“My message to the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance Community is that we are not in a steady state right now.”
This is the perspective of Paul Beckwith, a Part-time Professor of Climatology at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada. In a podcast interview with ReliefAnalysis.com, Beckwith—a prolific analyst, subject matter expert, and content creator on the subject of Abrupt Climate Change—believes that Abrupt Climate Change is happening, and happening now.
The “Godzilla” El Nino stressing humanitarian and disaster operations worldwide, raging fires in Alaska, Siberia and the rain forests of Indonesia, Hurricane Patricia’s recent explosion to a Category 5+ monster cyclone…all of these events may only be the beginning of a rapid acceleration into uncharted territory. Or more accurately, a tipping point into an entirely new climate state for our planet.
Combine additional precipitable water in Earth’s atmosphere, a wavy and erratic jet stream, and a potential catastrophic reduction in Arctic Sea Ice, and Beckwith foresees an increase in frequency, duration, and severity of disaster-level weather events on the scale of 10-20 times greater (not a typo) than today in the not-so-distant future.
As Beckwith has aptly stated, "What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Not like Vegas."
Beckwith spent considerable time with ReliefAnalysis.com breaking down imminent and Abrupt Climate Change as it may impact all humanitarian professionals.
Click here to download and listen to the full 45 minute podcast.
Excerpts and an overview of some of Beckwith’s most salient points for humanitarian professionals are below.
Humanitarian Guide: Major Features of Abrupt Climate Change
Blue Ocean Event
A term coined by Beckwith referring to the loss of the majority of Arctic Sea Ice during the melt season, and the creation of large expanses of open waters in the Arctic Ocean. Sea ice is currently in a fragile state thanks to major ice loss over the past decade, with major melt episodes in 2007, 2013 and again this past summer. A Blue Ocean Event would disproportionately increase the temperature of the Arctic, raise global temperatures, and further destabilize the jet stream. In Beckwith’s view, a Blue Ocean Event is likely to occur as early as 2020, or even, albeit with a long offside chance, the summer of 2016, depending on unique local weather conditions.
Jet Stream Alteration
When flowing strongly and mostly west-to-east (called zonally, versus north-south (meridionally)), the Jet Stream efficiently clears out weather patterns in North America and Eurasia. But with the Arctic warmer, the temperature difference between the tropics and the Arctic is less, and the Jet Stream is slow, weak, wobbly and erratic. Storms—now charged by abnormally hot Sea Surface Temperatures and increased water vapor in the atmosphere—can get stuck and persist longer. They can also explode in intensity. Heatwaves and droughts can become entrenched. Temperatures can reach extremes as the jet stream wildly oscillates—with cold temperatures plunging to the mid latitudes, or the searing heat reaching the Arctic. A Blue Ocean Event would break down the jet stream even more—and Beckwith suggests an increase in the frequency, severity and duration of disaster occurrences by 10-20 times once this occurs.
Uninhabitable Hot Zones
Following a Blue Ocean event, the southern latitudes will begin to heat significantly, as there is less of a temperature differential between the Arctic and the tropics, and heat builds steadily instead of being transported northward. Some hot and humid areas of Southeast Asia, India, and the Middle East could actually be rendered uninhabitable for our species as “wet bulb” temperatures soar towards 35C (95F)—the limit of the human body’s ability to regulate its own temperature (the body is no longer able to sweat and core body temperature rises quickly). This past summer, parts of Iran and Iraq achieved heat indexes of near 160F (71.1C)—entering the wet blub limit territory. Abrupt Climate Change brings forth the possibility of uninhabitable zones that would spawn and expand in the planet’s warmest and most humid areas.
Methane Hydrates and the Paleo Perspective
As severe as these aspects of Abrupt Climate Change may be for the humanitarian community, an ominous wildcard looms deep in the waters of the Arctic Ocean and in the permafrost of the Arctic Circle. Methane hydrates—the decayed legacy of flora and fauna of eons ago—could potentially be unleashed from the ground to the atmosphere if temperatures warm enough. A large methane release (quite possibly resulting from a Blue Ocean Event) could unleash enough greenhouse gasses to tip the planet into an entirely new climate regime. Or perhaps not entirely new from a geologic perspective—methane eruptions have happened before. 56 million years ago, methane releases warmed the Earth an incredible 5C in 13 years. Abrupt Climate Change itself has also occurred on the boundaries of ice ages and interglacial periods, where wild global temperature swings occurred in timeframes of decades or less. While human civilization may not have memory of Abrupt Climate Change on this scale, such events have occurred in fairly recent geologic time.
Non-Linear Sea Level Rise
A Blue Ocean Event could catalyze “non-linear” rates of melt in Greenland and Antarctica, causing a rapid pulse of Sea Level Rise quite different than the smooth linear graphs portrayed by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Non-linear Sea Level Rise would have enormous implications for the global humanitarian community, as Pacific Island Nations and countries including Bangladesh would need to consider prompt evacuation and relocation of vulnerable populations. Pulses of meltwater from Greenland also could further slow the Gulf Stream, causing major changes in North Atlantic weather patterns. According to Beckwith, this is happening already, evidenced by: 1) a vast pool of anomalously cold surface water south of Greenland; 2) anomalously warm surface water south of the cold water where the Gulf Stream has shifted to; 3) very warm water off the US East Coast which the Gulf Stream is overriding; and 4) very rapid sea level rise on the US East Coast due to due to ocean currents pushing against the coastline--for example, 4-5 inches in 2010-2011 when the Gulf Stream's flow essentially halted. Dr. James Hansen’s recent work has discussed non-linear melt rates. While we touched on Sea Level Rise in our interview, please see Beckwith’s excellent video on non-linear ice melt and Sea Level Rise for an in-depth analysis.
For the Disaster Management and Humanitarian Community, the time to get ready is now. From the healthcare sector, to social workers, to engineers, to NGOs and International Organizations—Abrupt Climate Change means making paradigm shifts, looking at redundant and augmented operations and constantly thinking outside of the box.
From Beckwith’s perspective, there is hope, and a possibility that some of the cascading feedbacks can be addressed. His solution set three pronged: 1) zeroing global emissions; 2) cooling the Arctic with Solar Radiation Management (SRM); and 3) reducing global atmosphere and ocean C02 concentrations (CDR, Carbon Dioxide Removal).
In the meantime, Beckwith’s Abrupt Climate perspectives belong in the tool kit of humanitarian professionals worldwide. After all, much of Disaster Planning involves taking a worse-case scenario and working backwards. The Blue Ocean event may well be that ultimate scenario. Without a doubt, all humanitarians are wise to keep an eye on the Arctic this summer and for the summers to follow.
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Images: NOAA, NASA, Climate Reanalyzer, UNHCR, United Nations,