Understanding Feedback Loops
“Climate change is the defining crisis of our time, and it is happening even more quickly than we feared. But we are far from powerless in the face of this global threat.” – United Nations
Schneider Estates, Inc. is committed to educating ourselves and our clients about the climate crisis. Climate change is one of the leading challenges facing humanity today—and we strive to be part of the solution, not the problem. To do this, we believe the most important thing we can do is educate ourselves about the topic. To that end, we want to introduce you to a series of educational videos about feedback loops and how they affect the climate crisis. Let’s take a closer look.
Northern Light Productions recently released five short films directed toward educating audiences on the current climate emergency. They are all under 16 minutes. The first video provides an introduction to feedback loopholes and the other four delve into the loopholes that have the most significant impact on and pose the biggest risk to planet Earth.
What is a feedback loop?
Today, fossil fuel emissions from human activity drive up Earth’s temperature, setting in motion nature’s feedback loops.
“A [type of] feedback that everybody is familiar with is an audio feedback where if you put a microphone too close to a speaker, you get this terrible high-pitched screaming. And that happens because the sound comes out of the speaker, and it goes back into the microphone. That’s called ‘positive’ feedback because it amplifies the loop … Instead of the guitar, emissions from fossil fuels are the input that adds heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, raising Earth’s temperature and setting in motion self-perpetuating warming loops.” – Kerry Emanual, M.I.T.
Today, scientists recognize four feedback loops caused by humans that are wrecking the planet. We still have time to reverse these chain reactions, but we must take action immediately. Our goal here is to educate you on what these feedback loops are, but we suggest watching the videos to gain a deeper understanding.
“The world’s forests are responsible for removing a quarter of all human carbon emissions from the atmosphere and are essential for cooling the planet. But that fraction is shrinking as the three major forests of the world—tropical, boreal, and temperate—succumb to the effects of climate feedback loops. The resulting tree dieback threatens to tip forests from net carbon absorbers to net carbon emitters, heating rather than cooling the planet.”
As the Earth warms, forests are experiencing undesirable consequences, including fires, disease from insects, and ultimately death. This results in a large amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere. Throughout a tree’s life, it traps carbon from the atmosphere around it. The tree holds this carbon within its structure until it dies. The amount of carbon that the trees release is expected to be greater than what they hold by the end of the century.
In order to prevent further carbon emissions, we must learn how to manage our forests. If we can prevent the three primary causes of tree death—drought, fire, and insects—we can counteract the process that is currently in motion.
“Permafrost, an icy expanse of frozen ground covering one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, is thawing. As it does, microscopic animals are waking up and feeding on the previously frozen carbon stored in plant and animal remains, releasing heat-trapping gases as a byproduct. These gases warm the atmosphere further, melting more permafrost in a dangerous feedback loop. With permafrost containing twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, its thaw could release 150 billion tons of carbon by the end of the century.”
While warming temperatures accelerate microbial activity, increased amounts of methane are being released into our atmosphere. In addition to contributing to the feedback loop, thawing permafrost is leading to global disasters that include the following:
- Crop failure in the Midwest
- Drought and flooding in Africa
- Record heatwaves
- New food sources for microbes, making the reaction worse
“Global warming is altering Earth’s weather patterns dramatically. A warmer atmosphere absorbs more water vapor, which in turn traps more heat and warms the planet further in an accelerating feedback loop.”
Scientists have analyzed how increased amounts of water vapor are impacting the atmosphere. When water vaporizes, it is distributed in the sky as clouds. More vapor means more clouds. These clouds can have both a negative and positive impact on the atmosphere’s temperatures. Clouds can lower temperatures because their white color reflects sunlight back into space, cooling the Earth. Conversely, clouds can trap heat below them, heating the Earth’s surface. After in-depth analysis, scientists have concluded that, on average, clouds raise temperatures more than they decrease them.
“Climate change is also disrupting the jet stream, triggering a feedback loop that brings warm air northward and causes weather patterns to stall in place for longer.”
The jet stream is a fast-flowing current of air that circles the Earth between the Arctic and middle latitudes. As temperatures rise, the jet stream pattern becomes more vicious—it experiences bigger northward swings and southward dips. When this occurs, more heat and moisture are transferred to the Arctic, rising temperatures even further.
“The reflectivity of snow and ice at the poles, known as the albedo effect, is one of Earth’s most important cooling mechanisms. But global warming has reduced this reflectivity drastically, setting off a dangerous warming loop: as more Arctic ice and snow melt, the albedo effect decreases, warming the Arctic further and melting more ice and snow. The volume of Arctic ice has already shrunk 75% in the past 40 years, and scientists predict that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free during the summer months by the end of the century.”
Snow and ice at the Earth’s poles reflect up to 85% of the sun’s rays, reducing the amount of heat transferred to the Earth’s atmosphere. As emissions are released, however, this surface area of ice and snow melts, reducing the amount of heat that can be reflected. As more heat is transferred from the sun’s rays, a chain reaction occurs. A larger ocean surface area traps more heat, raising ocean temperatures and melting existing ice and snow. As the melting occurs, ocean levels rise, causing another transfer of heat to existing ice and snow. If the pattern continues, not only will we experience ice-free summers, but we will experience an amplification of other problems:
- Crops suffering
- Food prices increasing
- Dry places becoming drier
- Wet areas becoming wetter
Contribute to the Solution
Many of the changes we need to make to ensure our Earth’s security must happen on a broad scale. If we postpone our actions any further, climate change will be irreversible, and we might not have a livable future. How can you contribute your voice to this fight? Until this point, most of our elected officials have adopted a “business as usual” attitude about climate change. We recommend voting for leaders who accept what scientists have revealed and want to implement policy changes that promote a greener future. Now, it is more important than ever that we use our action, our votes, and our voices to tell political and business leaders that action on climate is absolutely essential.