MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
An expert panel at the National Academy of Sciences is calling for an early warning system. Its purpose, to alert us to abrupt and potentially catastrophic events triggered by climate change. The committee says science can anticipate some changes to the earth that could affect everything from agriculture to sea level. But they warn, we aren't doing enough to look for those changes and anticipate their impacts. Here's NPR's Richard Harris.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: The Earth is already experiencing both gradual and abrupt climate change. The air is warming up slowly, but we're also seeing rapid changes such as the melting Arctic ice cap. Anthony Barnosky from UC Berkeley says the abrupt kind is the bigger worry.
ANTHONY BARNOSKY: When you think about gradual changes, you can kind of see where the road is and know where you're going. When you think about abrupt changes and threshold effects, the road suddenly drops out from under you. And it's those kinds of things that we're suggesting we need to anticipate in a much more comprehensive way.
HARRIS: Scientists know about some potential problems that could change the planet dramatically in a matter of years or decades. For example, sea level could rise quickly by as much as 25 feet if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to crumble into the sea. Yet, James White from the University of Colorado in Boulder says we're not watching that ice sheet very carefully to measure how much warming seawater is weakening the ice.
JAMES WHITE: We should be measuring ocean temperatures near the ice sheet. We should be measuring far better where the outlets are, where the glaciers go into the ocean. We don't do that.
HARRIS: Another potential for disaster is at the other pole. There's a huge amount of methane gas up there. The report says it's unlikely to belch into the atmosphere rapidly and supercharge global warming. But White says government agencies aren't keeping a close eye on methane and other greenhouse gases in the Arctic.
WHITE: We have only a handful of sites to look at that. And over the - and since 2007, NOAA's monitoring network, the primary global monitoring network, has been cut by 30 percent.
HARRIS: Those are two examples of the early warning system for abrupt climate change that White and his colleagues on the National Academy Committee described in a news conference today.
WHITE: How that system is built, how it's developed is only laid out in bare bones in the report. We know that there needs to be a monitoring capability. We know we need to be watching the planet. We watch our streets. We watch our banks. We watch - if you live in the U.K., they watch everything. We watch other parts of the system very well, and we do not watch our environment nearly with the same amount of care and zeal.
HARRIS: The committee didn't just consider abrupt changes to the planet, they also looked at gradual changes that could trigger rapid disruptions for us. For example, parts of the Earth could quickly become inhospitable to crops like corn once the temperature creeps past a certain threshold. Committee member Richard Alley studies polar ice at Penn State, but he says the fate of tropical forests and croplands actually worries him more.
RICHARD ALLEY: Probably the biggest issues are going to show up in the warm places, even though it will be much easier to see them and we will meet them quicker in the arctic.
HARRIS: The report's premise is that these impacts can be blunted if we can anticipate them better. Alley uses society's approach to traffic as an analogy. Commuters are concerned about congestion but also safety.
ALLEY: You can think of abrupt climate change as the drunk drivers of the Earth's system.
HARRIS: It's not the most common problem, but it is one of the most serious. And the proposal to deal with it faces a steep road ahead. Key Republicans in Congress are currently trying to slash money for climate research, not add to it. Richard Harris, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.