Tipping and other points

During the Copenhagen kerfuffle a lot of interesting stuff hit the web: here’s something that deserves a bit more air – a Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) special issue on tipping elements in the earth system, edited by John Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

Tipping elements (or points, as Malcolm Gladwell would have them) are changes that once started take on a life of their own, and can’t easily be returned to their original state. In the climate system that might be the rapid loss of an ice sheet in a few decades or hundreds of years, while regrowing it might take many thousands. The PNAS special issue deals with nine: dust production in the Bodélé Depression in Chad, ENSO, Arctic sea ice and ice sheets, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, deep ocean hydrates (not shallow sea bed, Siberian methane) — David Archer dubs them a “slow tipping point”, the Amazon rainforest (no “Amazongate” here, just a confirmation that concern is justified), monsoons, oceans, and policy responses to the climate challenge. And the best thing is that all the articles are available online, free (click on the link above). Schellnhuber contributes an introduction, and the Potsdam press release also provides a good overview. For some introductory thoughts, check out Tim Lenton’s discussion here.

Another recent example of a real tipping point is the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica. Recent modelling suggests that the glacier’s grounding line retreated beyond a ridge in 1996, and is now free to retreat by several hundred kilometres inland. This could happen in a hundred years and result in the loss of half of the ice in the glacier — enough to raise sea level by 24cm. New Scientist reports:

Observations already show that the model severely underestimates the rate at which PIG’s grounding line is retreating, says Katz. “Ours is a simple model of an ice sheet that neglects some important physics,” says Katz. “The take-home message is that we should be concerned about tipping points in West Antarctica and we should do a lot more work to investigate,” he says.

Amen to that.

9 thoughts on “Tipping and other points”

  1. Note to deniers: the US Defence Dept. has been infiltrated by hippie commie warmists…

    “In September, the CIA announced it was creating a Center on Climate Change and National Security that will study “the effect environmental factors can have on political, economic, and social stability overseas.”

    The Chief of Naval Operations has established “Task Force Climate Change” to “assess the Navy’s preparedness to respond to emerging requirements, and to develop a science-based timeline for future Navy actions regarding climate change.” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has set the year 2020 as a deadline for the Navy cutting its use of fossil fuels by half.

    On February 1, the Pentagon issued its Quadrennial Defense Review, which establishes defense strategy and priorities and evaluates potential international risks. It cites intelligence assessments that “climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world, contributing to poverty, environmental degradation and the further weakening of fragile governments. Climate change will contribute to food and water scarcity, will increase the spread of disease and may spur or exacerbate mass migration.

    “While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world,” the review added.

    Among its other findings, the review cites a 2008 National Intelligence Council report that more than 30 US military installations were “already facing elevated levels of risk from rising sea levels. DoD’s operational readiness hinges on continued access to land, air, and sea training and test space. Consequently, the department must complete a comprehensive assessment of all installations to assess the potential impacts of climate change on its missions and adapt as required.”


  2. Rob:

    Is your intro possibly redundantly redundant? Is “watermelon” an acceptable substitute? Or would the hippie aura of unwashed make the watermelon unappealing?

  3. Terry:

    Then again in the past few years (more so in the past eighteen months) the number of catastrophic weather events in pretty much every region of this planet does seem to be intensifying don`t you think or maybe you have been preoccupied attempting to maintain a BAU stance. ie `If I don`t look it will go away, pleeease.`

  4. Rob taylor has a penchant for seeing communists and butchering nazi’s around every corner.

    However, re ‘tipping points’ it must come as some relief that President Obama has, according the the Guardian anyway, helped staved off planetary disaster by promoting an expansion of America’s use of nuclear energy and to open up offshore drilling.

    “Obama has also asked Congress to triple loan guarantees for the nuclear industry, to $54bn from the current $18.5bn…”

    And adds…”On an issue which affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we cannot continue to be mired in the same old debates between left and right; between environmentalists and entrepreneurs.”

    What a relief ! This could be at last sanity prevailing (and a tipping point or two averted perhaps.)


  5. Wow, Mikh, you’re sounding like James Hansen now – he is calling for a major expansion of 3rd and 4th-generation (fast breeder) nuclear power.

    p.6:”In my opinion the best place for coal is to leave it in the ground. We should move on to renewable energies and improved energy efficiency. Coal supply is finite, so we must move to other fuels
    eventually. Why not do it sooner, rather than later, thus preserving a planet similar to the one on which civilization developed during the past several thousand years?

    We should also have a strong R&D program, on an emergency basis, to evaluate the potential of next generation nuclear power, specifically breeder reactors that can burn nuclear waste, thus minimizing
    several problems that have been associated with nuclear power. Nuclear power may be required for baseload electrical power to allow countries such as China and India to phase out coal emissions over the next few decades. The aim should be to establish a standard safe design, one allowing modular factory construction and standard operating procedures, thus allowing rapid deployment, avoiding the long delays and price increases of the current approach.”

    I am inclined to agree, as coal is far worse than nuclear in all respects, from mining to pollution to waste.

  6. Nuclear enthusiasts should be following Barry Brook’s Integral Fast Reactor Facts and Discussion series at Brave New Climate.

    Nuclear power is certainly part of the answer to cutting global emissions, but it’s not a one-size fits all solution. The extent to which it is used will vary widely from country to country. In NZ it’s unlikely to be relevant unless and until small-scale “plug in” reactors are available.

  7. Gareth/Rob

    I agree nuclear is possibly part of the answer but lets look at the logistics and time frame.
    Ref: Bill Gates: “We need global `energy miracles` (article John D. Sutter, CNN Feb 13 )
    Bill Gates is part funder of `Intellectual Ventures` who operate 30,000sqft R&D facility in Bellevue, Washington. Founder, Edward Jung and CEO Nathan Myhrvold are ex Microsoft.
    Amongst their many projects, under the offshoot `Terra Power` they are investigating “traveling wave reactor” technology to use spent or waste uranium rods from existing reactors to generate electricity but 99% more efficiently thus eliminating the nasty waste that gets the greenies so fired up.
    Bill`s estimated time frame is 20yrs to perfect the technology and 20yrs to deploy. Takes us to 2050 and carbon neutral. Great, we are saved.
    Small problem. Currently we have 236 (old) nuclear reactors world wide which account for 16% of world electricity generation capacity and demand is expected to double by 2050.
    If we are to eliminate coal then we not only need to replace existing facilities with double the number but also replace at least 70% of the remaining capacity (shortfall made up of hydro etc). Lets say approx 800 to 1000 reactors from 2030 to 2050.
    Oh, did I mention the grids in most western countries will need to be replaced as well.
    A tall order by anyone’s estimation given that nothing on this planet moves without oil and by 2030 that could be a very expensive commodity. Ref: Jeff Rubin, Richard Hienberg, Matt Simmons and a few others I`m sure you will be aware of.
    If it was horseflesh it would be about 1000 to one odds.

    Good luck with that, we will surely need it.

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