Last exit for the Holocene era

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      “Damn! I think we just passed the last exit for the Holocene!”

      “I’m sorry, honey, I wasn’t looking.”

      “We have to get off this highway. What’s the next exit?”

      “It’s a long way ahead. Goes to somewhere called Perdition.” (Ragged chorus from the back seat) “Are we there yet, Daddy?”

      The Holocene epoch is that blessed time of stable, warm climate (but not too hot) and unchanging sea levels in which human civilization was born and grew to its present size. In ten thousand years, our numbers have increased about a thousandfold—but we may be about to leave the Holocene, and that would be too bad. No other climatic state would let us maintain our current numbers, and massive diebacks are no fun at all.

      James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center operation in New York, is one of the most respected scientists working in the field of climate studies. It was his famous speech to the U.S. Congress 20 years ago that put climate change on the US political agenda and led indirectly to the Earth Summit and the Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. Now he has something else to say.

      For most of the past decade, Hansen adhered to the emerging consensus among climate scientists that the maximum permissible concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 450 parts per million (ppm). That was believed to give us a 50-percent chance of getting away with an average global temperature only 2? °?C (3.6? °?F) hotter than it was at the beginning of the 1990s. Now Hansen doesn’t believe in 450 ppm any more.

      The limit of 450 ppm was chosen partly because it seemed impossible to stop the rise in carbon dioxide before that—we’re already at 387 ppm, and going up almost three ppm per year—and partly because it seemed relatively safe. Just 2? °?C hotter would turn a lot of subtropical land into desert, cause bigger hurricanes, and turn most of Asia’s big rivers into seasonal watercourses that are empty in the summer, but it would not melt the icecaps.

      At least that’s what they thought, although everybody knew that the numbers were soft.

      You can do a lot with climate models, but the Earth hasn’t actually seen a carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration as high as 450 ppm since about 35 million years ago. So Hansen and some colleagues went to work on exactly that period and came back with some bad news. If you leave the world at even 425 ppm for very long, all the ice will probably melt: Greenland, Antarctica, the lot. And the sea level will go up 70 to 80 metres.

      How do they know? Because the world was very hot and completely ice-free for a long time before 35 million years ago, but the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was falling gradually. When it reached 425 ppm, Antarctica began to freeze over. So if that’s where the first permanent ice appeared while CO2 was on the way down, it’s probably where the last permanent ice will disappear when CO2 is on its way back up.

      Now, there’s a big margin of error when you are dealing with 35 million years ago: plus or minus 75 ppm in this case. That means that the fatal number when all the ice disappears could be as high as 500 ppm—or it could be as low as 350 ppm. If that is the range within which all the world’s ice will eventually melt, and you like living in the Holocene, then you probably should not put all your money on a 450 ppm ceiling for CO2.

      So Hansen is now spearheading a campaign to get 350 ppm recognized as the real long-term target we should be aiming at. Tricky, since we are already at 387 ppm and rising fast, but last week, when I spoke to him at the Tallberg Forum’s annual conference in Sweden, he explained: “To figure out the optimum is going to take a while, but the fundamental thing about the 350 [ppm target], and the reason that it completely changes the ball game, is precisely the fact that it’s less than we have now.

      “Even if the optimum turns out to be 325 or 300 or something else, we’ve go to go through 350 to get there. So we know the direction now that we’ve go to go, and it’s fundamentally different. It means that we really have to start to act almost immediately. Even if we cut off coal emissions entirely, CO2 would still get up to at least 400, maybe 425, and then we’re going to have to draw it down, and we’re almost certainly going to have to do it within decades.”

      But there is time. The oceans and the ice sheets react so slowly to changes in the air temperature that you can overshoot the limit for a while so long as you get the temperature back down before irreversible changes set in. Stop at 450 ppm in 25 years’ time, then get back below 400 in another 25, and down to 350 by, say, 2075.

      It could work: there is still one last exit for the Holocene.



      Antonio San

      Jul 10, 2008 at 5:34pm

      "The Holocene epoch is that blessed time of stable, warm climate (but not too hot) and unchanging sea levels in which human civilization was born and grew to its present size."

      This "reporter" could at the minimum check the FACTS: Anyone who has researched the Holocene (starting with the latest deglaciation at 19,000y Before Present) knows about the significant sea level changes during this period. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean chosen for its tectonically stable setting (away from a hot spot or a ridge) for instance 17ky old coral reefs are located 150 m below the actual sea level. Moreover, as a consequence of the Holocene Climatic Optimum that occurred 5,000 y ago, remnant reefs can be observed, sitting 1.5m above the present sea level. During this period Humans as well as Polar Bears strived...

      As for the CO2, read this peer reviewed paper: Stott, Timmermann and Thunell, Science 19 Oct. 2007 vol 318 p 435.

      Southern Hemisphere and Deep-Sea Warming LED deglacial atmospheric CO2 rise and tropical warming

      "Establishing what caused Earth's largest climate change in the past requires a precise knowledge of both the forcing and the regional responses. We determined the chronology for high and low latitude climate change at the last glacial termination by radiocarbon dating benthic and planktonic foraminiferal stable isotope and Mg/Ca from a marine core collected in the western tropical Pacific. Deep-sea temp. warmed by 2 C between 19 and 17ky B.P. LEADING THE RISE of CO2 and tropical surface ocean warming by 1,000 years. The cause of this deglacial deep-water warming does not lie within the tropics, nor can its early onset between 19 and 17ky B.P. be attributed to CO2 forcing. Increasing austral-spring insolation combined with sea-ice albedo feedbacks appear to be the key factors for this warming."

      In clear: Temperatures rose ONE THOUSAND YEARS before CO2 did!

      To finish the job here, MSU satellite temperatures for June 2008 are colder than when the not so respected Mr. Hansen announced doom and gloom 20 years ago despite record CO2 emissions...

      So dear Gwynne Dyer, educate yourself before spewing utterly false alarmist scenarios of complete ice melting to unsuspecting readers.

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