'A World Without Clouds': New Study Details Possibility of Devastating Climate Feedback Loop
By Jessica Corbett
As people across the globe mobilize to demand bold action to combat the climate crisis and scientific findings about looming "environmental breakdown" pile up, a startling new study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience warns that human-caused global warming could cause stratocumulus clouds to totally disappear in as little as a century, triggering up to 8°C (14°F) of additional warming.
Stratocumulus clouds cover about two-thirds of the Earth and help keep it cool by reflecting solar radiation back to space. Recent research has suggested that planetary warming correlates with greater cloud loss, stoking fears about a feedback loop that could spell disaster.
For this study, researchers at the California Institute of Technology used a supercomputer simulation to explore what could lead these low-lying, lumpy clouds to vanish completely. As science journalist Natalie Wolchover laid out in a lengthy piece for Quanta Magazine titled A World Without Clouds:
The simulation revealed a tipping point: a level of warming at which stratocumulus clouds break up altogether. The disappearance occurs when the concentration of CO2 in the simulated atmosphere reaches 1,200 parts per million [ppm]—a level that fossil fuel burning could push us past in about a century, under "business-as-usual" emissions scenarios. In the simulation, when the tipping point is breached, Earth's temperature soars 8 degrees Celsius, in addition to the 4 degrees of warming or more caused by the CO2 directly...
To imagine 12 degrees of warming, think of crocodiles swimming in the Arctic and of the scorched, mostly lifeless equatorial regions during the [Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum or PETM]. If carbon emissions aren't curbed quickly enough and the tipping point is breached, "that would be truly devastating climate change," said Caltech's Tapio Schneider, who performed the new simulation with Colleen Kaul and Kyle Pressel.
Quanta Magazine also broke down the study's key findings in a short video shared on social media:
The study elicited alarm from climate campaigners along with calls for the "radical, disruptive changes" to society's energy and economic systems that scientists and experts have repeatedly said are necessary to prevent climate catastrophe:
New study finds that business-as-usual global warming could produce...a world without clouds. Think about that a mi… https://t.co/lBFiTLCXJP— Bill McKibben (@Bill McKibben)1551119491.0
The future is radical. We face a stark choice btw radical, disruptive changes to our physical world or radical, dis… https://t.co/A0CFefyTvG— Naomi Klein (@Naomi Klein)1551114769.0
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has surged from about 280 ppm to more than 410 ppm today. Although concentrations will continue to rise as long as the international community maintains unsustainable activities that generate greenhouse gas emissions, some observers pointed out that atmospheric carbon hitting 1,200 ppm is far from a foregone conclusion.
And, as Penn State University Climatologist Michael E. Mann noted, "if we let CO2 levels get anywhere near that high we're already in big trouble."
That’s just one model — and it’s at co2 levels of 1200ppm (more than 4 x pre-industrial). If we let co2 levels get… https://t.co/8h7ZmSK3Kb— Michael E. Mann (@Michael E. Mann)1551111118.0
However, as Washington Post climate reporter Chris Mooney concluded in a series of tweets, "the point is not that this scary scenario is going to happen. Given the current trajectory of climate policy and renewables, it seems unlikely. Rather, the key point—and it's a big deal—is that there are many things we don't understand about the climate system and there could be key triggers out there, which set off processes that you can't easily stop."
In other words, as MIT Prof. Thomas Levenson put it: "The really terrifying aspect of this research is the reminder that we do not yet know all the ways catastrophic outcomes can emerge from this uncontrolled experiment on our only habitat."
Smart thread re the no-cloud climate change piece I just tweeted. TL/DR: The really terrifying aspect of this resea… https://t.co/dATFOUBKwD— Thomas Levenson, Zṓiarchos (@Thomas Levenson, Zṓiarchos)1551116574.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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