The self-accelerating catastrophe

The century of catastrophes is coming? – Part I

Our climate is not in good shape. On the one hand, there are already signs of impending climate change everywhere – increasing hurricanes, floods and drought disasters. On the other hand, the American oil, coal and automobile industries in particular, together with the Bush administration, are counterattacking: climate change ? – no treaty, no problem!

Water vapor image from Meteosat. Image: ESA

However, there are unmistakable signs that we may be on the verge of a climate shift of unimaginable proportions. And above all, the scientific disputes of individuals should not obscure the fact that well over 90% of climate researchers agree: Humans already influence the climate!

For the first time, direct observation of the greenhouse effect was achieved in 2000 by comparing satellite data from 1970 and 1997. While experts are still not entirely sure how gross the effect of water vapor and clouds really is, there has also been increasingly alarming news recently:

Accelerant no. 1: Water vapor

The concentration of water vapor in the upper layers of the atmosphere has increased by 75 percent in the last 45 years. This is the result of a study involving 68 renowned scientists from seven countries. The increase in water vapor is partly due to the greenhouse effect itself. That is: The hotter it gets on Earth, the more water vapor accumulates in the atmosphere, the hotter it gets – a positive feedback loop.

Until now it was always thought that water vapor through cloud formation rather slows down the greenhouse effect. However, the study found that the increase in water vapor from 1980 to the present has again increased the temperature rise due to carbon dioxide increase by about half.

Accelerator no. 2: Siberia thaws

There is also a second feedback loop: the thawing of the permafrost in Siberia and Alaska. Reports confirm that this process has already started. So we are facing another self-accelerating climate phenomenon.

When the permafrost soils in the north turn into coarse swamps due to the general temperature increase, coarse amounts of methane gas and carbon dioxide will be released, which have been stored in the ground frost until now. In addition, as a result of the rotting processes of billions of microorganisms in the softened soil, enormous quantities of methane gas are produced, which has an extremely strong effect on the climate, and which in turn contributes decisively to a further increase in temperature, because methane acts like a catalyst on the climate. In addition, marine bacteria cause an increase in carbon dioxide production in the surface waters of the world’s oceans when the temperature rises, thus further increasing the greenhouse effect.

The self-accelerating catastrophe

The area of the Arctic covered with ice is continuously shrinking

Accelerator No. 3: The Arctic thaws

The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, has just announced that the Arctic ice has shrunk dramatically in recent years, by at least 20% since 1978.

If Arctic ice continues to shrink at the current rate of about 8% per decade, there will no longer be an ice-covered North Pole as we currently know it by 2060. This, in turn, has a huge impact on the process of permafrost thawing described above. A female North Pole cap reflects the solar radiation and thus ensures a cooling of the northern latitudes. If the female cap is missing, additional warmth is absorbed and the entire north polar region warms up much more strongly than before.

In addition, not only is the Gronland ice in danger, with the consequence of a further dramatic rise in sea level, but also the ocean currents in the Arctic Ocean could be influenced, which could ultimately lead to a collapse of the Gulf Stream. More detailed below.

The accelerator no. 4: The methane shock

The further warming of the world’s oceans, in turn, could set a fourth jerk coupling in motion: Coarse amounts of methane ice, which have been stored on the seafloor, are released and heat up the earth even more.

The consequence could be a catastrophe similar to the one that probably wiped out numerous species 55 million years ago. In addition we came then into temperature ranges, which none of the mammals living today ever experienced so far. Also, the climate in which humans have evolved has never been warmer than 17 degrees. That is only one degree more than today.

The climate roller coaster

More realistic than a continuous rise in temperatures, however, is the scenario of climate change with dramatic short-term climate reversals. In recent years, climate experts have increasingly come to realize that we have witnessed an exceptionally calm and stable climate over the past ten thousand years. Again and again the researchers had to find out that there have been also much more turbulent phases in the climatic history.

Thus, recent results of sediment core drilling have again proven violent climatic caprices in the transition from Tertiary to Quaternary. But also the 125.000 years ago is regarded as a concrete warning example from past climate epochs. Researchers suspect that at that time the average temperature on Earth dropped by more than 14 degrees within a decade. This cold spell lasted 70 years. Afterwards it became abruptly warm again, whereupon the temperatures sank down again.

That means, the climate jumped back and forth between completely different conditions within one century. Also examples are known that the sea level must have risen up to 7 meters within one decade. The frightening thing is that at that time the global mean temperature was only one degree higher than today. The results from the climate history suggest that the warming caused by us could have led to sudden extreme temperature fluctuations.

The self-accelerating catastrophe

The Gulf Stream as a climate switch

An important role in this up and down of the climate roller coaster is probably played by the Gulf Stream – or rather the so-called North Atlantic Current, which presses heavy salty water into the depths off Labrador, pulling the warm Gulf Stream northward with it. If the North Atlantic current fails due to complicated interactions of sub- and saltwater content caused by increased precipitation or large amounts of meltwater, Europe will fall into a new ice age within a few years despite the global greenhouse effect. This in turn reduces the input of sub-water into the North Atlantic and the North Atlantic Current can suddenly start up again after a few decades.

However, it may also take several centuries before Europe finally becomes warmer again. That this process has taken place several times in the last hundred thousand years, climate scientists have found numerous proofs. The last time such a shutdown of the North Atlantic Current occurred was about 13.000 years ago. Also the small ice ages of the Middle Ages could have something to do with a weakening of the Gulf Stream.

Alarming signs

In the year 2000, first quantities showed that the Gulf Stream has already slowed down by 20%. This is really an alarming sign. Because once the North Atlantic Current is off, it is hard to get it going again. It reacts like a switch for the world climate, which, roughly speaking, only knows two states: on or off. If these dire predictions prove to be true, we are facing a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. For we could perhaps still get used to a slow warming, as is widely assumed today. Vegetation could adapt, agriculture would probably be able to plant new varieties of plants and supply mankind with them.

However, if the fluctuations were to increase, an orderly adaptation would probably no longer be possible. Thus, mankind has only been able to develop into today’s culture in the last ten thousand years, during which a comparatively calm and climate fluctuation-free warm period prevailed.

But it is not only at the North Pole that a reversal of the previous ocean currents threatens – with unforeseeable consequences for the whole of mankind. Scientists are also warning of a collapse of the current conditions at the South Pole due to climate warming.

The consequence: the extremes will become more extreme

In the next decades, even without the collapse of the Gulf Stream, we can assume that the extremes will become much more extreme. That means, there will be much more rain in general. When it gets cold, it will become much colder, when it gets warm, it will become much heavier – and altogether much stormier. The increase in wind speeds will lead to a significant increase in wind damage, as we are already seeing. There will be hailstorms with unusually coarse hailstones, periods of heat or cold of unprecedented duration and intensity, severe weather catastrophes that until now were considered impossible.

If we do not quickly shift to a regenerative economy within the next 10-15 years, our century will likely be known as the "century of the century disasters" in history. We can already see the first signs of such a development today. Since the beginning of the 1990s, storm damage of previously unknown magnitude has been causing problems for jerk insurers, i.E., insurance companies. In general, weather disasters are on the increase: floods, storm surges, an increase in typhoons and, on the other hand, severe droughts and heat waves of unprecedented magnitude. The consequence of dry periods are, for example, forest fires, which further contribute to the increase of greenhouse gases and – as in Sydney – can encircle entire cities or – as in Southeast Asia – envelop half a continent in clouds of smoke for months.

Then there is the increase in pollutants: For example, in 1993 Hungary was hit by a plague of locusts for the first time in 60 years. In the meantime, plagues of locusts have become part of everyday life in Hungary. It can also be assumed that epidemics can spread much better in a more extreme climate. It is to be expected that malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, etc. Will be. Will have a much better chance of spreading due to climate change. Also, people will be more susceptible to asthma, allergies, etc.

Dr. Berz, head of the catastrophe observation group of the Munich-based Ruckversicherungs-AG, has stated,

That in the last decades the number and also the damage from gross natural disasters have really dramatically increased. Especially in the 80’s and 90’s, if we compare it with the 60’s, we can see that the number of major catastrophes has increased more than three times, the economic losses – already adjusted for inflation – have increased more than eight times, and the insured losses have increased even 16 times. So these are really quite significant changes.

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