Tag Archives: AAAS

Chris Field says rate of climate change faster than estimated

At the AAAS meetings in Chicago Chris Field gave a presentation that argues that the Pace of Climate Change Exceeds Estimates:

“We are basically looking now at a future climate that’s beyond anything we’ve considered seriously in climate model simulations,” Christopher Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Field, a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said emissions from burning fossil fuels since 2000 have largely outpaced the estimates used in the U.N. panel’s 2007 reports. The higher emissions are largely the result of the increased burning of coal in developing countries, he said.

Unexpectedly large amounts of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere as the result of “feedback loops” that are speeding up natural processes. Prominent among these, evidence indicates, is a cycle in which higher temperatures are beginning to melt the arctic permafrost, which could release hundreds of billions of tons of carbon and methane into the atmosphere, said several scientists on a panel at the meeting.

The permafrost holds 1 trillion tons of carbon, and as much as 10 percent of that could be released this century, Field said. Melting permafrost also releases methane, which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

“It’s a vicious cycle of feedback where warming causes the release of carbon from permafrost, which causes more warming, which causes more release from permafrost,” Field said.

Evidence is also accumulating that terrestrial and marine ecosystems cannot remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as earlier estimates suggested, Field said.

While it takes a relatively long time for plants to take carbon out of the atmosphere, that carbon can be released rapidly by wildfires, which contribute about a third as much carbon to the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels, according to a paper Field co-authored.

Fires such as the recent deadly blazes in southern Australia have increased in recent years, and that trend is expected to continue, Field said. Warmer weather, earlier snowmelt, drought and beetle infestations facilitated by warmer climates are all contributing to the rising number of fires linked to climate change. Across large swaths of the United States and Canada, bark beetles have killed many mature trees, making forests more flammable. And tropical rain forests that were not susceptible to forest fires in the past are likely to become drier as temperatures rise, growing more vulnerable.

Preventing deforestation in the tropics is more important than in northern latitudes, the panel agreed, since lush tropical forests sequester more carbon than sparser northern forests. And deforestation in northern areas has benefits, since larger areas end up covered in exposed, heat-reflecting snow.

Many scientists and policymakers are advocating increased incentives for preserving tropical forests, especially in the face of demand for clearing forest to grow biofuel crops such as soy. Promoting biofuels without also creating forest-preservation incentives would be “like weatherizing your house and deliberately keeping your windows open,” said Peter Frumhoff, chief of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate program. “It’s just not a smart policy.”