What are some global warming tipping points?
October 28, 2009 6:32 AM   Subscribe

What are some smaller-scale global warming tipping points that would radically alter everyday life?

Last night on NPR's marketplace, a special report from Helena, Montana, described the devastation wrought by the pine beetle in the Ponderosa forests of the West. According to the report, a two-degree increase in average temperatures has prevented the hard freezes that kill the pine beetle. As a result, those pests are now rampant and destroying whole forests.

(The report did acknowledge the dissenting opinion that fire suppression and poor forest management are the culprits, but my question still stands.)

We here a lot about generic ice-cap melting, etc. But I'm imagining, for instance, that perhaps the temperature increase might prevent freezes that control mosquito populations in the South? Etc?

Can anyone identify other small catastrophes waiting to happen as temperatures inch up? Especially ones specific to your region that others might not know about?
posted by jefficator to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A book I read a few years ago that scared the pants off me was Mark Lynas's Six Degrees our future on a hotter planet.

Locally, we have opposums (or are they possums? they look like giant rats with pink noses). They have only been seen in the past few years as our winters become milder.
posted by saucysault at 7:26 AM on October 28, 2009

One thing that scares the crap out of me is how, very soon, the effects of global warming will themselves contribute to warming in a snowball effect. For instance, the Siberian permafrost is melting. When that's gone, tons and tons of methane stored underneath will be released. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

Another projection I've heard predicts that, by 2070, Boston will have the climate that Atlanta currently has.
posted by lunasol at 7:37 AM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: No. I'm interested in all-around climate change. The misnomer "global warming" is a poor stand-in for the reality that weather patterns are being altered, whether man-mad or not. You're rebuke itself is pointing to freak weather phenomena.

We hear about ice caps and flooded cities every day. I'm interested in smaller scale problems.

In Alaska, for instance, the melting permafrost is destroying roads. That would never make the cover of the New York Times, but oddly enough it is that sort of small-scale, local irritation that makes people alter their opinion on climate change.
posted by jefficator at 7:39 AM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: God, I need an editor. Just overlook all the typos and blame the present state of the American educational system, please. (Pony for editing capability, thanks. )
posted by jefficator at 7:40 AM on October 28, 2009

For the record, Gung Ho -- "global warming" doesn't mean that "omigod it will never be cold again". Global warming is indicative of the increase of the OVERALL AVERAGE temperature of the entire planet; and such an event could indeed lead to wildly fluctuating temperatures in pockets OF the planet. For example: the icecap in the north OMG MELTING would lead to a disruption of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic, which would affect weather patterns in the Northeastern US and in Europe -- actually turning it COLDER. That's because the Gulf stream carries warmer weather from the Carribbean up the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and direct across to the British Isles, so those countries enjoy warmer weather than other countries on the same latitude; a disruption in the Gulf Stream means you no longer have that warming influence, so those parts of the world WOULD get colder.

Now then.

A couple years ago I read an article about an ornithologist who had been studying a particular bird's migratory pattern; every spring/summer it would head up to a remote part of Alaska above the arctic circle. It wasn't until he'd been there for several years that he notced that "hey, wait....the birds have been starting to show up a little earlier each year over the past few years." Whether that event has a negative effect on that ecosystem, we don't know yet -- it sometimes takes these things a while to become evident.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:46 AM on October 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Brown Recluse spider population has been rising in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky due milder winters over the last ~15 years.

They aren't turning the area into a tinderbox like the beetles in Helena, but their bite will put you in the hospital for a few weeks.
posted by tresbizzare at 7:47 AM on October 28, 2009

Response by poster: Saucry, Empress, Tres, those are exactly the type of things I'm talking about.

Climate change ironically presents the most fascinating opportunity to study and document natural selection since the Industrial Revolution changed the moths in England from white to black.

Humans react to climate change by wanting to halt it or reverse it. Nature doesn't have "intention" in that way. So there will be winners and losers. Southern yellow pine might be able to survive north, for instance.

As a personal example, I had tomato vines survive the winter last year in Alabama. They didn't produce this year, but the fact remains that they survived. That was startling to me.

I want examples like that.
posted by jefficator at 7:54 AM on October 28, 2009

Mountain Pine Beetle has already devastated the local economies for a number of forestry dependent communities in British Columbia and (somewhat) Alberta. I find myself wishing for a good 2 week spell of -40 C temperatures in November but they seem to only come too late. (Pine Beetles need a long blast of really cold temperatures early in the winter to get killed off. They develop an anti-freeze like compound in their blood if the cold creeps up on them slowly.)

In addition farmers on the Canadian prairies have been experiencing several dry to near drought seasons in a row, along with higher than normal populations crop-eating of insects. Too soon to tell, I suppose, if it's going to develop into a complete dustbowl situation, but I'm kind of concerned about it.
posted by Kurichina at 8:38 AM on October 28, 2009

Not quite local to me but in Northern Canada ice roads are essential to servicing remote communities (I believe some diamond mines specifically are concerned about the shorter transportation season).

More local, a few years ago when it was an incredibly hot summer there was a problem with a local asphalt road melting because Canadian standards for asphalt are based on historical weather averages that do not have the extremes at either end that we see now. Locally, we have an invasive species, the emerald ash borer, that means we cannot move firewood from one region to another to help slow down its spread. I live pretty close to Toronto but we have had bear sightings in town as they search for food (I think it was something to do with waking up earlier than they have in the past but the food supply is not available yet).

A decade ago the ice storm of 1998 was a wake up call to many that they (and government services) were unprepared for extreme weather. The collapse of the fishery in Atlantic Canads means the cheap fish'n'chips of my childhood is now a special treat (nb: I am only in my thirties). I have a few friends whose lake-front cottages are now a good hike from the water as water levels have dropped in the Great Lakes and other Ontario lakes.

There is information from Natural Resources Canada you may find interesting. Again, the book I recommended above did an excellent job of pointing out temporary positives that people will exploit but actually end up hastening climate change.
posted by saucysault at 8:47 AM on October 28, 2009

I recently read a couple stories outlining the difficulties that communities in the Northwest Territories of Canada are facing: melting permafrost, weakening sea ice, and a mysterious and previously unknown bird that many of us might recognize as the American Robin.

Villagers of ‘Tuk’ brave climate’s front line (Boston Globe)

Southern birds make themselves at home in warmer eastern Arctic (Nunatsiaq Online)
posted by tapesonthefloor at 9:17 AM on October 28, 2009

Best answer: Here's a nice list (with links to news articles) of The Top 100 effects of Global Warming some which are fairly innocuous in themselves (no more Oregon Pinot Noir ) to very scary effects (Malaria in Russia, genocide and war in East Africa.)
posted by vespabelle at 9:37 AM on October 28, 2009

There was a brief time in 2008 where in parts of the USA, money couldn't buy you rice which was a bit of a wake-up call for me. Any connection to climate change in this instance is unlikely to be something that can be substantiated, but the areas of land that are - and are not - suitable for food production, are changing with the climate, and we're going to see more instability in food prices like this in the future.

(The article only mentions rice rationing, but the stores were rationing it because there stocks were gone within minutes of it arriving. If you weren't camped out at the store alongside restaurant employees, etc, when a shipment arrived, you couldn't buy rice, because there wouldn't be any left)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:28 AM on October 28, 2009

Think maple syrup is expensive now? Just wait until most of your sugar maples stop producing syrup because the winter temperatures aren't quite right.
posted by mhum at 12:53 PM on October 28, 2009

Here's an article about one company attempting to proactively produce a more heat tolerant strain of blackcurrents as they believe global warming will make Britian unsuited for growing blackcurrants.
posted by jzed at 3:33 AM on October 29, 2009

A safe operating space for humanity, published in Nature with commentaries, but disclaimed as "not peer-reviewed." I guess these are large-scale tipping points, not small-scale.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:34 AM on November 27, 2009

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