The climate change runaway chain reaction-like process

Amplifying feedbacks leading to accelerated planetary temperatures
by Andrew Glikson
“The paleoclimate record shouts to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth's climate
system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges” (Wally Broecker)

Many climate change models, including by the IPCC, appear to minimize or even neglect the amplifying feedbacks of global warming, which are pushing temperatures upward in a runaway chain reaction-like process, as projected by Wally Broecker and other:

These feedbacks drive a chain reaction of events, accelerating the warming, as follows:

  1. Melting snow and ice expose dark rock surfaces, reducing the albedo of the polar terrains and sea ice in surrounding oceans, enhancing infrared absorption and heating.
  2. Fires create charred low-albedo land surfaces.
  3. An increase in evaporation raises atmospheric vapor levels, enhancing the greenhouse gas effect.
  4. Whereas an increase in plant leaf area enhances photosynthesis and evapotranspiration, creating a cooling effect, the reduction in vegetation in darkened burnt areas works in the opposite direction, warming land surfaces.
Figure 1. The 2021 global climate trends (Hansen, 2021, by permission)

The current acceleration of global warming is reflected by the anomalous rise of temperatures, in particular during 2010-2020 (Hansen 2021, Figure 1 above). Consequently, extensive regions are burning, with 4 to 5 million fires per year counted between about 2004 and 2019. In 2021, global April temperatures are much less than in 2020, due to a moderately strong La Nina effects.

Figure 2. The Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum recorded by benthic plankton isotopic data from sites in the Antarctic, south Atlantic and Pacific (Zachos et al., 2003). The rapid decrease in oxygen isotope ratios is indicative of a large increase in atmospheric temperatures associated with a rise in greenhouse gases CO₂ and CH₄ signifies approximately +5°C warming.

A runaway climate chain reaction-like process triggered by release of methane is believed to have occurred during the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM), about 55 million years ago (Figures 2 above and 3A below).
Analogies between Anthropocene climate change and major geological climate events reveal the rate of current rise in greenhouse gas levels and temperatures as compared to major geological warming events is alarming. A commonly cited global warming event is the Paleocene-Eocene boundary thermal maximum (PETM) at 55 Ma-ago, reaching +5 degrees Celsius and over 800 ppm CO₂ within a few thousand years (Figures 2 above and 3A below).

Figure 3. (A) Simulated atmospheric CO₂ at and following the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary (after Zeebe et al., 2009);
(B) Global CO₂ and temperature during the last glacial termination (After Shakun et al., 2012) (LGM – Last Glacial Maximum; OD – Older dryas; BA – Bølling–Alerød; YD – Younger dryas). Glikson (2020).

The definitive measure of Anthropocene global warming, i.e. the rise in the atmospheric concentration of CO₂, to date by 49 percent since pre-industrial time (from 280 ppm to currently 419 ppm), is only rarely mentioned by the media or politicians. Nor are the levels of methane and nitrous oxide, which have risen by about 3-fold. To date potential attempts toward climate mitigation and adaptation have failed. There is a heavy price in communicating distressing projections, Cassandra-like, where climate scientists have been threatened, penalized or dismissed, including from major institutions.
The triggering of a mass extinction event by the activity of organisms is not unique to the Anthropocene. The end Permian mass extinction, the greatest calamity for life in geologic history, is marked in marine carbonates by a negative δ¹³C shift attributed to oceanic anoxia and the emission of methane (CH₄) and hydrogen sulphide (H₂S) related to the activity of methanogenic algae (“purple” and “green” bacteria) (Ward, 2006; Kump, 2011). As a corollary anthropogenic climate change constitutes a geological/biological process where the originating species (Homo sapiens) has not to date discovered an effective method of controlling the calamitous processes it has triggered.

Andrew Glikson

A/Prof. Andrew Glikson

Earth and Paleo-climate scientist
The University of New South Wales,
Kensington NSW 2052 Australia

The Asteroid Impact Connection of Planetary Evolution
The Archaean: Geological and Geochemical Windows into the Early Earth
Climate, Fire and Human Evolution: The Deep Time Dimensions of the Anthropocene
The Plutocene: Blueprints for a Post-Anthropocene Greenhouse Earth
Evolution of the Atmosphere, Fire and the Anthropocene Climate Event Horizon
From Stars to Brains: Milestones in the Planetary Evolution of Life and Intelligence
Asteroids Impacts, Crustal Evolution and Related Mineral Systems with Special Reference to Australia
The Event Horizon: Homo Prometheus and the Climate Catastrophe
Links image top
• Seasonal origin of the thermal maxima at the Holocene and the last interglacial – by Samantha Bova et al. (2021)
• Could temperatures keep rising? – by Sam Carana (2021)
• Blueprints of future climate trends – by Andrew Glikson (2018)
• Global warming preceded by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations during the last deglaciation – by Jeremy Shakun (2012)
• The Last Great Global Warming – by Lee Kump (2011)
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