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BIOSPHERIC FEEDBACK LOOPS AND RAPID GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department.

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Presentation on theme: "BIOSPHERIC FEEDBACK LOOPS AND RAPID GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department."— Presentation transcript:

1 BIOSPHERIC FEEDBACK LOOPS AND RAPID GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE John Cairns, Jr. University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus Department of Biological Sciences Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Blacksburg, Virginia 24061, U.S.A. June 2010

2 POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE FEEDBACK LOOPS A positive feedback loop makes an existing process speed up – for example, release of stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere accelerates global warming. A negative feedback loop decreases the impact of an existing process – for example, removal (i.e., sequestering) of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by marine ecosystems reduces the rate of global warming but my cause harm by making the oceans acidic. 1

3 SOURCES AND SINKS FOR GREENHOUSE GASES A source emits carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. A sink retains and stores carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. A sink can become a source when climate changes – for example, permafrost stores carbon dioxide but releases it when the permafrost thaws, and trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but release it when a forest fire occurs.

4 CARBON IS A BASIC UNIT OF LIFE FORMS AND IS STORED (E.G., SINKS) IN VARIOUS PARTS OF THE BIOSPHERE. 2 Atmosphere – 578* (as of 1700), 766 (as of 1999) Soil organic matter – 1,500 to 1,600 Oceans – 38,000 to 40,000 Marine sediments and sedimentary rocks – 66,000,000 to 100,000,000 Terrestrial plants – 540 to 610 Fossil fuel deposits – 4,000 * values are billions of metric tons

5 THE OCEANS ARE A MAJOR SINK FOR CARBON DIOXIDE (AN ESTIMATED 25 – 30 %), BUT, WHEN CO 2 DISSOLVES IN SEAWATER, CARBONIC ACID IS FORMED. 3 Ocean acidification decreases the ability of many marine organisms to build their shells and skeletal structures. 3 Acidification is already causing major shifts in marine ecosystems. The same gas, carbon dioxide, that is contributing to global warming and other types of climate change is also affecting oceanic ecosystems.

6 UNTIL THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, ATMOSPHERIC GREENHOUSE GASES, INCLUDING CARBON DIOXIDE, WERE NOT A PROBLEM, BUT NOW CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS ARE COMING FROM 50,000 COAL-FIRED POWER PLANTS. 4 At present, more carbon dioxide exists than the biosphere can assimilate, and the surplus remains in the atmosphere. On a per capita basis, Australians produce about 11 tons, Americans 9 tons, Chinese 2 tons, and Indians 0.5 ton of carbon dioxide per year. 4 Globally, power generation emits nearly 10 billion tons of CO 2 per year. 4 Economists have estimated these social costs at anywhere from $8 per ton to as high as $100 per ton of CO 2. 4

7 IN THE 21 ST CENTURY, CONCERN HAS BEEN ESCALATING ABOUT POSITIVE FEEDBACK RELEASE OF CARBON DIOXIDE. Rising temperatures have caused emissions from Arctic permafrost to increase by almost one-third in just five years. 5 Warming caused by released methane emissions will release more methane in a classic positive feedback loop. After water vapor and carbon dioxide, methane is the third most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, and researchers warn that this unforeseen flux of gas into the atmosphere could alter the global climate in unexpected ways. 6

8 THROUGHOUT HISTORY ATTACKS HAVE BEEN MADE ON SCIENCE AND SCIENTISTS – IN THE 21 ST CENTURY, THESE ATTACKS HAVE FREQUENTLY BEEN BASED ON THE UNCERTAINY IN SCIENCE – PARTICULARLY GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE. Uncertainty exists in all aspects of living – politics, finances, football games, etc. – uncertainty is not unique to science. Science is based on probability supported by evidence. Of course, dealing with circumstances (e.g., global climate change) is problematical when the terms are complicated. Humankinds creativity is not energized by contentment but the excitement of understanding how nature works. Of course, people are most content when they are confident and certain – but then came the global financial meltdown.

9 A GOOD EXAMPLE OF UNCERTAINTY IS THE METHANE POSITIVE FEEDBACK FROM OCEANIC, FROZEN, HYDRATED METHANE AND MELTING PERMAFROST. 7 Are these emissions new or just newly observed? Will these releases of heat-trapping methane destabilize the global climate system? An extensive monitoring program over a considerable span of time will be essential to answer these two questions. However, can global decisions on anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions wait until robust data are available to answer the above questions?

10 IN FIGHTING FOR SCIENCE, WE SUBSCRIBE TO A COMFORTING ILLUSION: THAT PEOPLE CAN BE SWAYED BY THE FACTS. 8 No level of evidence can shake the growing belief that climate science is a conspiracy…. 8 The attack on climate science is now widening to an all-out war on science. 8 However, even as the volume of evidence increases, fewer people believe climate change is a significant problem. The global financial meltdown, loss of jobs, foreclosures on homes, and governmental deficits have almost certainly contributed to this alteration in the list of global problems.

11 REGRETTABLY, NO SHORT-TERM SOLUTION EXISTS FOR IMPROVING PUBLIC RESPECT FOR SCIENCE. Scientists are usually viewed as members of a different culture from the average citizen. Neither scientists nor their organizations have effectively explained to the general public how the scientific process works. If scientists spend much of their time informing the public more persuasively, their research my suffer. Most scientific disciplines have a special tribal language (i.e., jargon in laypersons terms) that is not understood by the general public and sometimes rarely understood by scientists in other fields of research.

12 ULTIMATELY, IF BUSINESS AS USUAL CONTINUES, MANY CATASTROPHES MAY OCCUR THAT HAVE BEEN PREDICTED BY THE SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE. Positive feedback loops resulting from release of stored carbon into the atmosphere is one likely scenario. Catastrophes should be avoided whenever possible, but most research scientists are not skilled in communicating complex information about dynamic, complex systems to the general public. Since positive feedback loops may increase the rate of climate change dramatically, time for social change may be too short.

13 IF EACH SCIENTIFIC/PROFESSIONAL ORGANIZATION WOULD ALTER ITS POSITION PAPER ON CLIMATE CHANGE TO SERVE AS AN OP-ED FOR THE NEWS MEDIA, THIS CHANGE WOULD HAVE A GREAT EFFECT. For example, the Australian Medical Association refers to our life-support system. 9 The American Chemical Society states: The costs of unchecked climate change in economic loss, human misery, and loss of ecosystem services are likely to be enormous. 10 The National Academies of the G8 + 5 (Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States,) report: It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken. 11


15 Acknowledgments. I am indebted to Darla Donald for transcribing the handwritten draft and for editorial assistance in preparation for publication and to Valerie Sutherland for converting it to Power Point. References

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