Mountaineering, which has become more of a balm and solace for me than ever before, is an increasingly bittersweet experience. While the internal freedoms experienced continue to match the external while up in the high country, being on and amongst glaciers today entails being on one of the most dramatic front lines of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
A small team of us worked our way across icy slopes of Mount Rainier in Washington State en route to a satellite peak recently, weaving our way through and around crevasses, only to find our route ultimately made impassible. According to route photos and information from just a few years ago, the third glacier we were to traverse had melted and broken up dramatically, leaving us with no choice but to turn around and plan another route, for another day.
Despite Mount Rainier being the most glaciated peak in the contiguous 48 US states, it is losing its ice rapidly now. Like most glaciers around the world, we are watching them vanish before our very eyes. At current rates of planetary warming, we will almost assuredly be hard pressed to find an active glacier in the 48 US states by 2100.
But it becomes obvious that these dramatic changes should be expected when we look at the bigger picture of ACD today.
Earth’s worst-case warming scenarios are probably the most likely now. Ice and glaciers around the world are melting far more quickly than believed possible even just a short while ago — the Greenland Ice Sheet is threatening to collapse, and is already slowing ocean currents, which could collapse far faster than expected as well.
Sea levels are rising at an increasingly rapid pace, and projections have already doubled for this century alone, not even to speak of what the next century will bring. The seas are warming as well, with each of the last five years having set a new record for the warmest they have ever been since humans have been on the planet. Widespread death of marine life is at a record pace, and we are likely already on the edge of an anoxic event as oceans are depleted of oxygen. Half of all the marine life on the planet has already been lost since just 1970.
Already in the Sixth Mass Extinction Event Earth has known, this one triggered by humans, we are losing potentially dozens of species every day already.
The Great Barrier Reef, the single largest reef system on Earth, has been changed “forever,” according to scientists, who have described the bleaching events that are wiping out the reef as “unprecedented” and “catastrophic.”
Freshwater from melting glaciers is likely already shifting the circulation of the oceans, causing scientists to warn that one of the worst-case predictions about ACD could already be happening. This circulation shift will ultimately lead to faster-rising seas and superstorms, along with shifting of entire climates for vast swaths of the planet.
Esteemed 86-year-old social scientist Mayer Hillman recently told the Guardian, humans are “doomed” due to what we have done to the planet. “The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so.”
While people like Hillman and dispatches like this continue to show us how very far along we already are regarding ACD, the time to savor our relationship to the planet — and each other — has never been more pressing than it is right now.
We must take this information in if we are to have an accurate map of reality, so as to better navigate the time we have left on Earth.
While it’s long been known that nations emitting the least carbon around the world are those most damaged by ACD, a recent study showed another layer to this effect: “tropical inequality,” is how the study puts their finding, which shows that the countries emitting the least carbon are also typically those which experience the greatest temperature swings from ACD, along with their respective impacts like droughts, floods, wildfires and extreme weather events.
While the UN has projected, conservatively, 200 million ACD refugees by 2050, even within the US, thousands of people are already facing displacement, and the number is sure to grow.
Yet another study has shown how ACD is shifting the times nature is able to eat, this time focusing in on 88 specific species that are being impacted. The study showed that these species’ biological feeding times are moving out of sync an average of six days every decade. For example, nearby where I live, Lake Washington’s plant plankton are blooming 34 days earlier than the zooplankton that eat them, which means the entire base of that ecosystem’s food chain is being deleteriously impacted.
Another report showed that as the planet continues to warm apace, energy demand for air conditioners and refrigeration are projected to jump 90 percent over 2017 levels. This also, of course, brings about a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions from the increased use of such devices.
Lastly in this section, as glacier melting around the planet continues to increase, the melting is destabilizing mountain slopes and literally causing mountainsides to collapse, sometimes falling into the sea.
Rising sea levels are now threatening to burst a more than $1 trillion real estate bubble, as a recent study has shown a “pricing signal from climate change.” The study revealed how in Miami, housing values of homes located at lower elevations have not kept apace with rates of appreciation of homes located at higher elevations along the coastal areas. Another even broader study, “Disaster on the Horizon: The Price Effect of Sea Level Rise,” showed that homes which are exposed to sea level rise are already being priced 7 percent lower than homes the same distance from the coast but which are less exposed to flooding.
Given that most people’s savings are tied up in their home, when the home loses all of its value from sea level rise causing an economic bubble to burst, one can imagine the myriad problems this will generate across South Florida.
Almost needless to say, Florida’s Everglades National Park is under threat not just from sea level rise (the highest point in the park is four feet), but from the fact that the mangroves there are facing death also from the rising seas, according to a recent study.
The mangroves are literally being drowned by rising seas, and consequently, the land they hold steady from the sea is being washed away, allowing the seas to encroach upon more land even faster. “They are done,” Randall Parkinson, affiliated with the study, told the Guardian of the mangroves. “The sea will continue to rise and the question now is whether they will be replaced by open water. I think they will. The outlook is pretty grim. What’s mind boggling is that we are facing the inundation of south Florida this century.”
Up the coast from Florida in North Carolina, “sunny day flooding” (caused by sea level rise) is happening decades sooner than previously predicted, according to a recent report. “Sunny day flooding” is tidal flooding, which is a (for now) temporary inundation of low-lying areas during high tides.
Another recent study showed how Galveston, Texas, is under increasing threat from sea level rise, as this will make the island that much more vulnerable to more extreme hurricanes in the future. The study showed how hurricanes of the future will cause 65 percent more people there to become displaced, and five times as many buildings to be damaged. The study also showed how, already, more than 60 percent of the Gulf Coast and most of the bay shorelines are already retreating in those areas where 25 percent of the entire population of Texas lives.
Meanwhile, the US military paid for a study on sea level rise, and the results are sobering. The study showed that thousands of these low-lying tropical islands’ populations will become rootless; and their water supplies are already threatened “in the very near future” — an issue that will, of course, bring security concerns of its own.
The other side of the coin of ACD’s impacts in the watery realms is drought.
A recent report showed that droughts across the Southwestern US will continue and prolong the threat of wildfires in that region. With mountain snowpacks already low in many of those states, such as Colorado and New Mexico, this summer will likely prove to be yet another exceptional wildfire season.
Another recent study showed how farmers along the arid-humid boundary that runs along the 100th meridian in the US will most likely be hit by dramatic ACD impacts like drought. The arid-humid boundary has shifted 100 miles eastward, bringing arid conditions further into what was formerly farmland.
Ongoing drought across Kansas has set the stage for what could be that state’s smallest wheat crop since 1989, likely a harbinger of things to come as that region continues to dry further.
In California, another study has underscored what we’ve known for years now, which is that extreme droughts and floods there are set to worsen as ACD progresses. The frequency of what the study refers to as “precipitation whiplash events” of shifting from droughts to floods will worsen across the state, but in Southern California, will double by 2100.
Over in Afghanistan, the lowest snowfall and rain in years over this last winter has led to the onset of a major drought that is already sounding alarms across that US-occupied war-torn country. Twenty of the 34 provinces of that country are already “suffering badly,” according to a report.
An overheated atmosphere is able to hold more moisture, hence the ongoing increase of dramatic rainfall events like the recent one in India, where a rainstorm killed at least 91 people, and injured more than 160 as houses collapsed and trees were toppled.
Meanwhile, up in Alaska, this winter saw a record low in sea ice coverage. Winter sea ice cover across the Bering Sea was literally half that of the previous record low. “There’s never ever been anything remotely like this for sea ice,” Rick Thoman, an Alaska-based climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Scientific American about the new record-low.
Signs of the times of extremity we are living in abound, like in South Africa, where marine salvage experts are hoping to realize a plan to use ships to tug icebergs from the Antarctic all the way to Cape Town in order to help create a temporary solution to that city’s ongoing drought and water crisis.
Lastly in this section, scientists recently discovered yet another ACD-related feedback loop: This one is a result of warming temperatures around the globe contributing to increasing growth in freshwater plants within the world’s lakes in recent decades, which will cause the amount of methane emitted from lakes to double.
The National Interagency Fire Center with the USDA Forest Service has predicted that this year will be a “challenging” wildfire year across the country. Large portions of the Western US are expected to have “above-average” potential for “significant” wildfire activity this year, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah and Washington.
Not included in that list of states was Florida, where by early May, wildfires in Big Cypress National Park had burned more than 38,000 acres, and a fire in the Texas panhandle had burned more than 30,000 acres.
In Pakistan, recent temperatures are reported to have cracked 50.2 degrees Celsius (122.3 degrees Fahrenheit) in Nawabshah, located about 127 miles northeast of Karachi. A regional newspaper there reported that the heat was so intense it caused people to pass out and that “business activities came to a halt” in a district of 1.1 million people. That area saw a record of 45.5° C (113.9° F) in March, setting an all-time March record for the entire country.
Warmer than normal temperatures in the US are afflicting places like Miami, where it is now warmer and wetter for far more of the year than it used to be. This sets the stage for that region to become more friendly to mosquitoes, hence increasing the likelihood that the Zika virus could return to Miami. Meanwhile, tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease are rapidly spreading across the US, with some fearing that Lyme disease could already be the first epidemic related to ACD.
The NOAA recently confirmed a sharp rise in methane — a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than CO2 — in the atmosphere over a 10-year time frame. The atmosphere already has two and a half times more methane than it did before the industrial revolution began, and now scientists are working to understand how in just the past decade, methane levels have increased as rapidly as they have.
Another interesting unintended consequence of ACD is how it is likely to cut down on the amount of dust being blown into the atmosphere from the Sahara Desert by up to 100 million tons every year. This would act to starve the Amazon rainforest of much-needed nutrients, in addition to causing temperatures to rise across the North Atlantic. The amount of dust will decrease because warmer temperatures mean less wind, and hence less dust. The lack of dust means the rainforest will not get as much iron and phosphorous in the dust for its plants and marine life.
Denial and Reality
In April, the US Senate confirmed ACD-denying Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine from Oklahoma as the head of NASA. Bridenstine has no scientific credentials and does not believe humans are to blame for ACD.
Wasting no time, by early May, the agency, under Bridenstine, had ended NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which had been, at least up until then, a $10 million annual effort to fund programs intended to improve the monitoring of carbon emissions around the world.
While this is just the latest in ACD-denial antics from the Trump administration that are having catastrophic impacts on the environment and climate, the denialism is thankfully grossly outweighed by reality.
The city of Oslo, Norway, has moved forward with banning all cars from the city by 2019.
Meanwhile, deeply troubling signs of how far along the planet is regarding ACD continue apace.
Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have, for the first time ever recorded, surpassed 410 parts per million (ppm), and sustained that increase for more than a month.
It is worth noting that human beings did not exist on the planet the last time there was this much CO2 in the air. CO2 is now over 100 ppm higher than any of the direct measurements that have been taken from Antarctic ice cores over the last 800,000 years, and most likely substantially higher than anything Earth has experienced for at least 15 million years, including eras when the planet was mostly ice-free.