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Home Blogs Manetta Calinger National Academies Press webcast-Abrupt Climate Changes

National Academies Press webcast-Abrupt Climate Changes

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Written by mcalinger
19 Dec 2013

Abrupt Impacts of Climate change:  Anticipating Surprises

The National Academy of Sciences held a public briefing at the Koshland Science Museum in Washington, D.C. on December 3, 2013 to announce the publication of a National Research Council’s report on climate change titled “Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change:  Anticipating Surprises”.

The report focuses on abrupt changes in the climate that could have profound impacts. We are all familiar with climate change predictions that forecast changes in the next century or by the end of the century.  For some people, especially those that do not understand how climate change systems can effect nearly every phase of life on Earth, this doesn’t seem too worrisome, and indeed, some climate changes are forecast to be gradual changes. (“Gradual changes” should not imply they are not harmful.)

The report explained that we now know that some changes are going to be much quicker or much more abrupt. These changes can happen so quickly that we may not have time to react to the negative consequences these changes might bring.

One of the speakers offered an analogy to compare the timing of some changes. He said that when you are driving on a road and the road curves up ahead, you can see the change in direction and can compensate for it. Abrupt climate changes are more like the road just dropping off from beneath you as you drive.  There’s no seeing it coming and no way to compensate.

The researchers discussed the importance of recognizing that we have climate changes happening right now that could soon reach a threshold for abrupt change. If we recognize the change quickly enough, it may be possible to lessen the consequences to humans and other living organisms in the ecosystem.  If we don’t recognize the abrupt change potential, then there’s no diminishing the consequences later.

The abrupt changes include those that will happen in the next 20 years.  Think about that. If sea level rise in some of our coastal cities occurs in 20 or 30 years, how will we move the population of a Miami or a New York?  Where will they go? What will be the impact on our economy that sees so much of its potential from large coastal cities’ business and production?

This dilemma is already occurring. New York City just experienced record levels of flooding.  Ask a person living in the city and he or she will easily be able to tell you the difference between a “normal” heavy rainfall and water filling up subway tunnels to the top of the steps.

Are the report’s findings all bad, then? No. Scientific findings on abrupt climate changes signal the need for more studies that will even better define the risks we face. It optimistically outlines the need for a global monitoring system for climate changes in order to identify both the status of where we are now and the possibilities that may occur in the future.

Having this type of data will allow us to attempt to mitigate the impacts to humans and to life forms in various ecosystems.

I highly recommend this webcast for its highly engaging presentation of climate change science in a clear, understandable format.

The report is posted on the National Academy of Sciences website. Listed below are several links of interest. You can read the report, a synopsis of the report, and view the slides used during the public briefing. The archive of the webcast will be available soon. 

National Academy of Sciences website:

For a news story about the report and links to downloading the report, the report in brief, and the slideshow used during the public briefing: 

Please note:  You must set up a (free) MyNAP account to download the report.

Other publications concerning climate change:

Seasonal-to-Decadal Predictions of Arctic Sea Ice: Challenges and Strategies (2012)

Committee on the Future of Arctic Sea Ice Research in Support of Seasonal-to-Decadal Predictions; Polar Research Board; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council


A National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling (2012)

Committee on a National Strategy for Advancing Climate Modeling; Board on Atmospheric Studies and Climate; Division on Earth and Life Studies


Lessons and Legacies of the International Polar Year 2007-2008 (2012)

  •          Committee on the Legacies and Lessons of International Polar Year 2007-2008; Polar Research Board; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council

Last update (19 Dec 2013)


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National Academies Press webcast-Abrupt Climate Changes
Written by: LaurieRuberg On: 19 Dec 2013

This is an excellent description of abrupt climate changes.  I thought this image of an "abrupt climate change" published by the US EPA would reinforce the message conveyed in your blog. The information pasted below is an excerpt from:

Rates of Climate Change [6] have varied over time

Studies of Earth’s past climate suggest periods of relative stability as well as periods of rapid change.

Periods of Relative Stability
Interglacial climate periods such as the present tend to be more stable than cooler, glacial climates. For example, Earth’s climate during the current interglacial period is more stable than the most recent glacial period. The glacial period was characterized by widespread, large, and abrupt climate changes. In contrast, the previous interglacial period was similarly stable. [1]

Glacier calving

This image shows a glacier calving, when a mass of ice suddenly releases and breaks away. Source: USDA

Periods of Abrupt Climate Change
Abrupt climate change refers to sudden (on the order of decades), large changes in some major component of the climate system, with rapid, widespread effects. Abrupt or rapid climate changes tend to frequently accompany transitions between glacial and interglacial periods (and vice versa). [2]  For example, a significant part of the Northern Hemisphere, particularly around Greenland, may have experienced very rapid warming of 14°F-28°F over several decades during and after the most recent ice age. [2]

Abrupt climate changes occur when a threshold or ‘tipping point’ in the climate system is crossed, causing large changes or impacts to the climate. Scientific data show that abrupt changes in climate at the regional scale have occurred throughout history and are characteristic of Earth’s climate system. Warming from greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other human changes to the Earth system may increase the possibility of large and abrupt regional or global climatic events.

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