Last week, rivers froze over in Chicago when it got colder than at the North Pole. At the same time, temperatures hit 47℃ in Adelaide during the peak of a heatwave.
Such extreme and unpredictable weather is likely to get worse as ice sheets at both poles continue to melt.
Our research, published today, shows that the combined melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is likely to affect the entire global climate system, triggering more variable weather and further melting. Our model predictions suggest that we will see more of the recent extreme weather, both hot and cold, with disruptive effects for agriculture, infrastructure, and human life itself.
We argue that global policy needs urgent review to prevent dangerous consequences.
Accelerated loss of ice
Even though the goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep warming below 2℃ (compared to pre-industrial levels), current government pledges commit us to surface warming of 3-4℃ by 2100. This would cause more melting in the polar regions.
Already, the loss of ice from ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, as well as mountain glaciers, is accelerating as a consequence of continued warming of the air and the ocean. With the predicted level of warming, a significant amount of meltwater from polar ice would enter the earth’s oceans.
We have used satellite measurements of recent changes in ice mass and have combined data from both polar regions for the first time. We found that, within a few decades, increased Antarctic melting would form a lens of freshwater on the ocean surface, allowing rising warmer water to spread out and potentially trigger further melting from below.
In the North Atlantic, the influx of meltwater would lead to a significant weakening of deep ocean circulation and affect coastal currents such as the Gulf Stream, which carries warm water from the tropics into the North Atlantic. This would lead to warmer air temperatures in Central America, Eastern Canada and the high Arctic, but colder conditions over northwestern Europe on the other side of the Atlantic.
Recent research suggests that tipping points in parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may have already been passed. This is because most of the ice sheet that covers West Antarctica rests on bedrock far below sea level – in some areas up to 2 kilometres below.
Bringing both poles into one model
It can be a challenge to simulate the whole climate system because computer models of climate are usually global, but models of ice sheets are typically restricted to just Antarctica or just Greenland. For this reason, the most recent Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) assessment used climate models that excluded ice sheet interactions.
Global government policy has been guided by this assessment since 2013, but our new results show that the inclusion of ice sheet meltwater can significantly affect climate projections. This means we need to update the guidance we provide to policy makers. And because Greenland and Antarctica affect different aspects of the climate system, we need new modelling approaches that look at both ice sheets together.
Seas rise as ice melts on land
Apart from the impact of meltwater on ocean circulation, we have also calculated how ongoing melting of both polar ice caps will contribute to sea level. Melting ice sheets are already raising sea level, and the process has been accelerating in recent years.
Our research is in agreement with another study published today, in terms of the amount that Antarctica might contribute to sea level over the present century. This is good news for two reasons.
First, our predictions are lower than one US modelling group predicted in 2016. Instead of nearly a metre of sea level rise from Antarctica by 2100, we predict only 14-15cm.
Second, the agreement between the two studies and also with previous projections from the IPCC and other modelling groups suggests there is a growing consensus, which provides greater certainty for planners. But the regional pattern of sea level rise is uneven, and islands in the southwest Pacific will most likely experience nearly 1.5 times the amount of sea level rise that will affect New Zealand.
While some countries, including New Zealand, are making progress on developing laws and policies for a transition towards a low-carbon future, globally policy is lagging far behind the science.
The predictions we make in our studies underline the increasingly urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It might be hard to see how our own individual actions can save polar ice caps from significant melting. But by making individual choices that are environmentally sustainable, we can persuade politicians and companies of the desire for urgent action to protect the world for future generations.
Every year Tasmania is hit by thousands of lightning strikes, which harmlessly hit wet ground. But a huge swathe of the state is now burning as a result of “dry lightning” strikes.
Dry lightning occurs when a storm forms from high temperatures or along a weather front (as usual) but, unlike normal thunderstorms, the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground, so lightning strikes dry vegetation and sparks bushfires.
Dangerous, large fires occur when dry lightning strikes in very dry environments that are full of fuel ready to burn. Cold fronts in Tasmania, which often carry fire-extinguishing rain, have recently been dry, making these fires worse. The fronts draw in strong hot, dry northerly winds, fanning the flames.
Research has found that as climate change creates a drier Tasmania landscape, dry lightning – and therefore these kinds of fires – are likely to increase.
History and detection in Tasmania
Lightning has always started fires across Tasmania. Fire scars and other paleo evidence across Tasmania show large fires are a natural process in some places. However, frequent large, intense fires were rare. Now such fires are being fought almost every year.
Contrary to anecdotal belief, our recent preliminary work suggests that lightning activity has not increased over recent decades. So why do fires started by lightning appear to be increasing?
As temperatures rise, evaporation rates are increasing, but current rainfall rates are about the same. In combination this means the Tasmanian landscape is drying. The landscape is more often primed, waiting for an ignition source such as a dry-lightning strike. In such conditions, it only takes one.
When dry lighting strikes
Lightning struck just such a landscape in late December 2018, starting the Gell River bushfire in southwest Tasmania. This uncontrollable fire burnt about 20,000 hectares in the first half of January and is still burning. These large fires deplete the state’s resources, fatigue our volunteer and professional fire fighters and can have disastrous effects on natural systems.
With no significant rain falling over Tasmania since mid-December, the island is breaking dry spell records and thousands of dry lightning events have occurred. On January 15 alone over 2,000 lightning strikes sparked more than 60 bushfires.
Most of these were controlled rapidly, a credit to Tasmania’s emergency responders. One of the worst-hit areas was the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, where many bushfires continue to burn in inaccessible locations.
This is putting some of Tasmania’s most pristine and valuable places in danger of being lost. The state stands to lose its most remarkable old-growth forests, like Mount Anne, which is home to some of the world’s largest King Billy Pines, a species endemic to Tasmania.
Increasing dry area
Ongoing climate change is making dry spells longer and more frequent, increasing the fire-prone area of Tasmania. Almost the whole state is becoming vulnerable to dry lightning.
Some regions of the west coast of Tasmania used to have very little to no risk of bushfires as they were always damp. However, this is no longer the case, resulting in species coming under threat.
Unlike most of Australia’s vegetation, many of Tasmania’s alpine and subalpine species evolved in the absence of fire and therefore do not recover after being burnt. Endemic species like Pencil Pine, Huon Pine and Deciduous Beech may be wiped out by one fire.
So what does the future hold? Using data from Climate Futures for Tasmania, we can peek into the future. Our models indicate that climate change is highly likely to result in profound changes to the fire climate of Tasmania, especially in the west.
Climate change already playing a role
With a warming climate, the rain-producing low-pressure systems are moving south and many storms that used to hit Tasmania are drifting south, leaving the island drier. This, combined with increasing evaporation rates, result in rapid drying of some areas. Areas that historically rarely experienced fire will become increasingly prone to burn. The drying trend is projected to be particularly profound throughout western Tasmania.
By the end of the century, summer conditions are projected to last eight weeks longer. This drying means that lightning events (and therefore dry lightning) will become an ever-increasing threat and the impact of these events will become more significant.
Higher levels of dryness will mean when bushfires occur the potential for these to burn into the rainforest, peat soils and alpine areas will be significantly increased.
How far away was that lightning?
These changes are already happening and will get progressively worse throughout the 21st century. Climate change is no longer a threat of the future: we are experiencing it now.
Nick Earl, Postdoctoral associate, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne; Peter Love, Atmospheric Physicist, University of Tasmania; Rebecca Harris, Climate Research Fellow, University of Tasmania, and Tomas Remenyi, Climate Research Fellow, Climate Futures Group, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, University of Tasmania