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Feedback Mechanisms and Climate Change Featured

If permafrost like this continues to melt, the methane released into the atmosphere could spell disaster as climate change reaches a tipping point. If permafrost like this continues to melt, the methane released into the atmosphere could spell disaster as climate change reaches a tipping point.

As the science of climate change advances, an unavoidable reality becomes increasingly clear: we are living on the threshold of an ominous age. You only have to follow James Hansen’s reports or read Clive Hamilton’s “Requiem for a Species” to understand the gravity of our collective situation. Temperatures are increasing, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising at a much faster rate than predicted. This begs a critical question: Why have the sophisticated computer models been inaccurate in forecasting global climate change? Recent studies might provide us with some important answers:

Oceans, which have always helped industrial civilization by absorbing two thirds of its CO2, are losing their ability to clean the air.

The new research revealed that a number of ‘positive feedback mechanisms’ are amplifying the effects of planetary warming in powerful ways. Among them, and likely the most potent of all, is the enormous quantity of methane and carbon dioxide trapped beneath the permafrost in Siberia. This vast area holds much more gas than we originally assumed – possibly up to three trillion tonnes in fact. And methane, it is important to note, is a greenhouse gas 25 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

All this locked away gas is safe until warming trends begin to melt the frozen casing that holds it in place. Once this happens, a process that was started years ago, large amounts of methane will bubble into the atmosphere, significantly increasing the greenhouse effect, warming the planet, and releasing yet more methane. The methane feeds back into the system (positive feedback) creating a scenario that inevitably leads to an irreversible tipping point if enough of it gets out.

Oceans, which have always helped industrial civilization by absorbing two thirds of its CO2, are losing their ability to clean the air. It’s the same, in principle, as a warm beer going flat. And as the oceans warm, reflective white ice melts into the dark sea, therefore letting heat absorb into the ocean instead of reflecting back into space. These are both examples of how Earth’s oceans could help throw the planet into a powerful feedback cycle; which, some scientists argue, the modeling of computer data does not accurately account for.

If the computer models do not weigh-in the full complexity of planet Earth – something impossible to do, no matter what the technology – then relying on their projections for carbon reduction is not only unwise, but may prove deadly. Where are these tipping points?

Nobody really understands climate change completely, of course. But we do know that emissions from the permafrost have risen by one-third in just five years. And with political inaction, increased rates of pollution, deforestation, and the feedback effect mentioned above, we should only expect these statistics to rise.

We do know that emissions from the permafrost have risen by one-third in just five years.
There is a number that, once reached, will send our planet into a catastrophic warming cycle. At this point, it will be too late. We don’t know what that exact number is yet, but one thing is certain - relying on computer models, politicians, market “self-regulation,” or petitions will, in the end, only harm our ability to save civilization and its seven billion inhabitants. Let’s not reach that number. Now is our last chance to act.

Check out RosebudMag.com this Monday for more from Tristan Shaw, including ways for you to help take action against climate change and the global warming tipping point.

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Author Clive Hamilton discusses climate change and the tipping point for global warming.
Last modified on Wednesday, 06 April 2011 21:51

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