The Most Likely Climate Disasters On The Horizon

From forest die-offs to melting Arctic ice, there are many possibilities for how climate change will affect the planet. But some have a larger chance of happening than others. Which should we be prepared for most, and working hardest to prevent?

Day After Tomorrow still

It's impossible to predict exactly when or how climate change will spiral out of control, but a new study claims that it's possible to find the "climate tipping points" (with apologies to Malcom Gladwell)--the small changes that lead to dramatic shifts in the climate--by developing early warning systems that analyze observational data and look for signs that the climate is becoming unstable.

What are the tipping points that we should watch out for? The study ranks them from highest to lowest risk, and from highest to lowest likelihood. Luckily for us, the most likely also happens to be the least risky (what's some flooding in comparison to the collapse of all sea life in the ocean, right?). Here is what you should be worried for, from most to least problematic for our planet:

West African Monsoon Shift

Western Sub-Saharan Africa's annual monsoon occurs because of seasonal temperature and humidity differences between the equatorial Atlantic Ocean and the Sahara. If those start to change, that could mean an increase in drought and famine in the region. On a global scale, the impact of altering hydrological cycles that "regulate the moisture and heat budget of the atmosphere" could have far wider-ranging effects.

West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse/Greenland Ice Sheet Meltdown

Should the massive ice sheets on either end of the planet retreat, the obvious effect will be an increase in sea level rise. But that doesn't just mean that coastlines get more narrow. More water means that tsunamis and hurricane-driven storm surges become far more powerful.

El Niño–Southern Oscillation Amplitude Increase

An increase of the the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) could cause the Pacific to shift to a permanent El Nino-like state, according to one study. As we know, El Niño brings massive climate shifts to the Pacific--making it permanent could result in an increase in natural disasters all along the Pacific rim.

Atlantic THC Shutdown

This scenario involves the ocean circulation triggered by differences in temperature and salinity in the water--otherwise known as the Atlantic Ocean's thermohaline circulation (THC). It's what causes the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents. If a shutdown results in freshwater continually flowing into the North Atlantic, it will cool areas like Ireland, Britain, and the Nordic countries .This could lead to increasing floods and storms, a collapse of plankton stocks, more frequent El Nino-like events, and even an oceanic anoxic event, where oxygen below the surface of the oceans becomes depleted. This could potentially kill most ocean life--and that would have dire consequences beyond our our worst imaginations.

Amazon Rainforest Dieback/Boreal Forest Dieback

People are rightfully concerned about the Amazon, but the massive loss of any major forest would be problematic. Fewer trees, paradoxically, means we will see more wildfires and in the long term, an increase in the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere (since trees in the forests store carbon).

Arctic Summer Sea Ice Loss

According to some predictions, the Arctic could lose its summer sea ice as early as 2013. This will ultimately lead to to higher sea levels and increased flooding. But though this tipping point is the most likely, it may also be avoidable. The Max Planck Institute for Meteorology contends that the loss of sea ice could be slowed or even stopped if overall climate change is slowed. If this doesn't happen, though, a loss of sea ice will speed up global warming and cause our climate to change irreversibly.

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9 Comments

  • J.C. Holman

    In terms of SLR, I agree.  Melting sea ice will not appreciably increase SL.  But proximate to it is a large amount of land-based ice, so if the sea ice goes, a great deal of land-based ice could also go with it.  Also, the sea ice protects some of the coastline from storm surges, so flooding can be a consequence of losing sea ice. The fastest rate of SLR in a prior period of similar temperature is 2.6 meters per century. Holland cannot deal with that, but the picture of the Statue of Liberty is a distortion.

  • Econ Democracy

    Kevin says the article is "rife with fantasy and scarce on fact.  For example, arctic sea ice floats over the ocean.  If it all melted tomorrow, sea level would not, could not, increase in the slightest.  Imagine an ice cube floating..[etc]"

    But there is a massive amount of ice on Greenland that is not floating on water. So it's not "fantasy" after all is it? And, West Antarctica?  Same thing. There is a difference between "Ice Sheets"
    (which float on water) and "Ice Shelves" Melting ice in ice shelves could add dozens and dozens of feet to global sea level.

    Did you know that? If you knew that, then it was a very misleading if not dishonest comment you made, since it sounded like you were saying "therefore no need to worry about seal level rise" but if you didn't know it, and were honest, this shows that these "ice cube" arguments you may have heard from "skeptics" are very dishonest. Just like every. single. argument. I've. Looked At. by "skeptics"
    is either wrong, wildly misleading, a non-sequitur, or all the above.

    For example "didn't they predict in the 70s the world would cool?" is a bogus. The "volcanoes emit more co2 than humans" is just plain false. The old "but wasn't co2 much higher tens of millions of
    years ago?" argument would be merely reckless if we know nothing else (you want to play Russian Roulette and change the climate to what is was tens of millions of years before humans arrived?) but
    it's worse than that, it's deeply dishonest, because we do know, small little facts like, "and much of Florida was under water" which the 'skeptics' don't bother mentioning in their innocent sounding "why, co2 levels were higher than than they are now!"

    Email me if you want at gmail. I could add paragraphs more of the huge holes in 10 or more other "arguments" made by skeptics. Or just see skepticalscience.com

    Meanwhile, this article forgot to mention Ocean Acidification.

    Which your "skeptical" sources will probably give you another bogus argument why it's a "false predictions"

    Small footnote: it's not a "prediction" at all, it's already happened to the tune of today's oceans having 30% higher acid concentration than the pre-industrial level. That part's history, not a prediction, and only then, you have the projections of how much worse acidification will get by end of this century, and beyond.
     
    fication doesn't only massively assault coral reefs, either. It also reduces the amount of co2 the oceans can absorb, which means the oceans which currently absorb something like 1/4 of our co2
    emissions as I'm surey ou knew, would absorb less and co in the atmosphere would rise faster even if in the future we emitted at today's rate (rather than higher rate) bit would be as if we're emitting at a higher rate.

    Thirdly, the acidification makes it hard for microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain to survive.

    Now that's really smart isn't it? Play Russian Roulette with organisms at the bottom of the entire ocean food chain, really smart. And we can just do that and "hope/assume nothing bad, at all, will
    ever, ever happened!" right? Now THAT'S fantasy..the kind our children and theirs will not easily forgive, or forget.

  • Econ Democracy

    Jonathan Jett-Parmer, you're a US Naval Officer right? Because when you say "Restating the loss of the sea ice by 2013 as even remotely plausible is the height or irresponsible reporting" are you aware who the source is for that estimate? Professor Wieslaw Maslowsk, a researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.

    Now I happen to agree that "by 2013" is not the most likely date. However the article made is clear by saying "as early as" that this is the earliest of the serious projections, and it is a serious projection, as even his critics who think it is too pessimistic, have acknowledged, that it's on solid science methods, this projection, and given that and given the Naval Postgraduate School source, also a serious source, then saying "the height of irresponsible reporting" simply isn't fair.

    If Fastcompany had said it's "a given", or if the article said it's the consensus, then it would be, yes, irresponsible. They merely cited it could happen "as early as" 2013 which is exactly what the range of science tells us. It could happen "as late as" the second half of this century, if you want to criticize they should have given the fuller range, that's ok. It was not "the height of irresponsibility however"

    The bigger point, however, is that the exact date is secondary. The overwhelming science says it will happen, the arctic will be virtually ice free during the summer time, sometime in the relatively near future..we are talking not many decades away at the higher end, which is the blink of an eye, while much sooner like "this decade" cannot be ruled out.

    That's critical because ice free summers means the albedo effect kicks into higher gear, and we have a dangerous positive feedback on steroids: darker ocean absorbs close to 90% of the sun's light and reflects about 10%, causing a lot of heating, instead of reflection of 90% or so, which is what the icea and snow do. And we know already what warmer arctic regions mean: more co2 and methane (both of them greenhouse gases) are released.

    It's already happening. If we let it happen faster, watch out. Search online for methane artctic thaw and read the first, say, 10 scientific review articles to get a taste. We're playing a high-stakes game with the future here.

    And it's simply outright false to say "well developed climate models are unable to deliver accurate correlations even to past climate" since there are lots of models which have a good correlation with paleoclimatic data and with other models and also the matching is good between the old data and reconstructions, and the new data (like models of old co2 before Keeling, and the modern instrumental record of co2) the graphs line up and match well there, too.

  • Econ Democracy

    Kevin says the article is "rife with fantasy and scarce on fact.  For example,
    arctic sea ice floats over the ocean.  If it all melted tomorrow, sea
    level would not, could not, increase in the slightest.  Imagine an ice
    cube floating..[etc]"

    But there is a massive amount of ice on Greenland that is not floating on water. So it's not "fantasy" after all is it? And, West Antarctica? Same thing. There is a difference between "Ice Sheets" (which float on water) and "Ice Shelves" Melting  ice in ice shelves could add dozens and dozens of feet to global sea level.

    Did you know that? If you knew that, then it was a very misleading if not dishonest comment you made, since it sounded like you were saying "therefore no need to worry about seal level rise" but if you didn't know it, and were honest, this shows that these "ice cube" arguments you may have heard from "skeptics" are very dishonest. Just like every. single. argument. I've. Looked At. by "skeptics" is either wrong, wildly misleading,  a non-sequitur, or all the above.

    For example "didn't they predict in the 70s the world would cool?" is a bogus. The "volcanoes emit more co2 than humans" is just plain false. The old "but wasn't co2 much higher tens of millions of years ago?" argument would be merely reckless if we know nothing else (you want to play Russian Roulette and change the climate to what is was tens of millions of years before humans arrived?) but it's worse than that, it's deeply dishonest, because we do know, small little facts like, "and much of Florida was under water" which the 'skeptics' don't bother mentioning in their innocent sounding "why, co2 levels were higher than than they are now!"

    Email me if you want at gmail. I could add paragraphs more of the huge holes in 10 or more other "arguments" made by skeptics. Or just see skepticalscience.com

    Meanwhile, this article forgot to mention Ocean Acidification.

    Which your "skeptical" sources will probably give you another bogus argument why it's a "false predictions"

    Small footnote: it's not a "prediction" at all, it's already happened to the tune of today's oceans having 30% higher acid concentration than the pre-industrial level. That part's history, not a prediction, and only then, you have the projections of how much worse acidification will get by end of this century, and beyond.

    Acidification doesn't only massively assault coral reefs, either. It also reduces the amount of co2 the oceans can absorb, which means the oceans which currently absorb something like 1/4 of our co2 emissions as I'm surey ou knew, would absorb less and co in the atmosphere would rise faster even if in the future we emitted at today's rate (rather than higher rate) bit would be as if we're emitting at a higher rate.

    Thirdly, the acidification makes it hard for microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain to survive.

    Now that's really smart isn't it? Play Russian Roulette with organisms at the bottom of the entire ocean food chain, really smart. And we can just do that and "hope/assume nothing bad, at all, will ever, ever happened!" right? Now THAT'S fantasy..the kind our children and theirs will not easily forgive, or forget.

  • Tim Deuitch

    Why?  Why do you insist on printing this type of (bad and useless) information when so much of what you do is great and interesting?  Every now and then you toss out climate change fear that leaves me feeling I wasted my time with the read.  Wish you wouldn't.    

  • Kevin Tyler

    Amusing article -- rife with fantasy and scarce on fact.  For example, arctic sea ice floats over the ocean.  If it all melted tomorrow, sea level would not, could not, increase in the slightest.  Imagine an ice cube floating in a glass of water.  The melting cube does not increase the water level by even a fraction of a millimeter.

  • Jonathan Jett-Parmer

    Sadly, the author glosses over the interrelational impact of these various events.  Climate science is immensely complex and volatile.  Issues which are truly anthropogenic must be considered against the constantly shifting environment (solar, vulcanism, etc.).  Restating the loss of the sea ice by 2013 as even remotely plausible is the height or irresponsible reporting.  Additionally, the source material for this article is from an extrapolated article related to University of Exeter research.  It is highly speculative and unsupported by any solid data.  When well developed climate models are unable to deliver accurate correlations even to past climate, we must approach any hypothesis very cautiously prior to converting it into actionable policy.

  • Jonathan Jett-Parmer

    The original study by Dr. Lenton is here: http://www.nature.com/nclimate...  Once again we have a VERY complex, theoretical approach being oversimplified by an author who has no understanding of the subject matter.  Dr. Lenton's graphic reprinted in this article (without permission or attribution) is presented in his original work as a straw man for consdieration.  In fact, his final comments should have been summarized as the opening of this article.

    "Early warning of climate tipping points may be feasible, at a level that could provide useful information to help manage the risks that they pose. Better assessments are needed of those risks, particularly of the impacts of crossing different tipping points, and of the response options available in reaction to early warning signals. Improvements to early warning methods should start with the formulation and application of objective guidelines for the choice of method parameters. Even if further research shows that early warning is unachievable in practice, it could still provide valuable information on the vulnerability of various tipping elements to noise-induced changes."