Climate change researchers have taken a new approach to calculating the effects of shifting global weather patterns by using existing data to estimate what immediate effects we might see from the projected changes. The question is no longer if climate change is happening, but rather how suddenly a cataclysmic event might occur.
A groundbreaking study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details researchers’ attempts to mine data from computerized simulations that explore abrupt changes within the next few years or decades – something that has never before produced meaningful results. This method packs a powerful punch by bringing the far-off worries of global warming much closer to home.
After evaluating 37 different computerized climate change simulations – each with projections to the year 2100 or beyond – some results were more worrisome than others. The researchers stress the uncertainty of how to accurately read these potential projections, yet some recurring patterns are difficult to dismiss. For example, many simulations showed rapid collapsing of Arctic Sea ice, especially in extreme scenarios of global warming. However, there were also multiple models showing partial or full shut-downs of North Atlantic ocean circulation in only moderate global warming scenarios.
The difference between extreme and moderate scenarios refers to the 2 degree Celsius temperature threshold; 18 of the 37 scenarios occur beneath this threshold, which is causing researchers’ worry to mount. “A striking feature is that the majority of abrupt transitions occur in the ocean-sea ice system, implying that this Earth system component is more prone to abrupt change than other components,” cites the research.
So, how fearful should we be? The authors advise that “no type of abrupt shifts occurs in all models,” meaning that there is no one guaranteed manifestation of climate change that we will see in the next few years. Of course, these simulations are not forecasting, but rather a way for scientists to further understand the current characteristics of climate change and what we may need to prepare for in the future.
Sybren Drijfhout, professor at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute and lead author of the study adds, “There is of course a certain tendency for the whole climate system to become more unstable when the warming gets larger, but we cannot say, ‘as long as it’s this and this much, nothing will happen.’ Every .1 or .2 degrees in temperature is as dangerous as any other, I would say. And that’s the main message of this exercise, or this paper.”