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Climate Change Momentum

Speeding Trains Don’t Stop Quickly

Feature Image: Calm Before the Storm (ArcheanArt)

Imagine a train traveling at 50 miles per hour down a straight stretch of track. Through poor planning and lousy maintenance, the train runs out of fuel. Eventually, it comes to rest but only after traveling a considerable distance. The momentum generated by 15,000 tons of metal and freight traveling at a high velocity means the train keeps moving even when it loses power. Climate change is like a freight train; cut off all fossil fuel emissions, and the planet will continue to warm; sea level will keep rising.

A recent report by NOAA confirms as much. Curbing emissions won’t stop sea levels from rising another 2 feet in the next 80 years. But doing nothing will result in up to a 7-foot rise. Here are the highlights from the NOAA report:

Sea level along the U.S. coastline is projected to rise, on average, 10–12 inches (0.25–0.30 meters) in the next 30 years (2020–2050), which will be as much as the rise measured over the last 100 years.

Sea level rise will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years.

Current and future emissions matter. About 2 feet (0.6 meters) of sea level rise along the U.S. coastline is increasingly likely between 2020 and 2100 because of emissions to date. Failing to curb future emissions could cause an additional 1.5–5 feet (0.5–1.5 meters) of rise for a total of 3.5–7 feet (1.1–2.1 meters) by the end of this century.

Old News

NOAA’s report (2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report) is not new news. Sensible minds have recognized for quite a while that climate conditions created over the 150 years since the Industrial Revolution started cannot be undone in an instant.

Commitments towards moving to net-zero carbon emissions formed a critical part of the Paris Agreement. Limiting global warming to 2 degrees C required that the world reach net-zero CO2 emissions by about 2075. Limiting it to 1.5 degrees C required reaching net-zero by 2050. However, reaching either of these goals envisions that we continue living with a hotter planet. After net-zero is achieved, temperatures will still rise.

Unfortunately, there is a lag between stopping carbon emissions and stopping temperature increases. Climate modeling (Meehl, et al.) indicates that if we slammed on the emissions brakes today, we would still get another half-degree temperature rise due to climate lag. The climate lag effect ensures that the warming continues for at least another 40 years after we reach our emissions goal.

Then there are tipping points like permafrost melt that let nature carry on the warming process with uncontrollable releases of greenhouse gases from natural processes. We also have feedback loops that keep adding heat to our oceans, like those created by declining summer ice cover in the Arctic Ocean (Arctic amplification).

Climate Adaptation Can’t be Ignored

Adaptation is a necessity, but it can’t be effectively achieved without a better understanding of the problem. The NOAA report expresses this concept quite well:

Continuously tracking how and why sea level is changing is an important part of informing plans for adaptation. Our ability to monitor and understand the individual factors that contribute to sea level rise allows us to track sea level changes in a way that has never before been possible (e.g., using satellites to track global ocean levels and ice sheet thickness). Ongoing and expanded monitoring will be critical as sea levels continue to rise.

Put another way, we can run, but we can’t hide. Curbing emission is a good thing, but let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking it will solve the coming problems associated with rising sea levels. Responding to how humanity adapts to a warmer Earth will be on us.



2022 Sea Level Rise Technical Report (Source: NOAA) 

How Much More Global Warming and Sea Level Rise? (By Gerald A. Meehl*, Warren M. Washington, William D. Collins, Julie M. Arblaster, Aixue Hu, Lawrence E. Buja, Warren G. Strand, Haiyan Teng; Science) 

Net-zero emissions — But no cooling down without Negative Emissions Technology (by WM House; ArcheanWeb) 

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.