New Climate Report: Look for more drought and melting glaciers, says OSU’s Peter Clark.

Peter Clark
Peter Clark

To a geoscientist, the movie “The Day After Tomorrow” is an outlandish imagining of abrupt climate change, even down to heartthrob Jake Gyllenhaal’s geeky heroics in the lead role.

But abrupt climate change is not only plausible; it’s likely to occur in this century — even faster in some ways than previous reports have indicated. That’s the conclusion of a recent report by OSU geosciences professor Peter Clark and colleagues for the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.

The report — one of 21 of its kind developed by academic and government agency researchers around the country — specifically identifies faster-than-expected loss of sea ice, rising sea levels and a possibly permanent state of drought in the American Southwest as likelihoods in the near future. It is one of the first reports that describes possible impacts on the North American continent in such detail.

“If the earth warms you can push it to a point where change happens more quickly than expected,” he says. “We’re forcing changes with global warming at a rate the Earth’s climate system has experienced only a few times in history,” says Clark. Generally climate change is understood to have occurred, but is believed to have taken place slowly, over hundreds or thousands of years. But the Earth’s climate — at times — has also changed surprisingly quickly, on the order of decades.

The report evaluated four mechanisms for abrupt climate change that have taken place prehistorically, including rapid changes in glaciers, ice sheets and sea level; widespread changes to the hydrologic cycle; abrupt changes in ocean current patterns; and rapid release to the atmosphere of methane trapped in permafrost or on continental margins.

“All of these have the potential to change quickly due to global warming,” Clark says. The report concluded that we should not expect catastrophic changes in ocean current patterns or abrupt release of methane into the atmosphere, but that rapid change in the other mechanisms may already be in place. “The possibility that the Southwest may enter a permanent drought state is not yet widely appreciated,” says Clark. “Sea ice in the summer is likely to disappear entirely this century. We don’t know how much sea levels will rise, but we’ve concluded it may be more than previously projected.”

The “overarching” recommendation of the report is the need for committed and sustained monitoring of these climatic forces that could trigger abrupt climate changes, the researchers concluded. “We need to monitor the vital signs of our planet,” Clark said.

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