A Stanford University scientist speaking at a national meeting in Chicago Saturday morning warned that climate change in the 21st century is going to be more accelerated and create more environmental damage through global warming than previously thought.
Accelerated global warming could ignite tropical forests and melt the Arctic tundra, releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gas that could raise global temperatures even more, according to Chris Field.
The net result could be a cycle that spins out of control by the end of the century.
Field, a Stanford professor of biology and environmental Earth system science and of the Carnegie Institute for Science, is also a member of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Field talked about the latest findings of the panel during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"There is a real risk that human-caused climate change will accelerate the release of carbon dioxide from forest and tundra ecosystems, which have been storing a lot of carbon for thousands of years," Fields said. "We don't want to cross a critical threshold where this massive release of carbon starts to run on autopilot."
The IPCC was established by the United Nations in 1988, bringing together hundreds of experts from around the world to assess climate change and its policy implications.
In 2007, the IPCC and former Vice President Al Gore were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to assess climate change. Field was one of 25 IPCC scientists who attended the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
The latest findings on climate change are disturbing, Fields said.
"We now have data showing that from 2000 to 2007, greenhouse gas emissions increased far more rapidly than we expected, primarily because developing countries, like China and India, saw a huge upsurge in electric power generation, almost all of it based on coal," he said.
The IPCC had estimated in 2007 that the earth's temperature is likely to increase 2 to 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius) by 2100, depending on how much greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere. That estimate may now be conservative, given the most recent data.
Of particular concern is the effect of global warming in tropical climates.
"Tropical forests are essentially inflammable," Field said. "You couldn't get a fire to burn there if you tried. But if they dry out just a little bit, the result can be very large and destructive wildfires."