Runaway climate change
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Runaway climate change describes a scenario in which the climate system passes a threshold or tipping point, after which internal positive feedback effects cause the climate to continue changing, even absent further external forcings. The runaway climate change continues until it is overpowered by negative feedback effects which cause the climate system to restabilise at a new state.
The phrase "runaway climate change" is used to describe a theory in which positive feedbacks result in rapid climate change.2 It is used in the popular media and by environmentalists with reference to concerns about rapid global warming.23 Some astronomers use the similar expression runaway greenhouse effect to describe a situation where the climate deviates catastrophically and permanently from the original state - as happened on Venus.45 It is rarely used in relation to climate change events in climatological literature.67
- Tipping Level or tipping point - Climate forcing (greenhouse gas amount) reaches a point such that no additional forcing is required for large climate change and impacts 8
- Point of No Return - Climate system reaches a point with irreversible climate impacts (irreversible on a practical time scale) Example: disintegration of large ice sheet 8
The core of the concept of runaway climate change is the idea of a large positive feedback within the climate system. When a change in global temperature causes an event to occur which itself changes global temperature, this is referred to as a feedback effect. If this effect acts in the same direction as the original temperature change, it is a destabilising positive feedback (e.g. warming causing more warming); and if in the opposite direction, it is a stabilising negative feedback (e.g. warming causing a cooling effect). If a sufficiently strong net positive feedback occurs, it is said that a climate tipping point has been passed and the temperature will continue to change until the changed conditions result in negative feedbacks that restabilise the climate.citation needed
An example of a negative feedback is that radiation leaving the Earth increases in proportion to the fourth power of temperature, in accordance with the Stefan-Boltzmann law. This feedback is always operational; therefore, while it may be overridden by positive feedbacks for comparatively small temperature changes it will dominate for larger temperature changes. An example of a positive feedback is the ice-albedo feedback, in which increasing temperature causes ice to melt, which increases the amount of heat that Earth absorbs. This feedback only operates in a restricted range of temperatures (those for which ice exists, and does not cover the whole surface; once all the ice has melted, the feedback ceases to operate).
Climate feedback effects can be from:
- The same cause as the forcing (e.g. rising methane levels causing more methane to be released)
- Another greenhouse gas (e.g. CO2 causing methane release)
- On other variables (e.g. ice-albedo feedback)
Without climate feedbacks, a doubling in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration would result in a global average temperature increase of around 1.2°C. Water vapor amount and clouds are probably the most important global climate feedbacks. Historical information and global climate models indicate a climate sensitivity of 1.5 to 4.5°C, with a best estimate of 3°C. This is an amplification of the carbon dioxide forcing by a factor of 2.5. Some studies suggest a lower climate sensitivity, but other studies indicate a sensitivity above this range. Partly because of the difficulty in modeling the cloud feedback, the true climate sensitivity remains uncertain.9
There are known examples of the Earth's climate producing a large response to small forcings; most obviously CO2 feedback effect is believed to be part of the transition between glacial and interglacial periods, with the Milankovitch cycle providing the initial trigger.10 This is generally not considered to be a runaway climate change. Another example would be Dansgaard-Oeschger events.citation needed
Potentially unstable methane deposits exists in permafrost regions, which are expected to retreat as a result of global warming,11 and also clathrates, with the clathrate effect probably taking millennia to fully act.12 The potential role of methane from clathrates in near-future runaway scenarios is not certain, as studies13 show a slow release of methane, which may not be regarded as 'runaway' by all commentators. The clathrate gun runaway effect may be used to describe more rapid methane releases. Methane in the atmosphere has a high global warming potential, but breaks down relatively quickly to form CO2, which is also a greenhouse gas. Therefore, slow methane release will have the long-term effect of adding CO2 to the atmosphere.
In order to model clathrates and other reservoirs of greenhouse gases and their precursors, global climate models would have to be 'coupled' to a carbon cycle model. Some current global climate models do not include such modelling of methane deposits.citation needed
Here we use a simple land carbon balance model to analyse the conditions required for a land sink-to-source transition, and address the question; could the land carbon cycle lead to a runaway climate feedback? [...] The simple land carbon balance model has effective parameters representing the sensitivities of climate and photosynthesis to CO2, and the sensitivities of soil respiration and photosynthesis to temperature. This model is used to show that (a) a carbon sink-to-source transition is inevitable beyond some finite critical CO2 concentration provided a few simple conditions are satisfied, (b) the value of the critical CO2 concentration is poorly known due to uncertainties in land carbon cycle parameters and especially in the climate sensitivity to CO2, and (c) that a true runaway land carbon-climate feedback (or linear instability) in the future is unlikely given that the land masses are currently acting as a carbon sink.
Soil carbon and climate change: from the Jenkinson effect to the compost-bomb instability15
More recently there has been a suggestion that the release of heat associated with soil decomposition, which is neglected in the vast majority of large-scale models, may be critically important under certain circumstances. Models with and without the extra self-heating from microbial respiration have been shown to yield significantly different results. The present paper presents a mathematical analysis of a tipping point or runaway feedback that can arise when the heat from microbial respiration is generated more rapidly than it can escape from the soil to the atmosphere. This ‘compost-bomb instability’ is most likely to occur in drying organic soils with high porosity covered by an insulating lichen or moss layer. However, the instability is also found to be strongly dependent on the rate of global warming. This paper derives the conditions required to trigger the compost-bomb instability, and discusses the relevance of these to the concept of dangerous rates of climate change. On the basis of simple numerical experiments, rates of long-term warming equivalent to 10°C per century could be sufficient to trigger compost-bomb instability in drying organic soils.
The scientific consensus in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report16 is that "Anthropogenic warming could lead to some effects that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change." Note however that this statement is about situations weaker than "runaway change". Text prepared for the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report states that "a 'runaway greenhouse effect'—analogous to Venus—appears to have virtually no chance of being induced by anthropogenic activities."17
Estimates of the size of the total carbon reservoir in Arctic permafrost and clathrates vary widely. It is suggested that at least 900 gigatonnes of carbon in permafrost exists worldwide.18 Furthermore, there are believed to be another 400 gigatonnes of carbon in methane clathrates in permafrost regions 19 with 10,000 to 11,000 gigatonnes worldwide.19 This is large enough that if 10% of the stored methane were released, it would have an effect equivalent to a factor of 10 increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations.20 Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a higher global warming potential than CO2.
Worries about the release of this methane and carbon dioxide is linked to arctic shrinkage. Recent years have seen record low Arctic sea ice. It has been suggested that rapid melting of the sea ice may initiate a feedback loop that rapidly melts arctic permafrost.2122 Methane clathrates on the sea-floor have also been predicted to destabilise, but much more slowly.19
A release of methane from clathrates, however, is believed to be slow and chronic rather than catastrophic and that 21st-century effects of such a release are therefore likely to be 'significant but not catastrophic'.20 It is further noted that 'much methane from dissociated gas hydrate may never reach the atmosphere',23 as it can be dissolved into the ocean and be broken down biologically.23 Other research24 demonstrates that a release to the atmosphere can occur during large releases.clarification needed These sources suggest that the clathrate gun effect alone will not be sufficient to cause 'catastrophic'20 climate change within a human lifetime.
Events that could be described as runaway climate change may have occurred in the past.
The clathrate gun hypothesis suggests an abrupt climate change due to a massive release of methane gas from methane clathrates on the seafloor. It has been speculated that the Permian-Triassic extinction event26 and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum27 were caused by massive clathrate release.
Geological evidence shows that ice-albedo feedback caused sea ice advance to near the equator at several points in Earth history.28 Modeling work shows that such an event would indeed be a result of a self-sustaining ice-albedo effect,29 and that such a condition could be escaped via the accumulation of CO2 from volcanic outgassing.30
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- Kasting, J. F. (1988). "Runaway and moist greenhouse atmospheres and the evolution of Earth and Venus". Icarus 74 (3): 472–494. Bibcode:1988Icar...74..472K. doi:10.1016/0019-1035(88)90116-9. PMID 11538226.
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- Archer, D.; Bufett, B. (2005). "Time-dependent response of the global ocean clathrate reservoir to climatic and anthropogenic forcing". Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems 6 (3): Q03002. Bibcode:2005GGG.....603002A. doi:10.1029/2004GC000854.
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- Lawrence, D. M.; Slater, A. (2005). "A projection of severe near-surface permafrost degradation during the 21st century". Geophysical Research Letters 32 (24): L24401. Bibcode:2005GeoRL..3224401L. doi:10.1029/2005GL025080.
- Buffett, B.; Archer, D. (2004). "Global inventory of methane clathrate: sensitivity to changes in the deep ocean". Earth and Planetary Science Letters 227 (3–4): 185. Bibcode:2004E&PSL.227..185B. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2004.09.005.
- "Gas Escaping From Ocean Floor May Drive Global Warming" (Press release). University of California, Santa Barbara. July 19, 2006.
- Cox, P.M., C. Huntingford and C.D. Jones. H.J. Schellnhuber, (ed), W. Cramer, N. Nakicenovic, T. Wigley, and G. Yohe (co-eds) (2006). "Chapter 15: Conditions for Sink-to-Source Transitions and Runaway Feedbacks from the Land Carbon Cycle. In: Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" (PDF). Cambridge University Press. p. 156. Retrieved 2009-05-20.
- C. M. Luke, P. M. Cox (2010). "Soil carbon and climate change: from the Jenkinson effect to the compost-bomb instability". European Journal of Soil Science 62: 5. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2389.2010.01312.x. Retrieved 2010-11-04.
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- "Melting permafrost methane emissions: The other threat to climate change". TerraNature. 2006-09-15.
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- Archer, David (2007). "Methane hydrate stability and anthropogenic climate change" (PDF). Biogeosciences 4 (4): 521–544. doi:10.5194/bg-4-521-2007. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
- Lawrence, D. M.; Slater, A. G.; Tomas, R. A.; Holland, M. M.; Deser, C. (2008). "Accelerated Arctic land warming and permafrost degradation during rapid sea ice loss". Geophysical Research Letters 35 (11): L11506. Bibcode:2008GeoRL..3511506L. doi:10.1029/2008GL033985.
- "Permafrost Threatened by Rapid Retreat of Arctic Sea Ice, NCAR Study Finds" (Press release). UCAR. June 10, 2008. Retrieved 2009-05-25.
- Kvenvolden, Keith A. (March 30, 1999). "Potential effects of gas hydrate on human welfare". PNAS 96 (7): 3420–3426. Bibcode:1999PNAS...96.3420K. doi:10.1073/pnas.96.7.3420. PMC 34283. PMID 10097052. Retrieved 2009-05-23.
- De Garidel-Thoron, T.; Beaufort, L.; Bassinot, F.; Henry, P. (Jun 2004). "Evidence for large methane releases to the atmosphere from deep-sea gas-hydrate dissociation during the last glacial episode" (Free full text). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101 (25): 9187–9192. Bibcode:2004PNAS..101.9187D. doi:10.1073/pnas.0402909101. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 438951. PMID 15197255. More than one of
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