Archive for July 6th, 2009


With Speed and Violence: Why scientists fear tipping points in climate change by Fred Pearce. Beacon Press, 2007

In the midst of a winter cold snap, especially while shovelling snow, it is rather pleasant to contemplate global warming. Ah, warm, sunny days replacing the misery of dressing up in umpteen layers of clothing to brave the frost. “Where is global warming when you need it?” we joke.

Increasingly, the prevailing model of climate change that envisions a gradual altering of the weather we are accustomed to is being questioned. Evidence suggests that when a tipping point is reached, climate change may instead be rapid and violent. The science of climate modelling is still young. The super-computers needed to sift through many variables have only been around for a few decades. The study of ice cores from Antarctica, records of climate trapped in the ice over thousands of years, have likewise only been recovered in recent decades. Deciphering the past and interpreting what it might mean for the future is an ongoing process. What is known, as expressed by geochemist Wally Broecker is this: “Climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.”

In With Speed and Violence, Fred Pearce reviews some of the history of climate research and provides a good overview of a complex subject, with an introduction to areas of research, key scientists and researchers, facts and figures relating to important findings and discussions of implications. Topics covered include the giant whirlpool that carries water from the surface of the Arctic Ocean to the ocean floor; the melting of the world’s three great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica; albedo, the reflectivity of the planet; aerosols; methane clathrates; brown haze from cook stoves; solar pulses; tropical glaciers; the accelerating effect of positive feedback… and much more. It’s a long list.

With Speed and Violence gave me a better understanding of the complexity and urgency of the climate change issue. One vivid image that encapsulates the alarming changes that are taking place features the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. As surface water melts, more and more water pours into the interior of the ice sheet, taking surface water to the very base of the ice. Jim Hansen, a top climate modeler and director of the NASA Goddard Institute, labeled the photograph of the phenomenon the “slippery slope to hell”.

arctic copy

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