world (adding 2-4 gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere annually) as feedback – and the real damage with climate change would be caused by feedbacks on the biosphere.

The IPCC had also chosen not to emphasise the impacts on climate of the irreversible melt of Western Antarctica.  He showed a satellite image of Greenland’s ice melting to water in just four days in July 2012, and said the multiplying and amplifying of feedbacks such as polar cap ice melts caused major damage to the climate system.

Cold ice melt water had historically been implicated in dropping Atlantic water temperatures by 2-4 degrees to cause Europe and North America to freeze over, he said, even while the global temperature rose.

Dr Glikson said the IPCC was also low on estimates of sea level rises with conservative forecasts of less than one metre this century.  Given that ice melts of 200 billion tonnes a year were being recorded, he didn’t know of any glaciologists or paleo climate scientists who would agree with the IPCC’s low figures . Instead, climate scientists were suggesting rises would be in metres, and could occur in a shorter time frame.

Dr Glikson also said that species required time to be able to adapt to the changes brought on by global warming, but questioned whether species and indeed human civilisation in fact had such time.  CO2 levels are now climbing at such a higher rate – 2.89ppm a year – and are at a higher level (400ppm recorded for the past 3 consecutive months) than for any other major extinction period over millions of years.

Dr Glikson said that while he was not a biologist, he was unsure that any species would be able to adapt to such fast changes. Indeed Australian marine scientists have indicated that a +2 degree rise and beyond would be impossible for our marine ecosystems such as coral reefs to adapt to.

Previous episodes of mass extinction in Earth’s history had involved relatively short term changed conditions, he said, but the highest level of CO2 now being experienced meant this and the resulting increased heat would remain in the atmosphere for far longer, and this long term impact hadn’t been considered in conventional climate analysis.

Dr Glikson has recently published a book on the coming manmade mass extinction: Evolution of the Atmosphere, Fire and the Anthropocene Climate Event Horizon. Read his climate science articles at The Conversation.

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Based in Perth, Western Australia, Tanyia Maxted writes on the climate crisis, divestment from the fossil fuels causing climate change, and solutions such as solar-charged electric cars.  The mother-of-two previously worked in water science communication for an Australian Government-funded national research centre, and in science communication for two Perth universities. See archived articles for ScienceNetworkWA and her UK-published books via Amazon.