LIFESTYLE
07/08/2018 08:39 BST | Updated 07/08/2018 15:39 BST

Earth Just 'Decades Away' From Hothouse State That Would Make Parts Uninhabitable

Scientists predict 'runaway' global warming will make sea levels rise.

Earth may be just decades away from entering a “Hothouse” state of climate change that threatens the future of humanity, scientists have warned.

The planet could be set to experience “runaway” global warming, with rising temperatures and sea levels making parts uninhabitable, they said.

Avoiding such an issue would require “deep cuts” in greenhouse gas emissions as well as concerted efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

vladsilver via Getty Images

The Hothouse threshold will be reached when average global temperatures are only around 2C higher than they were in pre-industrial times, the scientists said. The latest study shows they are already 1C higher, and rising. Long term, the Hothouse Earth climate will stabilise at a global average of 4C-5C above pre-industrial levels, the study shows.

If that happened, swathes of the planet around the equator will become uninhabitable, with sea levels up to 60 metres (197ft) higher than they are today, threatening coastal cities.

A Hothouse Earth would pose “severe risks for health, economies, political stability, and ultimately, the habitability of the planet for humans”, the international scientists wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

The research highlighted 10 feedback processes that were predicted to kick in at around 2C of global warming.

The “tipping elements” could turn natural carbon storage systems or “sinks” into powerful greenhouse gas emitters.

Professor Johan Rockstrom, a leading member of the team from the University of Stockholm, Sweden, said: “These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominoes. Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another. It may be very difficult or impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over.

“Places on Earth will become uninhabitable if Hothouse Earth becomes the reality.”

The tipping point dangers were identified as thawing permafrost, the release of methane trapped on the ocean floor, weakening land and ocean carbon sinks, increased carbon dioxide production by ocean bacteria, Amazon rainforest die-back, coniferous forest die-back, reduced northern hemisphere snow cover, loss of Arctic summer sea ice, reduced Antarctic sea ice and melting polar ice sheets.

The scientists wrote: “Our analysis suggests that the Earth system may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions – Hothouse Earth. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered or substantially slowed.

“Where such a threshold might be is uncertain, but it could be only decades ahead at a temperature rise of (around) 2C above pre-industrial.”

Commenting on the findings, climate researcher Dr Phil Williamson, from the University of East Anglia, said: “In the context of the summer of 2018, this is definitely not a case of crying wolf, raising a false alarm. The wolves are now in sight.”

Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at University College London said: “Previous research has shown that an increase in the mean global temperature of 11-12C would make more than half of the land area currently occupied by humans uninhabitable. So, a ‘runaway’ warming to a new and uncontrollable hot state would represent an existential threat to humanity and the majority of existing species.”