Even during the pandemic, strange heat waves roil the sea and set the Poles to melt. 5.9 degrees C. of warming by 2100 – and 8 foot sea level rise! From the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research new science with Professor Ricarda Winkelmann. From the University of Bern Switzerland, a new understanding of marine heat waves with Dr. Christine Laufkotter.
The President of the United States and more of his White House Staff have coronavirus, just weeks before the election. The reality of medical science has finally breached the last bastion of deadly denial. Meanwhile, lost in that shocking news, government money propping up the U.S. airline industry ended. Between 30 and 50 thousands more airline employees get laid off. The international airline industry is collapsing, which is good news for emissions to the atmosphere, but terrible news for millions upon millions of poorer people who depend on tourism. Maybe the next planes up will be electric.
Despite what you see in the stock market, major parts of the economy in most developed countries are collapsing. A member of my family just lost his job while literally millions of people are looking for work that isn’t there. Evictions are beginning, during the worst pandemic in over 100 years. In my opinion, no matter what happens politically, we are entering a period of financial panic in the developed world, and as the United Nations warns, mass hunger to starvation for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.
So why would you listen to a couple of scientists talk about climate change? That is another harsh reality we have denied too long. Climate change will rock this world more than COVID-19. One of our guests, part of an elite group of German researchers, sticks to her prediction: on our current course we are heading to almost 6 degrees C. of warming by the year 2100. That will drive sea levels up 2.5 meters or 8 feet, and that is just the start of coastlines changing and flooded cities for centuries to come. If we cannot slash our greenhouse gas emissions, we are talking about global catastrophe for everyone and all species. That has already started whether Trump knows it or not.
Our second guest from Switzerland describes one of the most elusive problems of the coming times: marine heat wave events. The U.S. West coast already experienced this during “the blob” of hot water hovering off Washington, Oregon and California for almost two years, while wildfires burned on land. Now it’s back, and may keep coming back more and more often until that hot ocean becomes the new normal.
Remember when the TV weatherman says the hurricane will strengthen as it crosses the hot Gulf of Mexico? That is what marine heat waves do. When coral in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef went dead white in recent years, those were marine heat waves. A marine heat killed off the lobster fishery off the East Coast a few years ago. Hot ocean conditions that might have come once every thousand years are coming every ten years or less. They may come every year, becoming another new normal.
All this: the sea level rise, the heat, strange storms bringing a month of rain in a day, drought and food failures – these climate-driven events will not appear magically in the year 2100. They are hitting us now with punches that will just get harder as we all get older. This is science we cannot ignore even in tumultuous times. As Kevin Trenberth said on Radio Ecoshock last week, there is no vaccine for climate change.
Here is where we are: if humans can make wrenching changes to our daily lives and future plans – we can avoid utter catastrophe from a rapid shift in climate. We are already committed to climate disasters. Disaster is the best case scenario now. Catastrophe is what we must avoid and I believe we can.
So yeah, let’s take time to listen to a couple of scientists you never heard of as they lay out more of the greatest threat in human history. From the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research we have new science with Professor Ricarda Winkelmann. Then from the University of Bern Switzerland, a new understanding of marine heat waves with Dr. Christine Laufkotter.
Thank you for tuning in. I’m Alex Smith. Blasting out on more than 100 non-profit radio stations in many countries, and online throughout the world, this is Radio Ecoshock.
RICARDA WINKELMANN – THE HOT SCIENCE OF ANTARCTICA
With COVID-19 many people assume with a vaccine everything can go back to normal. But meanwhile business and schools have gone online, commercial real estate downtown is questionable, and we must change society fundamentally to prepared for the next virus. There is no going back to the way things were. The same proves true for sea level rise caused by melting glaciers at the Poles in a warming world.
Authoritative science warns: once we pass thresholds of warming, we can never go back to the state of frozen Poles known through human history. Even if we meet the best internationally agreed goals, with drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, – Antarctica will still lose enough ice to push up sea levels by at least 2.5 meters – over 8 feet of sea level rise, flooding deltas and port cities around the world.
A new paper published in the journal Nature tackles this threat head on. Our guide is co-author Ricarda Winkelmann, Professor of Climate system Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research – known as PIK. Ricarda served science on two research ships in Antarctica, helped develop ice sheet models, and contributed to the latest report on sea level change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Winkelmann is also co-author on one of the great papers of the last decade: “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene”.
Professor Ricarda Winkelmann, PIK
The new paper is led by Julius Garbe, with co-authors like Radio Ecoshock guest Anders Levermann. It it, we find a kind of scale to estimate sea level rise from Antarctic melt. But that scale does not go up neatly with each degree of warming. It appears to jump or respond in steps, when certain temperatures are reached.
Here is a quick summary of the new findings, from the Abstract for the paper “The hysteresis of the Antarctic Ice Sheet”:
“Here we show that the Antarctic Ice Sheet exhibits a multitude of temperature thresholds beyond which ice loss is irreversible. Consistent with palaeodata we find, using the Parallel Ice Sheet Model, that at global warming levels around 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, West Antarctica is committed to long-term partial collapse owing to the marine ice-sheet instability.
Between 6 and 9 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, the loss of more than 70 per cent of the present-day ice volume is triggered, mainly caused by the surface elevation feedback.
At more than 10 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, Antarctica is committed to become virtually ice-free. The ice sheet’s temperature sensitivity is 1.3 metres of sea-level equivalent per degree of warming up to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, almost doubling to 2.4 metres per degree of warming between 2 and 6 degrees and increasing to about 10 metres per degree of warming between 6 and 9 degrees.”
Let us pretend all nations act to achieve their climate commitments in the Paris Accord of 2015. Perhaps a technology to remove some carbon from the atmosphere goes mainstream by 2050. Miraculously, we hold warming to two degrees C above pre-industrial levels. Winkelmann tells us even that would not halt the great melting on Antarctica, and prevent disasters from rising seas. This is due to “hysteresis” – where the past determines the future. In fact, to return Antarctica and Greenland to their former states (that existed all through human history) – it would take another ice age!
Ricarda and her colleagues say the ice sheet on West Antarctica is “committed to long-term partial collapse” [quote from the paper Abstract]. Beyond West Antarctica, a couple of years ago, NASA announced the massive Thwaites Glacier will flow into the sea, and is now “unstoppable”.
HEADING FOR APOCALYPSE
In a 2015 Radio Ecoshock show, I played a clip from Ricarda’s presentation at a conference called “Our Common Future Under Climate Change”. It was held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, in October 2015. She said on our current course, we are headed toward a world 5.8 degrees C hotter by the year 2100. In this interview, she sys we are heading toward such catastrophic warming, unless we change course radically.
Going to 5.8 degrees C hotter by end of century sounds like an apocalyptic outcome which may not include humans for very long. I hope we manage to land at a lower place, say at 3 degrees C. of warming by the year 2100. At that level, we get 2 or 3 meters of sea level rise from Antarctica alone, but not necessarily all that by the year 2100. It may take a century or two, but that much sea level rise is “committed”. Key to all this: will severe rising sea levels would take long enough that humans could withdraw from the coast and rebuild civilization?
THE UNDER-REPORTED IMPACTS OF GREENLAND MELTWATER
In earlier work, Dr. James Hansen worried about the impact of high levels of meltwater entering the North Atlantic Ocean. There is already an abnormally cold “blob” of water south of Greenland. Some projections expect this could cool the UK and northern Europe even while the rest of the world heats up. With tips from Australian scientist Andrew Glikson, I am digging into the meltwater question, possibly for a future show. Has there been research into the ramifications of introducing so much Antarctic meltwater into the Southern Ocean? Not enough, but try this:
“Change in future climate due to Antarctic meltwater” Ben Bronselaer (Univ of Arizona and Princeton) et al Published: 19 November 2018 Bronslear finds Antarctic meltwater could delay arrival of expected warming by at least a decade, not only in the Southern Ocean, (where the impact is most pronounced) but all over the globe.
In 2012, Ricarda Winklemann led a paper with Anders Levermann suggesting sea level rise from Antarctica might be mitigated by projections of higher snowfall there, which would return some water to the continent. I ask her: with 8 years more research and modeling, what do you think now? The 2012 paper “Increased future ice discharge from Antarctica owing to higher snowfall” is here.
Winkelmann also co-authored new science out this year on worrying things like “tipping cascades” and the “dynamic emergence of domino effects in systems“. These are hard new looks at the way this planet really works, and the public has no clue.
It sounds like even if humans heroically change away from civilization powered by fossil fuels, Antarctic ice sheets will still melt and flood coastlines around the world. The glaciers follow their own implacable laws. Why should we fight climate change if we have already lost such a crucial battle? Because, as I say repeatedly in this show, with our emissions behaviours right now, we are choosing between a survivable disaster or extinction-level catastrophe. That is why.
As we finish up, Ricarda tells us about the DominoES project formed at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Climate denial may be less in Germany, but it currently rules in the USA and runs strongly in other countries including Australia. Even when millions die in extreme heat and fires and the Poles melt back, Internet pundits and politicians play down the science. Do you think a public weakened by a pandemic and economic hardship is ready to face the reality uncovered by science?
Read a great article about this new paper in Britain’s beacon of climate, the Guardian newspaper – by top environmental journalist Fiona Harvey.
If you enjoyed this Radio Ecoshock interview, you can get 20 interview transcripts of top scientists and authors in my new e-book “Surviving in the New Age of Extreme Heat”. The book is searchable and contains tons of links to click and dive in further. Find more here.
CHARLOTTE LAUFKÖTTER – THE NEW MARINE HEAT WAVES
Record-breaking heat waves are not jut striking land. Extended heat waves are appearing around the world in the ocean, with deadly consequences for everything from coral to fisheries. But are they caused by humans adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere? Until now, we could not answer that question. We have a new paper in Science: “High-impact marine heatwaves attributable to human-induced global warming” – and we have the lead author to explain it. Dr. Charlotte Laufkötter is a marine scientist at the Physics Institute of the University of Bern, Switzerland.
Charlotte is co-author of the new paper “High-impact marine heatwaves attributable to human-induced global warming”, published September 25th in the journal Science.
Dr. Charlotte Laufkötter, University of Bern
I first tuned into marine heat waves as a critical issue during coral bleaching in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef ,starting in 2011. Many suspected global warming was driving those events when hot seas led to coral die off. There were abnormal ocean temperatures around New England a few years ago, severely damaging the fishing industry. But until this new paper, it was hard to attribute those hot waters to climate change.
Meteorologists on TV will say a hurricane is gaining strength because the Gulf of Mexico is hotter than normal. Watch for that with Hurricane Delta, boiling up past Mexico into the Gulf in the next days, and projected to hit Louisiana, possibly near New Orleans. On Twitter Sam Lillo (@splillo) writes:
“Delta just went from 35mph tropical depression to 130mph category 4 hurricane in 30 hours!
I can’t find any other storm on record in the Atlantic that has achieved this feat.”
Television news does not report on marine heat waves. These sea-borne heat waves making hurricanes, typhoons or cyclones more powerful. Marine heat waves are badly reported with media limited to each country. We seldom get an overview of where these hot spots are popping up. In our interview, Charlotte gives us a list of major marine heat waves during the last ten years.
A new way to measure marine heat waves was just announced this year. Instead of simply taking measurements of surface temperatures, scientists now talk about “thermal displacement”. It isn’t just masses of heat in the sea that are displaced. Everything from tiny cellular life to large predatory fish may have to flow or shift with changing water temperatures. If they cannot move, they may fail and die off in great numbers. In a simplistic nutshell, the new measurement calculates how far marine life would have to travel to find their preferred ocean temperature range. In a lesser marine heat wave, fish for example might have to swim a hundred miles. In a large wave, they might have to go a thousand miles to find their ecological niche, if they can. Of course many species, from corals to kelp, cannot move. Too often they die. See this scientific paper “Severe Continental-Scale Impacts of Climate Change Are Happening Now: Extreme Climate Events Impact Marine Habitat Forming Communities Along 45% of Australia’s Coast”, by Russell C. Babcock et al. published in 2019.
In 2019, NOAA, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reported on a reappearance of “the blob” of hot water off the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada. They talked about a ridge of high pressure quieting winds that usually “mix and cool the ocean’s surface”. They said it could “go away pretty quickly” if the “unusually persistent weather patterns that caused it change.” Are these abnormal hot patches in the ocean caused by the weather, and how do marine heat waves end? The answers are not simple. Please listen to this interview for Ricarda’s explanation. But yes, “the blob” is a marine heat wave – and technically so is the famous El Nino, when the sea releases heat in the tropical Pacific.
In 2019, a team of scientists led by N.J. Holbrook performed “A global assessment of marine heatwaves and their drivers. “ The authors admit “there is limited understanding of the physical processes that give rise to [Marine Heat Waves] MHWs”. In 2020, have we discovered how global warming creates this uneven distribution of heat in the sea? Why not a general warming all over, instead of patches of unusually hot seas springing up? The combination of hot seas off shore, and hot weather plus fires onshore, leads us to wonder: are sea and shore heat both driven by persistent heat in the atmosphere, or can the hotter ocean be a driver for weather on the coast and beyond?
In addition to the damage caused to plants, fish, and mammals, new science suggests that marine heat waves may also reduce the ocean’s ability to capture and store our carbon emissions. In other words, heat in the ocean may lead to more global warming, a kind of feedback effect. [For example: “The ocean has become more stratified with global warming”, and my personal correspondence with Dr. Kevin Trenberth of NCAR.
Science published last year – “How fast are the oceans warming?” – by Lijing Cheng found the planet’s oceans are warming around 40 percent faster than the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The increasing rate of general ocean warming affects the chances of more marine heat waves happening around the world. What was once a one-in-a-thousand year event may now pop up every years. Some marine heat waves may come every year, and so become the “new normal”.
To read more about this new science, if you have access to the New York Times, I recommend this article “Ocean Heat Waves Are Directly Linked to Climate Change The “blob” of hotter ocean water that killed sea lions and other marine life in 2014 and 2015 may become permanent.” by Henry Fountain.
MORE CLIMATE VIEWS
During our interview with Ricarda Winkleman, I raised a problem set out in an earlier interview with Dr. Kevin Trenberth of NCAR. A team of top climate scientists, including Trenberth, Michael Mann, and John Abraham, but led by Chinese scientists including Guanchen Li reveal the ocean is developing dangerous layers. The paper is titled “Increasing ocean stratification over the past half-century”. The implication would take a whole science-fiction novel to become real to us, but this is science and not fiction.
I recall over ten years ago the British inventor and scientist Sir James Lovelock pointed to ocean stratification as one of the doom signals for this age of living things. If the ocean stops mixing properly, a lot of important things stop working. Ocean creatures from plankton to fish get less oxygen to live. The great overturning currents of the world can get weaker, changing weather over Europe and around the world. Now we have proof stratification has begun.
The only question now is:
are we going to push the natural world into a cataclysmic breakdown?
Will we do it just to drive around in gas-guzzling cars or burn oil instead of taking energy from the wind and sun? The virus has shown we can make fast changes if our survival depends on it. Our survival depends on mass changes to slash greenhouse gas emissions, because mammals like ourselves cannot survive in an overheated greenhouse world.
I’m counting on you to learn everything you can about this. Follow climate change science like the biggest news of the day. If you enjoyed the interviews today, you can get a full book of interview transcripts about “Surviving the New Age of Extreme Heat” at my web site, ecoshock.org. Then tell others about climate change, even when they are glued to news about the latest political entertainer and theater of the absurd. Reality has a script that will capture your attention, sooner, later, or too late.
My sincere thanks for spending time with Radio Ecoshock. You can write me any time with your story ideas, using the Contact form on this web site. Feel free to add your comments to this blog (but realize they will not show up right away as I cull replies for advertising and trolls). Please join me again for next week’s radio show and blog.