Without decisive action by governments, corporations and individuals, global warming in the 21st century is likely to accelerate at a much faster pace and cause more environmental damage than predicted, warns a leading member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In a business-as-usual world, higher temperatures could ignite tropical forests and melt the Arctic tundra, releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gas that could raise global temperatures even more - a vicious cycle that could spiral out of control by the end of the century, said IPCC scientist Chris Field of Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science.
"There is a real risk that human-caused climate change will accelerate the release of carbon dioxide from forest and tundra ecosystems, which have been storing a lot of carbon for thousands of years," said Field, a professor of biology and of environmental Earth system science at Stanford, and a senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.
The IPCC does not conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or parameters. Its role is to assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the latest scientific, technical and socio-economic literature produced worldwide concerning the risk of human-induced climate change, its observed and projected impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.
New studies are revealing potentially dangerous feedbacks in the climate system that could convert current carbon sinks into carbon sources. Field points to tropical forests as a prime example.
Vast amounts of carbon are stored in the vegetation of moist tropical forests, which are resistant to wildfires because of their wetness. But warming temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns threaten to dry the forests, making them less fireproof.
Researchers estimate that loss of forests through wildfires and other causes during the next century could boost atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by up to 100 parts per million over the current 386 ppm, with possibly devastating consequences for global climate.
Warming in the Arctic is expected to speed up the decay of plant matter that has been in cold storage in permafrost for thousands of years.