Warm Regards for a Happy (?) New Year

By David L. Brown

Happy New Year everyone! Where I live in New Mexico, it is now 8:32 p.m. M.S.T., with only three hours and 28 minutes left of 2006. And, as I check the news for hints of things to come, I find this on the website of the British newspaper The Independent, posted from London where it is already 2007:

A combination of global warming and the El Niño weather system is set to make 2007 the warmest year on record with far-reaching consequences for the planet, one of Britain’s leading climate experts has warned.

As the new year was ushered in with stormy conditions across the UK, the forecast for the next 12 months is of extreme global weather patterns which could bring drought to Indonesia and leave California under a deluge.

The warning, from Professor Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, was one of four sobering predictions from senior scientists and forecasters that 2007 will be a crucial year for determining the response to global warming and its effect on humanity.

Professor Jones said the long-term trend of global warming – already blamed for bringing drought to the Horn of Africa and melting the Arctic ice shelf – is set to be exacerbated by the arrival of El Niño, the phenomenon caused by above-average sea temperatures in the Pacific.

Professor Jones said the long-term trend of global warming – already blamed for bringing drought to the Horn of Africa and melting the Arctic ice shelf – is set to be exacerbated by the arrival of El Niño, the phenomenon caused by above-average sea temperatures in the Pacific.

Combined, they are set to bring extreme conditions across the globe and make 2007 warmer than 1998, the hottest year on record. It is likely temperatures will also exceed 2006, which was declared in December the hottest in Britain since 1659 and the sixth warmest in global records.

Professor Jones said: “El Niño makes the world warmer and we already have a warming trend that is increasing global temperatures by one to two tenths of a degrees celsius per decade. Together, they should make 2007 warmer than last year and it may even make the next 12 months the warmest year on record.”

Of course, Prof. Jones could be exaggerating the danger, right? Well, next The Independent went on to report the thoughts of well-known American climate scientist James Hansen of NASA, the first to predict the threat of global warming nearly two decades ago:

In an interview with The Independent, Dr Hansen predicted that global warming would run out of control and change the planet for ever unless rapid action is taken to reverse the rise in carbon emissions.

Dr Hansen said: “We just cannot burn all the fossil fuels in the ground. If we do, we will end up with a different planet.

“I mean a planet with no ice in the Arctic, and a planet where warming is so large that it’s going to have a large effect in terms of sea level rises and the extinction of species.”

Ooops! That sounds even worse. And as mentioned, the same issue of the paper includes an interview with Dr. Hansen, here, in which he says “that we have less than 10 years to begin to curb carbon dioxide emissions before global warming runs out of control and changes the landscape forever.” Double ooops! According to the interview, Hansen warned that feedback can push the climate to tipping points, something with which our readers are already familiar. The article continued:

Positive feedbacks in the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere are already starting. One is the loss of sea ice, which means less sunlight and heat is reflected back into space, making the Arctic even warmer. Another is the release of methane from the frozen tundra. Methane gas is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, Dr Hansen said.

“The greatest concern is that positive feedbacks at high latitudes do in fact seem to be coming into play. We can’t just let those feedbacks get out of control or we will have passed a tipping point,” he said.

“If we go another 10 years, by 2015, at the current rate of growth of CO2 emissions, which is about 2 per cent per year, the emissions in 2015 will be 35 per cent larger than they were in 2000. But if we want to get on a scenario that keeps global temperature in the range that it’s been in for the last million years, we would need to decrease the emissions by something of the order of 25 per cent by the middle of the century, and by something like 75 per cent by the end of the century.”

According to the Independent report, Hansen said that the continuing rise in carbon dioxide emissions and average global temperatures is on schedule to cause the eventual collapse of the ice sheets on both Greenland and the west Antarctic, with a catastrophic rise in sea levels.

“If we follow business as usual, and we don’t get off this course where year by year we’re getting larger and larger emissions of CO2, then we’ll have large sea-level rises this century and I think that will become more apparent over the next decade or two,” Dr Hansen said.

“The last time it was 3C warmer, sea levels were 25 metres higher, plus or minus 10 metres. You’d not get that in one century, but you could get several metres in one century,” he said.

“Half the people in the world live within 15 miles of a coastline. A large fraction of the major cities are on coastlines. And the problem is that once you get the process started and well on the way, it’s impossible to prevent it. That’s why we need to address the issue before it gets out of control.”

But surely the paper will find some good news to report, right. Well, no, for the next thing we read is this:

His [Hansen’s] call for action is shared by Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who said that 2006 had shown that the “discussion is now over” on whether climate change is happening. Writing in today’s Independent, Sir David says progress has been made in the past year but it is “essential” that a global agreement on emissions is struck quickly. He writes: “Ultimately, only heads of state, working together, can provide the new level of global leadership we need to steer the world on a path towards a sustainable and prosperous future. We need to remember: action is affordable – inaction is not.”

The El Niño weather pattern, named for “the Christ child” because it usually begins to show its effects around Christmas, occurs each four to seven years, bringing excess rainfall to some areas and severe drought in others. According to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the United Nations agency that deals with climate prediction, “El Niño is already established over the tropical Pacific basin. It is set to bring extreme weather across a swath of the planet from the Americas and south-east Asia to the Horn of Africa for at least the first four months of 2007.” According to The Independent:

The WMO said its latest readings showed that a “moderate” El Niño, with sea temperatures 1.5C above average, was taking place which, in the worst case scenario, could develop into an extreme weather pattern lasting up to 18 months, as in 1997-98. The UN agency noted that the weather pattern was already having “early and intense” effects, including drought in Australia and dramatically warm seas in the Indian Ocean, which could affect the monsoons. It warned the El Niño could also bring extreme rainfall to parts of east Africa which were last year hit by a cycle of drought and floods.

The cause of the phenomenon is not fully understood but in an El Niño “event” the pool of warm surface water is forced eastwards by the loss of the westerly trade winds. The sea water evaporates, resulting in drenching rains over South America, particularly Peru and Ecuador, as well as western parts of the United States such as California.

Well, I can believe that last part, because we are presently digging out from the biggest snowfall in history here in the New Mexico desert, with about 20 inches having come down at my house in the last two days. Not only that, but I suspect El Niño may have jumped the gun and started a bit early, because starting about the first of July we had the wettest season on record here, and down in Oz their drought was already setting records before the latest El Niño had even officially begun.

It looks as if 2007 is shaping up to be another one of those “interesting times” to which the old Chinese curse refers. Well, nevertheless, let me wish you warm personal regards from us here at Star Phoenix Base (pun intended). We’ll keep an eye on things as the new year unfolds. Happy New Year everyone.

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