Hazards ahead

by Pamela Stirling / 01 April, 2006

The idea of sudden tipping points is not a new concept in the climate-change portfolio. Heck, we saw it with the minister's position this week, when David Parker made a rapid exit from Cabinet. But the pace of New Zealand's response to its Kyoto Protocol commitments after last year's scrapping of the carbon tax could hardly be slower. There is no indication of the urgency of this issue. In recent months, scientists have reported compelling evidence that the global climate system may be on the brink of lethal feedback leading to abrupt climate change. Even George Bush's top climate modeller, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies James E Hansen, now says we have "at most 10 years" to make the drastic cuts in emissions that might head off climatic tipping points. But in New Zealand, already eighth-highest among developed countries for greenhouse-gas emissions, we're still continuing our rapid increase in emissions. They have grown a whopping 22.5 percent since 1990.

If we needed a dramatic reminder that tipping points can occur without warning, we got one this week. DoC worker Mark Kearney tragically disappeared while carrying out scientific checks on the Raoul Island volcano - there was no indication it was about to blow.

Volcanic activity is not directly linked to climate warming. But James Lovelock's thesis of a self-regulating planet - christened "Gaia" by novelist William Golding - is becoming, as the New Scientist put it this week, as accepted now as the theory of relativity. And there is nothing like the experience of being on a live volcano to know about feedback from the planet.

It was the promise of spectacular feedback that drew a small group of journalists a year or two back to the volcano Yasur in Vanuatu - the guidebook promised "spectacular views into the crater as molten lava shoots up into the sky every few minutes". The next line didn't really register. Something about how "gas burns your throat, the sulphur fumes can be choking, the noise deafening". If one of New Zealand's volcanoes started erupting, you wouldn't see most of us for dust. But the words "unforgettable fireworks display" about a volcano a hell of a lot further away from emergency services than most? Sign me up.

It was only when we were actually on top of Yasur, with the mountain firing a constant cannonade of booming sound beneath our feet and the 940?C cauldron hissing and spitting and catapulting rocks, that it occurred to us that we should have checked out the hazards. The guidebook made it seem safe. But then the guidebook, recently published, mentioned a major lake. The lake was buried under an eerie moonscape of black ash.

We did have a guide. Okay, he wasn't a guide. He was a charming local health worker who had generously hosted us to Tanna Island. Guides don't necessarily save tourists on volcanoes, anyway. In 1995, two tourists and a guide were killed on Yasur by a projectile that hurled them eight metres. Even experts have trouble predicting danger: in 1993, the Colombian volcano Galeras erupted with scientists on top of it, assuring tourists that it was safe. Six people were killed, including the tourists.

I tried to record the spine-tingling boom of the volcano. What I actually recorded was people saying "sheeeeeit" a lot. Few things are as heart-pounding as witnessing at close quarters the giant Pacific Plate wrestle with the Indo-Australian tectonic plate: age-old enemies writhing and seething with red-hot fury. Rocks fly. Steam spurts.

One of our party fell. She skinned her arm rather badly, and we began to realise just how precarious our position was. The volcanic rocks that served as toeholds on that perilously steep slope had all the strength and structural stability of burnt toast. Yasur emits small filaments of volcanic glass. We got cut. Some of us acquired a carbonised look. But we made it down. The relief was spectacular.

The new evidence of climate change doesn't need to be witnessed. A vast part of the Larsen B ice shelf broke away from the coast of the Antarctic peninsula four years ago, exposing sediments hidden for 10,000 years. The sea ice in the Arctic has reduced by a fifth in less than 30 years. The tree-line in Siberia is moving north. Most of the world's glaciers are shrinking. Storms are becoming more extreme.

The message from science is clear: it's happening. What we have to do, and urgently, is accept it and deal with it.


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