ABC News Online, Mon Sep 28, 2009
Global temperatures may be 4 degrees Celsius hotter by the mid-2050s if current greenhouse gas emissions trends continue, a new study says.
The study, by Britain's Met Office Hadley Centre, echoed a United Nations report last week which found climate changes were outpacing worst-case scenarios forecast in 2007 by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
"Our results are showing similar patterns [to the IPCC] but also show the possibility that more extreme changes can happen," said Debbie Hemming, the co-author of the research which was published at the start of a climate change conference at Oxford University.
In July leaders of the main greenhouse gas-emitting countries recognised a scientific view that temperatures should not exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, to avoid more dangerous changes to the world's climate.
The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its fourth assessment report, or AR4. One finding was that global temperatures could rise by 4 degrees by the end of the 2050s.
Today's study confirmed that warming could happen even earlier, by the mid-2050s, and suggested more extreme local effects.
"It's affirming the AR4 results and also confirming that it is likely," Ms Hemming said, referring to 4 degrees warming, assuming no extra global action to cut emissions in the next decade.
One advance since 2007 was to model the effect of "carbon cycles".
For example, if parts of the Amazon rainforest died as a result of drought, that would expose soil which would then release carbon from formerly shaded organic matter.
"That amplifies the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere and therefore the global warming. It's really leading to more certainty," Ms Hemming said.
Some 190 countries will try to reach an agreement on how to slow global warming at a meeting in Copenhagen in December.
'I don't think it's hit home'
Temperature rises are compared with pre-industrial levels. Scientists say the world warmed 0.7 degrees last century.
A global average increase of 4 degrees masked higher regional increases, including more than 15 degrees in parts of the Arctic and up to 10 degrees in western and southern Africa, Monday's study found.
"It's quite extreme. I don't think it's hit home to people," Ms Hemming said.
"There are potentially quite big negative implications."
As sea ice melts, the region will reflect less sunlight, which may help trigger runaway effects.
Ms Hemming said such higher Arctic temperatures could also melt permafrost, which until now has trapped the powerful greenhouse gas methane, helping trigger further runaway effects.
The study indicated rainfall may decrease this century by a fifth or more in parts of Africa, Central America, the Mediterranean and coastal Australia, a finding worse than the IPCC's findings in 2007.
"The Mediterranean is a very consistent signal of significant drying in nearly all the model runs," Ms Hemming said.
She says a decrease of 20 per cent or more is "quite a lot in areas like Spain already struggling with rainfall reductions in recent years".