abrupt climate change and earth observation

Co-authored by Amanda Kibbe, Research Analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The National Research Council released a new report in December calling for the development of an Abrupt Change Early Warning System (ACEWS), adding to the growing list of energy and climate policies the world needs to rapidly adopt. In particular, as global carbon emissions continue to rise, policymakers should step up efforts to prepare for the future dangers associated with abrupt climate change. It’s increasingly no longer a question of “if”, but rather, “when, where, and how much?”

Abrupt changes are major climate shifts occurring on a time scale of decades or even years. These changes are a threat to animals, plants, and humans if they cannot adapt quickly enough.  Because abrupt changes such as the Younger Dryas have occurred in the past, scientists believe that abrupt changes will continue to occur as carbon emissions grow unabated.

In fact, some abrupt changes such as the loss of late-summer Arctic sea ice have already occurred due to warming temperatures. Future projections show that total loss of late-summer Arctic sea ice is possible in the next few decades, which would significantly impact fragile ecosystems, shipping routes and resource extraction-such as oil and natural gas.

Other abrupt climate changes such as the destabilization of the West Antarctic Ice-Sheet which could raise sea levels 25-feet, are less understood. While scientists believe it’s unlikely that this event will occur during this century, more research into its tipping points is needed to fully understand the timing and extent of the impacts that it may have on the global ecosystem. According to Committee for Understanding and Monitoring Abrupt Climate Change Chairman James White, "We should be measuring, far better, where the outlets are — where the glaciers go into the ocean. We don't do that."

Unfortunately, the point at which abrupt climate change thresholds are crossed is not well understood. According to University of California, Berkley professor Anthony Barnosky, “When you think about gradual changes [like ice sheet loss] you can kind of see where the road is and know where you're going. When you think about abrupt changes and threshold effects, the road suddenly drops out from under you. And it's those kinds of things we're suggesting we need to anticipate in a much more comprehensive way.”

ImageArtist sketch of GOES-R satellite, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is where the ACEWS would come in. Scientists would be able to monitor the global climate system for abrupt changes and determine if an abrupt change has already occurred, is occurring, or is about to occur. The monitoring system would provide a treasure trove of new data that climate scientists, emergency managers, and infrastructure planners and others could use to model and predict future ecosystem changes.

As with most policy issues related to energy and climate change though, implementing ACEWS requires investment and cooperation. Fortunately, authors of the report believe that implementing ACEWS, “need not be overly expensive and need not be created from scratch.” This is because they believe that we have the ability to simply build on what we already have. ACEWS could build upon many working systems with monitoring capabilities like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administation (NASA), and the National Science Foundation (NSF), and could be organized in conjunction with other successful early warning systems such as the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET).

Unfortunately, even this presents a problem for policymakers. The government has decreasedits annual funding for earth observation systems such as at NOAA. According to White, scientists only have a few sites to look at, and funding to NOAA’s monitoring network has been cut by 30 percent since 2007. In other words, the federal government is underinvesting in earth observation systems at a time when we need much more data for abrupt climate warning, not less. Congress not only needs to fill the funding gap, it needs to build a bigger mountain.

While this funding and earth observation gap has been well discussed, the need for an ACEWS exacerbates the problem. With increases in extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, we’re discovering firsthand the value quality weather and climate data can have on society, making its absence that much more devastating. Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley might put it best, “You can think of abrupt climate change as the drunk drivers of the earth system. It's not the most common problem, but it's one of the most serious.”