May 2015

The “Road to Paris” Goes through Cryosphere

With the Bonn UNFCCC climate negotiations taking place next month, the phrase “road to Paris” is the theme of countless policy forums and media coverage.  For ICCI, that “road” focuses on cryosphere – but increasingly, science is telling us that any path towards a new climate agreement in Paris this December inevitably runs through the world’s ice and snow-covered regions:  the Poles, Himalayas and high alpine areas, Arctic and South American tundra.

A subtle but important shift has occurred in the research world since the IPCC’s AR5, which was silent on a number of cryosphere-climate interactions because we simply did not understand them sufficiently. From a negotiating point of view, the most important of these involve the risk of irreversible processes and changes to the climate system arising from cryosphere.

These include permafrost melting, that an April 9 Nature article calculated will probably add the equivalent of another larger emitter – China or the U.S. — to the emissions mix, making the 2 degree goal all that much harder to reach.  It also encompasses the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS), which researchers believe may already have reached, or be approaching, a point of no return, leading to 4-6 meters’ ultimate sea-level rise. Even today, with about a 1.2 degree temperature rise over pre-industrial, we have baked in a full meter (3 feet) of ultimate sea-level rise just from warmer water (thermal expansion) and loss of land glaciers.

Cryosphere climate change is not like addressing air pollution. In the latter, once the air becomes cleaner, many of the negative impacts reverse, certainly within a generation. The cryosphere, we are increasingly learning, is different: we are living in a world made relatively stable by the moderating influence of ice sheets and glaciers left over from the last Ice Age.  To restore these glaciers and ice sheets and the world we have known for the past 11,000 years or so will require temperatures well below pre-industrial – as one research paper drily put it, a new Ice Age.

That is the physical reality that negotiators will determine in Bonn and Paris over the next six months. Political leaders are playing with fire – or rather, the stabilizing impact of ice – to pretend otherwise. Long called a “canary in the coal mine” indicator of climate change, these regions are shifting from mere signals, to drivers of change: and in a far briefer time frame than political leaders yet appreciate.

By all accounts, the “road to Paris” may turn into a crossroads: and both roads lead through cryosphere.

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