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The Next Black Swan: Rapid Changes in Context

800px-PDO_PatternThis is a cross-post by Mehmet Burk – Relief Analysis Wire

A new “Black Swan” may be emerging for the international humanitarian community. Often defined as a high impact, low probability wildcard–this new threat could be game changer for almost anyone involved in international security, disaster recovery, or relief work. The threat lurks just a few hundred feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and if researcher Matthew England is correct, in a few years time we all may have something extraordinary to contend with.

England, a researcher at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science has a landmark piece published in journal Nature which has received a great deal of media attention about the so-called “pause” in global warming. England and his team posit that stronger trade wind patterns have been burying the heat caused by climate change into the Pacific Ocean as part of a natural cycle called the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation.

One of England’s insights is that when the trade winds inevitably slow, the sequestered heat will return back very quickly to the atmosphere. As referenced by National Geographic, England states:

You can’t keep pumping heat into the ocean. Shoveling it in year after year, without eventually seeing that heat interacting again with the atmosphere and warming the atmosphere. In due course, the atmosphere will warm up as though the hiatus never occurred. But regardless of when it ends—in a couple of years or in a whole decade—our research suggests the warming will be quite rapid.” [Emphasis added]

A surge of rapid warming in the next few years could have astonishing consequences. In the northern hemisphere, ice melt is so rapid that it may already be catalyzing disasters. In the southern hemisphere, Australia is now where it should be in 2030 in terms of extreme climate projections. A rapid release of Pacific Ocean heat content in the is potential major news for the international community.

A boost of global temperatures over the next few years could powerful implications for humanitarian hotspots worldwide, including (and not limited to):

· The Sahel food security crisis
· Stability in East Africa and the Darfur emergency
· Rampant deforestation in the Amazon fueled by fires
· Severe drought in Syria and throughout the Middle East
· Increased flood and drought episodes in ASEAN nations as well as China
· Regional stability in South Asia, catalyzed by sea level rise-triggered displacement in Bangladesh
· Sea level rise, storminess, and drought issues throughout Oceania
· Continued extreme flood and fire episodes in Australia
· Longer duration heat waves, cold snaps, and severe storms in North America and Eurasia

The international humanitarian community and national, regional, and global security agencies may need to take notice–and very soon. A Black Swan could be about to hatch.

[Via: Red (Team) Analysis, Brookings Institute, National Geographic, Nature,, the Guardian. Image: Luke Addison]


  1. Important piece on a growing (and complicated) suite of international vulnerabilities associated with climate change. The question now is what happens next? Information is only powerful if it catalyzes action.

  2. I agree Adam, is anybody listening?

  3. risa bear says:

    Basically, no. Too much much money has been poured into making sure we don’t.

  4. Peter says:

    Keep Hearing about these Malthusian projections that only favor one side and that is the negative one. In reality each event has a loosing and a winning side.

    How about Greenland being habitable again or People settling in Siberia or Alaska. Moving people to Antarktica. The change occurs but not all of it will be negative. Some will suffer and some will prosper.

    • Andy says:

      Peter, If we get a burst of rising temps., and the sea level rises even a few feet, hundreds of millions of people will become permanently displaced. Agronomists project that more heat and humidity will very temporarily (maybe) be good for some areas, but then global food production will decline. Yes, somewhere, it might be good for someone, but for hundreds of millions, it will be a disaster. If we can do anything to avert or slow this process, it is clearly the right thing to do.

    • jfreed27 says:

      Even a silver lining may turn out not to be. For example, the “fertilization effect of CO2” is stimulating weeds and invasive species (while many crops such as corn cannot use the extra CO2 due to scarce water and higher temperatures). It also stimulates excess pollen leading to asthma and hay fever.

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