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Disaster Movie Prompts Warning On Carbon Dioxide

Disaster Movie Prompts Warning On Carbon Dioxide Emissions

A forthcoming US disaster movie featuring abrupt climate change has prompted a warning from a Waikato University scientist about the need to take the precaution of limiting emissions of carbon dioxide.

Chemistry department associate professor Chris Hendy was a key player in working on the phenomena of abrupt climate change - times when the earth's climate went from glacial conditions to nearly as warm as today in as little as a year, and from warm conditions to nearly glacial conditions.

He says that at a global abrupt climate change conference in New York at Easter this year scientists were shown snippets of a movie entitled The Day After Tomorrow reportedly due to be released on May 8th.

"The scenario it will set out may be imaginative but concerns about abrupt climate change are very real," says Chris Hendy. "One of the concerns we scientists have is that buildup of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could be one of the triggers that tips the earth into an abrupt climate change."

He explains that the earth's climate generally sits in one of three "unstable" states: relatively warm as it is now, in an "ice age" or in a state between.

"We don't know exactly what the triggers for an abrupt climate change are but one of the possible culprits might be a carbon dioxide build up. So I believe the planet should be erring on the side of caution and reducing the build up of carbon dioxide.

"I don't want to be unnecessarily alarmist but the consequences of a new abrupt climate change could have a devastating effect if, for example, in previous abrupt climate change events the Asian monsoons failed and rainfall in places like China and India dried up. That would result in widespread famine and starvation of billions of people."

Last year, a philanthropic American multi-millionaire Gary Comer, who has a keen interest in the issue of abrupt climate change, granted Chris Hendy $500,000 to help unpick the puzzle of why the changes occur.

The $500,000 is paying for a variety of research, including a key study of sediments deposited in kilometre-deep water off the coast of the South Island. These sediments contain a geological record of the abrupt climate changes.

"Basically what we want to do over the next three years is establish whether abrupt climate changes in the southern hemisphere, and New Zealand in particular, occur at the same time, before or after similar changes in the northern hemisphere," says Chris Hendy.

"If the changes are simultaneous, physics tells us that the abrupt climate changes must be caused by something off the planet, such as output changes from the sun, or changes in the way the atmosphere circulates. Clearly, if that's the case we need to be doing a whole lot more research to understand what is happening. The risks of carbon dioxide build-up being a trigger would be more likely under this scenario."

Chris says if the timing is not the same in both hemispheres then the cause of abrupt climate change is earth-based and a popularly held belief is that they may have been caused by sudden release of huge lakes dammed up by northern hemisphere ice sheets. Their sudden discharge into the North Atlantic Ocean is thought to alter oceanic circulation patterns.

The field work for the study of ocean sediments off the South Island will be carried out by Dr Penny Cooke, a recent graduate from Waikato University's department of earth sciences. A PhD student and three masters students will be recruited to look at links between the oceanic record and records on land in such places as the MacKenzie Basin and South Westland.

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