Written By: Emma Websdale
As the threats of global warming continue, including potential plant and wildlife extinctions, sudden sea-level rise, water shortages and the collapse of sea ice, the National Research Council has called on the government to create an early warning system to monitor climate conditions.
A 200-page report by the National Academy of Sciences, Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises (2013), has addressed the problems that could occur in coming years in response to global warming. The report warns that, although changes in the physical climate system may happen gradually over many decades, climate “tipping points” could suddenly inflict rapid and devastating ecological and socioeconomic change.
Examples of tipping points cited in the report include intense heat waves that could quickly wipe out crops, shutdown of the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation patterns that could chill nearby lands and rapid release of methane from melting permafrost and undersea ice that could further catalyze global warming.
The first changes that are likely to pass tipping points include an increase in sea level rise, an increase in ocean acidity and an increase in surface temperature. Consequences of these changes would lead to costly damages in infrastructure including flooding of roads, airports, subway systems and pipelines and mass extinctions of marine species.
With abrupt climate change already happening, the National Research Council has called on the government to create an early warning system to monitor climate conditions and improve the models used for predicting change. The aim of the new system is to provide warnings so that preparations can be made well in advance of any tipping points.
“The reality is that the climate is changing”, says James White, one of the researchers who worked on the report at the University of Colorado Boulder. “It’s going to continue to happen, and it’s going to be part of everyday life for centuries to come -perhaps longer than that.”
The report proposes that alerts could be modelled on programs such as the National Integrated Drought Information System or the U.S Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning System Network.
“It’s important to look down the road and try to identify what are the abrupt changes that we can plan for with some degree of confidence, and then make the best of them rather than having them hit us in the face”, says Anthony Barnosky, co-author of the report.
“Right now we don’t know what many of these thresholds are”, says White. “But with better information, we will be able to anticipate some major changes before they occur and help reduce the potential consequences.”
The report reiterates that global warming is already occurring and pays particular attention to the effects of climate change on species’ habitats. With species having to alter their geographical ranges, breeding behaviors and seasonal patterns to cope with rapid change, many are struggling to survive. Amongst species currently in danger include North American turtle species, coral, polar bears, koala bears, the flightless cormorant and the Hawaiian silversword plant.