How the effects of climate change can create more climate change

One of the interesting things about the global carbon dioxide and climate systems is the concept of feedback loops. You already know that as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide go up (and with them, the global average temperature) you get lots of different kinds of changes all over the place. For instance, mountain pine forests start experiencing warmer winters and smaller snowpacks. But, as those changes happen, they can actually trigger secondary effects that contribute to, and increase the rate of, climate change.

In this video, you'll learn about how warmer temperatures and lower snowpacks are contributing to the spread of massive pine beetle infestations across the western United States. This is more than just inconvenient. The pine beetles can quickly kill huge amounts of trees, raising the risk of property-destroying forest fires and razing whole ecosystems. And, as the trees die en masse, forests that were once carbon sinks (absorbing more carbon dioxide than they released) become emitters—adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Thanks to Barfman for Submitterating!

Video Link


    1. There are a lot of scary methane sinks that are subject to fairly rapid release in the vast permafrost that is thawing for the first time in many thousands of years.

      And then there’s the Michael Bay level possibility in “belches” from the methane hydrate slush in the depths of places like Lake Baikal.

    2. And there is melting permafrost, slowly revealing acres and acres of frost-decomposed plant matter across the Northern latitudes. The plant structures have been alerted by the cold and decomposes very quickly into, you guessed it, more METHANE! Eventually we’ll have screwed ourselves so well nature will do the screwing for us. Huzzah!

  1. There’s nothing to worry about. All we need to do is cut taxes on capital gains, raise the amount lead allowed in baby food, and eliminate the EPA, and the invisible hand of the market will, um, weave a protective . . .a . . . LOOK, MUSLIMS!

    * * *
    But seriously, we’re fucked.

    You that gag, “Sincerity is the key; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made?”

    The fossil fuel industry’s flacks, the free market ideologues, the bought-off politicians, they’ve figured out how to fool enough people, enough of the time, to keep society as a whole from addressing global warming. When the problem becomes unignorable, the pompous turds will play the “No one could have imagined . . .” card.

    1. The arctic is the best place to see the hypocrisy.

      Even while conservative groups (not to be confused with actual environmental conservationists) were saying the arctic ice wasn’t melting (and was even growing in size), they were increasing defense spending to patrol the opening waters, create new trade routes, and explore for more oil to drill (which ought to have been impossible if they believed their own hype).

      And even if they now admit the arctic is melting (some still don’t), it’s shrugged of as something we can’t do anything about anymore, so we may as well steam ahead.

  2. Grammar nazi: you can’t have huge amounts of trees. You can have huge numbers of them though.

    But anyway, as the pine beetle infestation has spread across pretty much the entirety of British Columbia, the corner of the world I call home, I had the thought that maybe it’s just the pine tree’s time to go. You have this one family of trees that’s managed to take over half the continent; it’s almost inevitable that some sort of infectious disease would or parasite would eventually arise. Maybe the pine just became too successful, too good at adapting itself to its surroundings. 

    1. I live in BC too.

      Recall that the pine beetle was just a problem in the northern reaches of the Province and held in balance by the colder weather in the winters. It requires sustained low temperatures (-40C) to kill the pine beetle.

      Warmer winters have caused the infestation to explode and decimating a lot of the forests in BC. I live in the southern interior and we’re only just beginning to see the problem here.

  3. Sorry, but this is uninformed nonsense.
    The climate is a stable system, not an unstable one.

    More CO2 results in more photosynthesis which dampens the delta instead of increasing it.

    1. Bram, the climate is only stable in reaction this magnitude change when the chenge in input occurs over a very very long period of time.

      But we’re throwing the CO2 levels back to Jurassic concentrations in a single human lifetime, while still assaulting the Ozone, etc etc.

      Why drive off avoidable cliffs?

    2. This very story is proof that your simplistic analysis is wrong.

      If it were just plants and photosynthesis . . . yeah, maybe the increased plant biomass would suck up the CO2 released by burning fossil fuels.

      But you’re dealing with a complex system. The rise in temperatures allowed a pest to run rampant, killing off the plants that might have helped buffer the rise in CO2.

      What will grow in the tree’s stead? We have no idea if it will be as effective in sopping up the CO2. But we can be pretty confident that there will be enormous damage to the local web of life. We could end up with a sea of weeds that grow and die in a single season, sopping up a bit of CO2 but then releasing it, rather than growing for decades and keeping the stuff tied up as biomass.

      1. Stefan. I have a degree in environmental chemistry and have studied this exact subject with NASA scientists. How ’bout you?

        Second, i have made none of the assersions that you are knocking down like strawmen before me.

        Third, you appear to be arguing two unrelated points in these two comments. Perhaps you think I am arguing the same exact point as the author, or that I am the auhor, or even in general agreement withhim, which would be a mistake on your part. I merely disagree with YOUR assertions of specific affects, which, by reducing the conversation to single points, are the oversimplified arguments presented here. By you.

    3. Not according to the scientists who study this stuff, they think that paleoclimate studies suggest there are various unstable feedback loops that can get triggered if the climate gets a few degrees higher than today. See this article, which says:

      Paleoclimate records suggest that when the world last had enough carbon dioxide in the air to surpass that 2°C mark, much of the world’s ice had melted, pushing sea levels up four to six meters higher than today. One problem is that it’s not exactly clear how much warming will trigger destabilizing feedback loops — like Siberia permafrost thawing and releasing methane into the air, warming the planet further. The hope has always been that the climate (and things like Greeland’s ice sheet) would remain stable if we stay below 2°C, but it’s not entirely certain.

      And also:

      A few extra degrees might not sound like much, but many scientists think that much warming would be unmanageable. Dave Roberts cites some truly dire research on the subject by the Tyndall Centre’s Kevin Anderson, who warns that “a 4 degrees C future is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation,’ is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

      Is 4°C really that catastrophic? It seems so. Lately, scientists have been racing to pin down what a 4°C (7.2°F) rise would look like, and it’s not a pretty picture. A batch of papers in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society found that 4°C warming could mean things like the total collapse of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and widespread desertification. We run the risk that the Amazon rainforests could die off and the Asian monsoon cycle could vanish. Plus, there are those destabilizing feedback mechanisms to worry about. The University of Southampton’s Eelco Rohling presented data at the American Geophysical Union conference this week suggesting that the sorts of CO2 emission levels we’re talking about here have, in the distant past, been associated with a 25-meter sea-level rise (though that would take awhile to unfold).

      Given the failure to curb carbon emissions we seem to be almost certainly on track for a 2-degree warming, and very likely a warming of 4 degrees if not more, which as mentioned above has a good chance of creating runaway feedback loops that would cause the collapse of industrial civilization. Read this article for more.

  4. The amount of carbon locked in forests doesn’t increase with time (on average). They are not carbon sinks, but are in equilibrium. All growth dies, and then rots – releasing the trapped carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This is true whether the tree dies from beetle infestation, old age, logging or fire. If pine-beetle-kill-areas remain forest, and the dead trees are therefore replaced with other new tress, there is little net effect. OK, some organic matter gets trapped in soil, but even this is in relative equilibrium as the soil particles weather and the soil erodes and the organic matter breaks down..

    The issue is changing land use patterns…..If those same forests are chopped down for good, to allow farming, strip malls, roads or housing, only then does the carbon ends up in the atmosphere for good. That is the REAL issue. Too many people needing something to eat, somewhere to live, somewhere to be stuck in traffic and most importantly, somewhere to shop.

  5. But I’m no climate change denialist. It’s real, we’re causing it, it will be a catastrophe. But we’re just too fucking selfish to do anything about it. Any effective response is completely disabled by political interference, public scientific ignorance and extreme, short sighted self interest on behalf of consumers (corporations respond to market forces – they in themselves aren’t conscious entities – but they do act according to the demands of society’s consumers). 

    The single most selfish act any if us can undertake is the act of reproduction. I just can’t bring myself to celebrate another birth. The planet is infested. Not with pine-beetle, but with us.

    1. It’s not the birth that’s the problem, it’s the consumption which that birth leads to.  Following that logic, it’s primarily white, upper class, American births which we should condemn.

      Or on second thought, maybe scratch the whole population control narrative and look at who’s really doing the majority of pollution on earth.  It’s not about babies, it’s about first world consumerism, and the industry which supports our way of life.

      1. It’s not the birth that’s the problem, it’s the consumption which that birth leads to.

        Surely it is better to have 500 million people living comfortably than it is to have 50 billion people living in a world of extreme rationing? You are right that it is “population x per capita consumption” that cannot exceed the planet’s carrying capacity, but I see no particularly good reason to sacrifice the interests of those already alive (consumption) for the interests of those not yet born (additional population).

        Of course, this is not a call to gorge till you puke (unsustainable industry) or to shit where you eat (pollution), but if the ideal lifestyle is as contrary to our comfort as the asceticism of hairshirt environmentalism why not simply kill ourselves?

      2. My main problem with that argument is that it presumes that other parts of the world that are less wealthy are somehow happy with their standard of life or have no ambitions to increase their consumption dramatically. Living in China, I find many people are hugely increasing their energy and resource consumption, and there is plenty of room to do it. For example, a typical family here 15-20 years ago would have minimal central heating, would walk, cycle or take the bus to work and would have very few electrical appliances in the home (no fridge, they would just buy food fresh every day; no oven, as Chinese food mainly doesn’t need one). Now many of my students think about buying a car when they reach a monthly salary of about $700, they have air con, fridges, computers and ovens if they like foreign food. And why blame them? They are wealthier now and cycling to work in -25C winters or 38C summers gets pretty old after a while, as does living with those temperatures indoors. They are also time-poor, so getting a fridge saves them the effort of shopping so often. My students aren’t particularly rich by first world standards, but living with a pretty modest standard is still causing huge environmental problems.

  6. me too. The area that is damaged by the pine beetle is 15 million hectares, ie the size of the Maritimes, or the UK.  As it dies it will release c02, and it’s such a huge amount of forest we cannot possibly harvest it, but I think we should take a lesson from ww2 -The Germans had over a million cars and trucks running on woodgas, my dad remembered seeing them. The wood was cooked in a boiler and gave off woodgas (among other things) which was then used to run the car.  If we setup power plants that run on woodgas – and return the charcoal back to the soil – or better into agricultural land, we would be able to improve the soil, sequester the c02 as biochar and provide energy and jobs.

  7. There’s two extremely worrying feedback loops. Methane, which is a 25 times more powerful greenhouse gas then CO2 is present both in frozen methane-hydrate deposits at continental shelfes in the deep sea, and bound in the permafrost thundra.

    Permafrost around the polar circle is retreating dramatically, releasing massive amounts of methane. The oceans temperature rises, which has the potential to release huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere.

    Both these feedback cycles take a long time to start, but once they’ve started, they are likely to run themselves to exhaustion.

  8. To be fair, I live in the woods in the west, and pine borer beetles have been a huge problem since at least the 1950s (as far back as my personal experience goes). I haven’t noticed them being worse recently, but I haven’t done a study. This does not mean that humans aren’t driving climate change, but the bugs have always been a problem.

  9. You wrote: “One of the interesting things about the global carbon dioxide and climate systems is the concept of feedback loops.”

    I believe that the fourth word in that sentence should actually read ‘terrifying’.

    I used to write population simulations for a living. One thing it taught me was a deep respect for positive feedback.

  10. Then of course there’s the ice albedo feedback effect – as the ice sheets melt, the albedo of the earth changes. Replace white ice (which reflects sunlight) with dark sea water (which absorbs sunlight) and you get another boost to the warming.
    There’s the water vapour feedback. Warm air holds more moisture, and water vapour is a very powerful greenhouse gas. This might be offset by  a negative feedback in that more clouds might mean a higher albedo, but the models that do the best job of capturing cloud feedbacks suggest that the positive feedback outweighs the negative one.
    Then of course there’s the melting permafrost across Siberia and Northern Canada, which traps a huge amount of methane, another very powerful greenhouse gas.

    Oh, and analysis by Susan Solomon that whatever warming we cause this century will be with us on the order of 10,000 years (basically, the warming is irreversible on human timescales):

    +1 vote for “terrifying”

  11. hmm, I’m not sure I buy that they know what they are explaining.   Trees die all the time, and when they do they release their sequestered carbon (sequestered carbon = the time-integrated difference between the CO2 consumed in photosynthesis and the CO2 released through the bacteria processes, as explained in this video, but explained more like it was a mystery).  The net CO2 consumption of the forest is still positive when a tree dies because new trees are growing and using C’s to do so.  The problem here is that the entire forest has died quickly, but that also means there is a huge opportunity for lots of plant growth in the newly sunny and very fertile ground, just not beetle sensitive pine trees.  Short term: lots of CO2 release; middle-term and long term: CO2 balance.    
    Now if you could turn that dead plant material into coal or petroleum, you could sequester that carbon for a much longer time than the mere life of the plant.

    1. The problem here is that the entire forest has died quickly, but that also means there is a huge opportunity for lots of plant growth in the newly sunny and very fertile ground, just not beetle sensitive pine trees.

      What do you think is going to grow there other than seedlings of what was already there? And all the species that die off because they no longer have food sources provided by the current ecosystem?

      That’s like saying that an asteroid impact that kills off everything that weighs more than an ounce is just an opportunity for the cockroaches to flourish.

  12. Except that isn’t going to happen. The trees aren’t going to grow back, because the beetles are going to continue consuming younger and younger plants as they run through their feedstock, and it will take far too long for another species to be introduced that can be successful in that ecosystem to take root. On a long enough timescale yes, absolutely, balance will be achieved,
    but we are running the risk that WE aren’t going to be here to see that.

  13. Hi Maggie, 

    Thanks for posting the video.  I’m glad you found it interesting.  

    If anyone’s interested in a little more science,Russell Monson (one of the architects of the beetle project) has a video about another one of his research projects available on his website:

    Word to science!  

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