Climate Code Red Analysis and Sea Level Warnings
By Robert Hunziker
Climate Code Red, a very thorough and well-respected source on climate change/global warming, recently issued a three-part study on where things stand with the climate system via looking through the rearview mirror at 2022 and reflecting that charred image into the future: Faster, Higher, Hotter: What We Learned About the Climate System in 2022 by David Spratt, Research Director, Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, Feb. 20, 2023.
For starters, several aspects of global warming are at all-time highs, for example, coal use is at an all-time high and not surprisingly all three of the major greenhouse gases CO2, CH4, and N2O hit record highs in 2022. According to the Global Carbon Project: Carbon emissions from fossil fuels hit a new record of 37.5B tons. Topping off these all-time records, the International Energy Agency expects fossil fuel emissions to possibly peak in 2025 but remain at a “high plateau at a high level” for a decade or more with no significant decline expected in the foreseeable future. Good luck with Net Zero.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessments: “There is no longer a credible path to holding warming below 1.5°C without massive immediate cooling interventions, which are not on any policymaking agendas.” Moreover, the experts quoted in the Code Red study believe anything less than 1.5°C is already out of reach.
Not only is the 1.5°C target unachievable, but it’s unachievable regardless of almost any foreseeable mitigation efforts. This fact is also emphasized by the UK publication The Economist, which discussed the lag effect of greenhouse gases, to wit: “But greenhouse-gas emissions do not cause an instantaneous rise in global temperatures, and neither does cutting them result in instantaneous cooling. Instead, it will take decades for today’s policy efforts to result in measurable impacts on global temperature.” (Source: Emissions Slashed Today Won’t Slow Warming Until Mid-Century, The Economist, July 11, 2022)
The Economist article dovetails with the opinion of James Hansen, Earth Institute, Columbia University, who is one of the planet’s leading authorities on global warming: “Global warming of at least 2°C is now baked into Earth’s future.”
Code Red goes on to remind people that, according to paleoclimate evidence, the last time CO2 kevels were similar to today’s with temperatures at 1.2°C and up to 3°C sea levels fluctuated by 20-40 meters, or equivalent to 65-130 feet. Of course, this is a frightening number that readers prefer to gloss over, or forget, but so sorry, it’s factual, it happened and could happen again. Although numbers of 65-130 feet won’t occur during the current generation; it’ll take much longer. Nevertheless, we’re not worried about 65 feet. It’s only the first few feet that’ll sufficiently flood the world’s largest coastal cities, like Mumbai and Miami. By the time 65 feet rolls around, who knows what’ll be happening.
Code Red claims that even sharp reductions in emissions will not be enough to avoid 2°C, or higher temperatures because of record-breaking fossil fuel forecasts. According to Will Steffen, executive director, Australian National University Climate Change Institute, it’s a mistake to assume we can even stabilize at 2°C. “Rather, it’s a signpost on a road to a hotter planet.”
Moreover, “When projections in late 2021 showed future warming of around 2.7°C, Potsdam Institute Director Johan Rockström said: ‘I barely even want to talk about 2.7°C… If we go beyond 2°C, it’s very likely that we have caused so many tipping points that you have probably added another degree just through self-reinforcing changes. And that’s without even talking about extreme events.”
Of equal concern: “Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: “If the [climate system] tipping elements interact and cascades develop, then the heating could become independent [i.e. self-sustaining] at 2°C. Whether that is the case is perhaps the most important question of science right now because it would mean the end of our civilization.”
Those statements are from climate analysts that are widely considered to be at the top of the class and should not be taken lightly. Frankly, it’s a fair statement that world leaders and the public have no idea how far along the global warming threat has progressed, especially since the start of the 21st century. After all, according to the Institute for European Environmental Policy: One-half of all greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since 1750 have been emitted over the past 30 years alone. Early-stage evidence of its impact is easily identified, for example, according to NASA: Antarctica and Greenland combined lost 82B tons of ice mass, on average, per year during the 1990s versus 475B tons per year during the 2010s. That’s an extraordinary statement of fact as it’s the fuel behind sea level rise, and it is expanding in short order.
According to the study, permafrost across the Arctic is beginning to “irreversibly thaw and release carbon dioxide and methane.” Alas, we’re not even at 1.5°C yet. Hmm.
The study discusses the status of the world’s major glaciers. All of them are at various stages pointing towards tipping points that could cascade ice sheets and glaciers much more rapidly than any climate models currently indicate, to wit: “Events at both poles are not properly incorporated into current climate models. The evidence suggests that sea-level rises this century will be greater than currently considered feasible by policymakers. Based upon evidence from climate history the current global average temperature increase is enough for 5–10 metres (16-33 feet) of sea-level rise in the longer term, inundating small island states, agriculturally rich alluvial deltas, and vulnerable coastal cities.”
This article covers the first two parts of Climate Code Red’s three-part series. The third will be covered later.
Sea Level Warnings
Separate from, and coincident with, the Climate Code Red article, according to several recent studies on sea level: “The time available to prepare for increased exposure to flooding may be considerably less than assumed to date,” analysis by Dutch researchers Ronald Vernimmen and Aljosja Hooijer. (Source: Worst Impacts of Sea Level Rise Will Hit Earlier Than Expected, American Geophysical Union, January 24, 2023)
New studies have concluded: (1) ice sheets that threaten to expand oceans “will likely crumble with another 0.5°C increase in global warming” (2) ice sheets “are fragile in ways not previously understood.” (Source: Climate, Ice Sheets & Sea Level: The News is Not Good, Phys.org, February 16, 2023)
The studies found flaws in prior research because of misinterpretation of satellite data and inaccurate resources regarding some underlying countries. As a result of new calculations: “The number of people threatened by sea levels has been underestimated by tens of millions,” Ibid.
A study by Jun-Young Park, Fabian Schloesser, et al, Future Sea-Level Projections with a Coupled Atmosphere-Ocean-Ice-Sheet Model, Nature Communications d/d February 14, 2023, concluded: “Our model has a threshold between 1.5C and 2C of warming – with 1.8C as a best estimate – for acceleration of ice loss and sea level increase.”
The Park-Schloesser study claims that 1.8C brings on runaway disintegration of ice sheets. This is the first known study of this kind to correlate a specific global temperature increase with more rapid acceleration of ice loss. It, therefore, begs the question of how soon 1.8C hits?
As for example, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), if all the pledges made by countries at COP26 in Glasgow, November 2021 were met, global temperatures would “hold to 1.8C.” One-hundred-twenty (120) countries pledged at Glasgow. Net Zero by 2050. But as is always true with pledges, implementation, implementation, implementation is all that counts. However, even if the 120 countries meet Glasgow commitments, according to new research, runaway disintegration of ice sheets still starts at 1.8C.
Which brings forth the report card for COP26, as of October 2022, which is not necessarily encouraging: “Progress made on COP26 commitments since Glasgow is mixed at best. But to be fair, countries and others often save up their exciting announcements for major international moments. Hopefully we are in for some nice surprises when world leaders gather in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for COP27. The world will be watching carefully to see if countries, companies and cities back up their commitments with real action.” (Source: Where Do We Stand on COP26 Climate Promises? A Progress Report, World Resources Institute, October 13, 2022)
By the following month, November 2022, COP27 deflated all expectations. Experts on climate change give UN-sponsored COP27 an F-grade. “A collective failure,” according to The Lancet, which is the world’s highest impact academic journal.
Therefore, if countries are not enthusiastically involved in commitments to limit/cut emissions, the consequences are found far afield. For example, Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica, the world’s most iconic image of global warming. According to Ted Scambos, Senior Research Scientist ESOC, University of Colorado: “Each visit underscores how fast Thwaites is changing, seeing this huge ice shelf moving towards you at about a mile every year is unsettling. And all by itself, this one glacier is big enough to impact sea level significantly,” Scambos, head of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, funded by the US and UK to a tune of $50M. How many glaciers of the world have funds dedicated to specific research, and what does this imply about the shaky status of Thwaites, which continues to alarm scientists?
Two new studies, with commentary on Thwaites, are found in Nature d/d February 15th, 2023: “Models of how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and glacier flow respond to climate change are missing some important details. Incorporating these insights should clarify how and why the ice will change in the future.” (Source: Glimpse Beneath Iconic Glacier Reveals How It’s Adding to Sea-Level Rise, Nature, February 15, 2023)
Thwaites is key to future sea level rise because it is massive and increasingly unstable. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that sea levels will probably rise by between 38 and 77 centimetres, or 1.3 feet-to-2.6 feet, by 2100, but the collapse or melting of some of the ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic could theoretically contribute an additional metre (3.3 feet),” Ibid. Which can only be categorized as disastrous for 8 of the top 10 largest cities in the world, which are coastal.
“Thwaites Glacier is a fast-moving block of ice, the size of Florida, in the West Antarctic. Satellite studies have shown that its ‘grounding line’ — where ice attached to bedrock transitions to ice floating in the sea — has shifted 14 kilometres (8.7 miles) inland since the late 1990s, and some parts of it are retreating as fast as 1.2 kilometres (0.75 miles) per year,” Ibid.
What’s moving Thwaites’ ice sheet? Warm ocean water is melting the underside because of climate change, which has shifted wind patterns in the region, bringing warm ocean water to West Antarctica that was not there before. The water temperatures below Thwaites’ ice shelf are about 1.5C above the freezing point.
Researchers achieved the closest look ever at the underside of Thwaites Glacier as well as “the first-ever glimpse at the spot where the ice meets the land,” Ibid.
Prior field research indicated that giant fractures in the “floating ice” of Thwaites “could shatter part of the shelf within five years.” (Source: Giant Cracks Push Imperiled Antarctic Glacier Closer to Collapse, Nature, December 14, 2021) This would open an avenue for a much faster flow of glacial ice on land into the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise. Already Thwaites accounts for 4% of sea-level rise.
“If Thwaites’s eastern ice shelf collapses, ice in this region could flow up to three times faster into the sea, Pettit says. And if the glacier were to collapse completely, it would raise sea levels by 65 centimetres (2 feet),” Erin Pettit, glaciologist at Oregon State University, Ibid.
“Thwaites flows off the Antarctic continent into the Southern Ocean. At 120 kilometres (75 miles) across, it is the world’s widest glacier. Across about two-thirds of that expanse, ice flows relatively quickly into the ocean. The remaining one-third is the eastern ice shelf, where ice had been flowing more slowly. In part, that’s because the ice grinds to a halt when it reaches an underwater mountain about 40 kilometres offshore. The submerged mountain holds back the ice flow like a cork in a bottle. Earlier this year, members of the Thwaites collaboration reported that the glacier is becoming unstuck from that mountain, causing cracking and fracturing across other parts of the ice shelf,” Ibid.
Based upon what scientists observed at Thwaites, it’s amazing that the metaphor “like a cork in a bottle” describes what may be holding back much more rapid breakup of one of the world’s largest, most menacing, glaciers.
Meantime, sea level researchers deal with a target that moves up, never down, with each passing year. What’ll stop it?
Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and published in over 50 journals, magazines and sites worldwide.
This article was originally published on February 24, 2023 © Counterpunch
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected]