Abrupt Climate Change

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Abrupt Climate Change


Large-scale natural disasters are sometimes capable of causing a rapid climate change. One example of abrupt climate change occurred in August 1883, when a series of huge eruptions of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia sent ash 50 mi (80 km) into the atmosphere. The penetration of sunlight through the ash-laden atmosphere to Earth's surface was restricted so much that the average global temperature during the next year was more than 2°F (1.1°C) below normal. Krakatoa is a good example of two aspects that define an abrupt climate change: the speed of the change, and a change in global temperature of at least a degree Fahrenheit or Celsius.

Global warming—the warming of the atmosphere that has been accelerating since the mid-twentieth century, and which may be a consequence of human activities—has generated worry among many people that Earth's climate is poised to undergo a drastic shift.

Since the mid-twentieth century, atmospheric warming has been gradually accelerating. The examination of past markers of climate—such as plant fossils, tree growth rings, and material in the sediment that is deposited over time on the bottom of lakes—has revealed abrupt climate change in the past. As such, the scientific consensus is that a drastic climate shift in the future is not only conceivable but could be likely. Humankind's role in this future, however, is unclear, as evidence for the role of global warming in tipping the scale toward an abrupt climate change is still controversial.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Data that have been gathered from ice cores, growth rings of trees, sediment at the bottom of lakes, and other locations have revealed large changes in climatic factors such as precipitation and temperature. Some of the climate shifts occurred over hundreds of years, but others occurred over only one or several decades, and so represent abrupt climate changes. Furthermore, some of the climate shifts affected the entire Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

An abrupt climate change is considered to be a change that takes place within a period of time that is fast relative to the cause of the change. For example, the climate change caused by the eruptions of Krakatoa changed the global climate within a year. This was abrupt given that the change was only possible once the volcanic ash had circulated throughout the atmosphere.

The cause of other climate changes can be slower. For example, consider the southward migration of glaciers during the various ice ages that took tens of thousands of years. Relative to such a length of time, a climate change that took place over a century or more was abrupt.

The best-known abrupt climate change took place approximately 11,000 years ago, as the Northern Hemisphere was emerging from a glacial period to a warmer state. Over about one hundred years, temperatures returned to near glacial levels, where they remained for the next thousand years. The climate of the Northern Hemisphere then quickly warmed. The century-long period of cooling is called the Younger Dryas. Measurements have indicated that in some regions, such as present-day Greenland, the cooling to glacial temperatures occurred within 10 years rather than a century—a very abrupt climate change.

The reasons behind abrupt climate change are still not well understood. The abrupt climate changes associated with ice ages likely involved fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). During the time when the land was covered by glacial ice, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere decreased, since less vegetation was present on land and the gas was mostly stored by the ocean water. This lessened the trapping of sunlight by the atmosphere. With the return of vegetation, the atmospheric level of CO2 rose and the atmosphere warmed.

In the twentieth century and particularly since the 1960s, the development of more sophisticated means of measurement, and the ability to obtain atmospheric data

by means of weather balloons and, beginning in the 1960s, the use of orbiting satellites, has provided much more information on the change in the atmosphere over time.

It is now clear that the global climate depends on the composition of the atmosphere and the circulation patterns in the atmosphere, and that these atmospheric aspects depend on the global circulation pattern of the ocean. In the ocean, the global cycling of water (known as the ocean conveyor and also as thermohaline circulation, among other terms) distributes the heat energy in the water to all regions of Earth and vertically through the ocean depths. If the ocean conveyor were disrupted, as has been proposed as a consequence of altered atmospheric circulation, the climate would change enormously. Modeling studies have indicated that the change would occur over years, not days.

Impacts and Issues

Modeling climate change is in its infancy. Climate involves many interactions between environmental forces, and some are not completely understood. So, building a computer model that mimics climate and thus can be used to investigate the likelihood of an abrupt climate change is not possible as of early 2008.

However, an understanding of the past is helpful in the present. The relationship between changes of atmospheric CO2 and periods of cooling and heating remains relevant. CO2 is a greenhouse gas—one of the compounds that increases the tendency of the atmosphere to retain heat. Measurements taken over the past 150 years clearly show that the CO2 level in the atmosphere is increasing. This increase has not been constant over time, but rather has begun to accelerate. Whether this could help tip the atmosphere into an abrupt climate change is not clear and is very debatable. However, the majority of scientists now share the view that human activities increase the likelihood of the occurrence of climate change.

According to a 2002 report issued by the National Academy of Sciences, an abrupt climate change is not only possible but likely in the future. The report warned that such a rapid change of climate would greatly affect both ecosystems and societies.


ATMOSPHERE: The air surrounding Earth, described as a series of shells or layers of different characteristics. The atmosphere— composed mainly of nitrogen and oxygen with traces of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other gases—acts as a buffer between Earth and the sun. The layers—troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and the exosphere—vary around the globe and in response to seasonal changes.

CLIMATE MODEL: A quantitative way of representing the interactions of the atmosphere, oceans, land surface, and ice. Models can range from relatively simple to quite comprehensive.

ECOSYSTEMS: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and as published in IPCC reports): A system of living organisms interacting with each other and their physical environment. The boundaries of what could be called an ecosystem are somewhat arbitrary, depending on the focus of interest or study. Thus, the extent of an ecosystem may range from very small spatial scales to the entire planet Earth ultimately.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

ICE AGE: Period of glacial advance.

ICE CORE: A cylindrical section of ice removed from a glacier or an ice sheet in order to study climate patterns of the past. By performing chemical analyses on the air trapped in the ice, scientists can estimate the percentage of carbon dioxide and other trace gases in the atmosphere at that time.

TREE RINGS: Marks left in the trunks of woody plants by the annual growth of a new coat or sheath of material. Tree rings provide a straightforward way of dating organic material stored in a tree trunk. Tree-ring thickness provides proxy data about climate conditions: most trees put on thicker rings in warm, wet conditions than in cool, dry conditions.

THERMOHALINE CIRCULATION: Large-scale circulation of the world ocean that exchanges warm, low-density surface waters with cooler, higher-density deep waters. Driven by differences in temperature and saltiness (halinity) as well as, to a lesser degree, winds and tides. Also termed meridional overturning circulation.

YOUNGER DRYAS: A relatively recent episode of abrupt climate change. About 12,900 years ago, conditions in the Northern Hemisphere cooled in about a decade (extremely rapidly), in some locations by 27°F (15°C). The cold period persisted for about 1,300 years and then reversed, also suddenly. The causes of the Younger Dryas are not well understood, but the event does show that Earth's climate is capable of extremely rapid and dramatic shifts.

An abrupt climate change would cause an upheaval in the lives of many people. For example, increased drought in agricultural regions could decrease food and water supplies.Aside from the hardship to everyday survival, climate change could increase the animosity between “have” and “have-not” countries. The U.S. military has recognized the possible security implications of such a destabilized world.

Paradoxically, some scientists envision that the present-day warming of the atmosphere could tip Earth into another Ice Age, since the distribution of heat via the ocean conveyor would break down. This could cause cooling of the Northern Hemisphere.

The portion of the ocean conveyor that circulates through the North Atlantic region has been identified as particularly important, since the melting of the polar ice cap could send enough freshwater into this region to diminish or perhaps even halt ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream. A report in a 2002 issue of Nature documented the decreasing salinity of the North Atlantic since the 1960s, even to depths of 13,000 ft (about 4,000 m). Whether this has begun to affect the conveyor is unclear as of early 2008.

A plan spearheaded by the Woods Hole Oceano-graphic Institution and other agencies to deploy thousands of remote sensors throughout the global ocean could help to better understand the state of the ocean and the influence of global warming.

See Also Atmospheric Circulation; Gaia; Great Conveyor Belt.



Cox, James D. Climate Crash: Abrupt Climate Change and What It Means for Our Future. New York: Joseph Henry Press, 2005.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse:How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Web Sites

“Abrupt Climate Change: Should We Be Worried? A Report for a Panel on Abrupt Climate Change at the World Economic Forum.” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, January 27, 2003. <http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=12455&tid=282&cid=9986> (accessed November 13, 2007).

“Global Warming: Abrupt Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists, August 10, 2005. < http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science/abrupt-climate-change-faq.html> (accessed November 13, 2007).

“What's After the Day After Tomorrow?” Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, July 5, 2007. <http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=12455&tid=282&cid=9948> (accessed November 13, 2007).