The world may be much closer to an abrupt and catastrophic climate shift than previously thought. That’s the warning from modern climate science pioneer James Hansen. His latest research suggests that polar ice sheet disintegration may cause sea level rise enough to drown coastal cities, not in a few centuries, but in a few decades.
In a paper written along with 18 other authors and published in European science journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics on March 22, Hansen discusses findings from paleoclimate data, climate models and observations, which indicate that freshwater melt from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are creating feedback loops that hasten the effects of climate change.
According to Hansen and his collaborators, as freshwater from these giant melting masses of ice pours into the salty ocean, it forms a cold layer on the water surface. This layer weakens ocean currents that redistribute heat around the planet and allow some of that heat to escape into space. The more heat gets trapped in the oceans, the more the ice sheets melt pouring more cold low-density water unto the ocean surface so that it might form a lid completely shutting down the all-important ocean circulations.
Yes, the research does resemble the premise of the 2004 climate apocalypse movie The Day After Tomorrow.
The impacts of such an ocean circulation shutdown would be felt as killer superstorms, before which Hurricane Sandy and recent snowstorms across the US would pale, Hansen said. The phenomenon would also result in a sea level rise of several meters, drowning almost every coastal city and low lying area from Bangladesh to the Netherlands. Current scientific consensus pegs sea level rise to be not more than one meter by the end of the 21st century, which itself will have devastating consequences.
The study has already seen a share of controversy after Hansen, deeming the findings to important to wait, released a non-peer reviewed draft of it in 2015. Since then, the paper has been reviewed and discussed by the climate research community, many of whom feel that it’s important as a predictor of the worst case scenario.
Hansen has been at the forefront of climate science, having warned the world through his testimony to the US Congress back in 1988 that global warming had already begun. He has also been a vociferous climate activist and constantly demanded the phasing out of fossil fuels. In video above, released along with the study, Hansen once again asks for an immediate shift to clean energy technologies.