Thursday, July 21, 2011

A global warming algorithm

I saw the following comment there and thought it was funny in its deadpan style presentation.

So, is there any plausible case where the following is NOT going to happen during this century:

1. Rapidly warming arctic melts the sea ice.

2. Melting sea ice exposes more and more open ocean.

3. Open ocean absorbs more solar energy, thereby accelerating the warming and the melting, and exposing more open ocean, which absorbs even more solar energy.

4. Steps 1-3 continue until Arctic warms sufficiently to thaw permafrost/tundra and to destabilize underwater clathrates, thereby releasing vast amounts of methane.

5. Game over; PETM extinction looks like a picnic by comparison.


  1. Kim Stanley Robinson's book "Sixty Days and Counting" ( describes how humanity escapes this cycle (almost failing) with a wedding of science and politic. I loved the book (note that it is the third in a trilogy, and I recommend the whole trilogy as well).

    Another related scenario/algorithm:
    1. the melting of the ice of the north pole introduces massive amount of fresh water in the Atlantic;
    2. this change of salinity interrupts natural pumping mechanism which normally results in the gulf stream;
    2. this initiates a small ice age in Europe (establishing the same climate in Europe than at the same latitude in America);
    3. Food production in Europe dramatically falls, while energy consumption rises with the cold;
    4. Renewed competition for declining resources triggers another world conflict;
    5. humanity is mostly destroyed;

  2. The advantage of my scenario, as I see it, is that it could possibly be the seed of a first-year programming exercise because of its nice feedback loop. A two-dimensional array covering the area around the Arctic, simple equations governing the change, and a nice (or horrible) story underlying the assignment!

  3. Ah, you like the Venusian scenario (out-of-control self-supporting greenhouse effect).

  4. Well, I have not seen many climatologists engaging in that kind of out-of-control scenario. The real possibilities (say, what may happen with probability 5% or more) are catastrophic enough.


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