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Great Lakes Article:

Climate shift seen possible Researchers cite emissions, contend world unprepared

By Nick Thompson, Globe Correspondent, 12/12/2001

Releases of carbon dioxide and other so-called ''greenhouse gases'' could trigger an abrupt and dramatic change in global temperatures that governments are unprepared to cope with, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

Most climate forecasters predict a global temperature increase of 1 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. But the National Research Council report said history is full of sudden drops and rises in temperatures, triggered by environmental changes.

For instance, a sudden change in ocean circulation 13,000 years ago sent temperatures plunging, transforming New England into a treacherous place to live in a matter of years.

''Every day could have been a lot like the top of Mount Washington on the coldest, windiest day of the year,'' says Cameron Wake a climatologist at the University of New Hampshire.

Now, scientists at the National Research Council suggest that the current rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, due mainly to burning fuels such as oil and coal, could trigger a new round of rapid heating or cooling.

Scientists have known about that possibility for a long time, but, according to climatologist Richard Alley, the chairman of the panel that wrote the report, ''the dangers hadn't hit us over the head yet.''

The report by one of the nation's most respected scientific groups will feed the growing debate over what the United States should do about global warming and potential climate change. The Bush administration has rejected the global climate change treaty known as the Kyoto Protocol, which restricts emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

President Bush argues that the treaty would greatly harm the US economy and place an unfair burden on industrialized countries by exempting developing nations, particularly India and China.

The report makes an analogy between the global climate system and a light switch: a finger slowly presses down, and suddenly there's a big change when the light goes off. In the same way, the authors argue, greenhouse gases could quietly build up in the atmosphere until they cause a sudden shift in ocean circulation patterns, bringing heat to some places and a new cold to others.

To be sure, the climate has changed abruptly in the past, and, even without human influence it almost certainly will in the future, too. But, according to the report, titled ''Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises,'' pumping the greenhouse gases into the air increases the likelihood of an abrupt shift.

The danger is that humans seem likely to adapt much better to slow climate changes. If temperatures go up by a little bit every year, most trees and animals can migrate to new regions; farmers can figure out what new crops to plant; communities near the ocean can prepare for rising sea levels or more intense and frequent storms. But if a switch flips and changes come much faster, humans could face much more difficult problems.

Gary Yohe, an economics professor at Wesleyan College in Connecticut who helped review the report, said his biggest fear is that international policy is being made based on ''smooth climate change.''

The report focuses heavily on the possibility of sudden climate change caused by disturbing the thermohaline circulation cycle of the ocean, the system that, when shut down, caused such cold to come to New England 13,000 years ago.

When working normally, the circulation cycle brings warms water up from the tropics where it merges with the eastward moving Gulf Stream and travels up the coast of Europe. Easterly winds warm up as they blow across the current, keeping some European cities relatively toasty. Without this effect, temperate Rome would have a climate very similar to chilly Boston, because the two cities lie on the same latitude.

Global warming could disrupt this cycle by melting glaciers and increasing overall evaporation, which leads to increased precipitation, changing the density of northern water and stopping the circulation patterns. That, in turn, would deliver sudden cold to places such as Western Europe, and increased heat elsewhere.

Current research suggests that the thermohaline circulation cycle has already started to slow somewhat, but no one is certain when and whether it will stop - a prospect that scares Wake of UNH.

''I really can't imagine how dramatic the changes would be if we shut down'' thermohaline circulation, he said.

This story ran on page A2 of the Boston Globe on 12/12/2001.

Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

See parts of the report at


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