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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Summer 2014 > Temperature Gauge

Temperature Gauge

Notes from a Warming World

graphic of a earth-globe with a thermometer rising from it

Heard This One Before

Heat waves, torrential rains, declining food stocks, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, dying coral, and millions of people displaced by rising seas – the latest blockbuster United Nations report on the impacts of climate change makes dire reading, just as the first one did almost a quarter of a century ago.

Nearly all of the impacts mentioned above were also outlined in the first UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that was published in 1990. Much of the science that report drew on was older still. Now, some 25 years later, the climate panel’s latest report, released in April, is similarly alarming – just with added impacts and greater certainty. And that has some climate experts and policy analysts saying that the new report – the product of a three-year joint effort by more than 300 scientists and editors from 70 countries – reads too much like the “same old.”

The report’s key conclusions, they say, are unsurprising and short of detail, and the 2,600-page document sidesteps any hint of what specific countries, or groups of countries, should do to move towards clean energy systems. In particular, critics are concerned about the lack of guidelines for large emitters – China, the United States, the European Union, and India, which together account for more than half of global carbon dioxide output.

“The core message is that emissions need to go down, and that the costs are affordable,” says Glen Peters, a climate-policy analyst at the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research. “But the big-picture stuff is not very helpful for decision-makers in specific countries, and it is pretty much useless for the international climate-negotiation process.” Steve Rayner, who studies policy frameworks for climate change at the University of Oxford, agrees: “The headline findings are predictable – and not very exciting. The all-too-familiar-sounding bottom-line messages don’t seem to justify the huge effort involved.”

Small Change, Big Implication

While we might be familiar with “the big-picture stuff,” news of specific impacts of global warming still has the power to surprise, and dismay. Take what it’s doing to the pteropod, for instance. Scientists have found the first evidence that this tiny, free-floating marine snail’s shell is dissolving because of increasing acidity in the ocean.

photo of a winged marine snail against a dark backgroundphoto Alexander Semenov / aquatilis.tvOcean acidification is dissolving the shells of tiny marine snails called pteropods.

Pteropods are an important food source for salmon, herring, mackerel, and other fish in the Pacific Ocean. Those fish are eaten not only by hundreds of millions of people every year, but also by a wide variety of sea creatures, from whales to dolphins to sea lions. Researchers studying pteropods in waters near the West Coast shoreline have found that 53 percent of the tiny floating snails had shells that were severely dissolving – double what scientists estimate the rate was 200 years ago.

Until now, the impact on marine species from increasing ocean acidity has been something that was tested in tanks in labs, but which was not considered an immediate concern, unlike forest fires and droughts. But the new study, by scientists from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Oregon State University, changes that. “The pteropods are like the canary in the coal mine. If this is affecting them, it is affecting everything in the ocean at some level,” marine biologist Steve Palumbi says.

Uncertain Peril

The tragic death of 16 people in an ice avalanche on Mt. Everest in April, including 13 professional Sherpa guides who make the ascent possible for the hundreds of unskilled climbers every year, has drawn attention not only to the hazardous conditions under which the Sherpas work but also to the fact that global warming is bringing with it risks we can’t even anticipate.

Climbing to the roof of the world is becoming less predictable and possibly more dangerous as climate change brings warmer temperatures that may eat through the ice and snow on Mount Everest, scientists say. While it is impossible to link any single event to long-term changes in the global climate, they say what makes the situation so risky is the uncertainty itself.

“You can be sure that if the climate is changing – and it is – then glaciers are changing and the danger is shifting,” says US hydrologist Jeff Kargel, who is leading a global project to measure and map the tens of thousands of Himalayan glaciers through satellite data. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s getting worse; it just means you don’t know.”

   

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