Part of the Series
Climate Disruption Dispatches
Over the years, writing these climate disruption dispatches has often weighed heavily on my soul. I’ve struggled to find a delicate balance between tracking this information, which these days means reporting on the demise of the biosphere, and living a meaningful life.
Recently, I again failed to achieve that balance, and needed to take a short respite from work to find my inner footing. I headed into my sanctuary, the mountains, for solace. I backpacked up into the northeastern Cascade Mountains of Washington State, where I live, and pitched a camp on the banks of a clear, turquoise alpine lake at 6,900 feet. I was surrounded by snowfields, high peaks, and mountain larch that will soon be turning from green to yellow as autumn rapidly approaches.
Despite smoke in the air from wildfires in Canada, eastern Washington, and beyond, conditions were beautiful. The next day I scrambled to the top of nearby Black Peak, but did so as the smoke became increasingly thick. My lungs felt scratchy, my eyes burned, and I could tell it was affecting my thinking. Atop the peak at 8,975 feet found me at roughly the elevation of the smoke line. Above were crystal clear blue skies; below, everything was shrouded in a brownish-grey sooty haze.
After taking lunch on the summit and reveling in the majestic yet smoky views, I headed back down to camp, where the smoke was rolling in by way of thick clouds. I decided to break camp a day early and hike down to the trailhead to head to my home near the west coast, hoping the smoke might not be as thick closer to the Pacific.
Two hours of driving later, the haze wasn’t as thick, but remained present. Not until I boarded the ferry and crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca across Puget Sound did I finally emerge from the suffocating wildfire smoke.
The feeling of entrapment within the smoke, the coughing and wheezing while trying to breathe, the primal urge to escape it, all underscored to me how dire our situation is globally. Arriving back home, out of the smoke, I thought of future summers. Even up here in the verdant Pacific Northwest, wildfire smoke will be the norm. Yet, compared to those who’ve already lost their homes to the fires, or those who’ve had everything they own submerged by storm surges from hurricanes, or refugees fleeing war-torn countries destabilized by drought and climate disruption impacts, smoke inhalation is a minor problem. Such is the climate-triage of our new world.
Moreover, the impacts of runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) will assuredly continue to worsen.
In one of the more important recent scientific studies, published in the journal Science, researchers warn that ACD could cause many of the planet’s ecosystems to become unrecognizable.
“Our results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity,” reads the abstract of the study.
Stephen Jackson, the lead author of the study, told The Washington Post, “Even as someone who has spent more than 40 years thinking about vegetation change looking into the past … it is really hard for me to wrap my mind around the magnitude of change we’re talking about.”
This summer’s extraordinary heat wave across the Northern Hemisphere was and is in no way an anomaly. Another recent study warned that there will be at least four more years of extreme temperatures. This means temperatures are expected to be warmer than expected, even above and beyond the abnormal warming being generated by ACD.
Given the fact that there are already places in the Arctic where the ground no longer freezes, even during the winter, this does not bode well.
Another recent report, What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk by Australian researchers with the independent think tank National Centre for Climate Restoration, is blunt about the fact that we are rapidly leaving the safe zone for human habitability on the planet. They note that ACD poses an “existential risk to human civilization,” with dire consequences unless dramatic actions are taken toward mitigation. The paper also points out how climate research, including the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has consistently underplayed these risks and leaned towards conservative projections. The paper even goes on to call the IPCC “dangerously misleading” regarding its low-ball predictions of accelerating ACD.
“Climate change is now reaching the end-game,” the foreword to the report reads, “where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”
One only need look at this past summer to see that we have, indeed, reached the end-game.
You know the Earth’s climate is warming extremely dramatically when a tree that used to grow in a warmer Alaska several million years ago is once again growing there. The tree requires warmer temperatures to grow, which are now once again occurring in Alaska.
Warming is now putting our food supply in grave danger. Globally, we are already seeing a weaker wheat crop this year due to record-breaking high temperatures around the world. It’s been well known for quite some time that higher carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere cause crops to be less nutritious, but researchers recently warned that the scope of the problem means hundreds of millions more people than previously thought will now be nutrient deficient as temperatures continue to climb. The research showed that 1.4 billion women of childbearing age, along with children less than five years old, will be living in regions with the highest risk of iron deficiency.
Making matters worse, another recent study warned that global crop losses due to increasing pests will soar as temperatures continue to climb. The study projects that increasing heat causes the number of insects — and the amount they eat — to grow, so that nearly 50 percent more wheat will be destroyed from just a 2°C increase in temperatures, along with 30 percent more maize and 20 percent more rice.
Another recent report revealed how in the Mojave Desert region in California and Nevada, there has been a precipitous (42 percent) decline in bird species in the past century alone, likely due to the impacts of ACD.
The heat in Europe this summer was intense enough that 22 people died from the West Nile virus there, as experts warned of more mosquito and tick-borne disease outbreaks as temperatures there continue to increase.
Another report warned of how high temperatures and increasing air pollution may well increase the risk of mental illnesses and suicide. Having recently spent days living amidst the thick smoke of wildfires, I can understand this warning, given the way in which experiences of this nature affect the psyche.
Climate impacts across the Arctic continue to sound alarm bells with scientists.
At the time of this writing, at least 36 people have died from the impacts (mostly flooding) from Hurricane Florence that struck the US east coast. Days after it made landfall, rainfall persisted — 40 inches of rain in North Carolina alone — and rivers continued to swell, as thousands of homes and businesses were affected by record flooding that besieged several states. As the atmosphere warms, hurricanes now generate increasingly severe rain events, along with packing stronger winds from the increased energy produced by the warmer air and warmer waters over which they travel.
The oldest, thickest and strongest sea ice in the Arctic, which has never opened up in recorded history, has melted open twice this year … an occurrence that scientists have described as “scary.” Sea ice in that region is shrinking so much now that over the summer, for the first time, a container ship took the Arctic sea route.
Researchers recently announced that a pocket of warm ocean water under the surface of the Canada Basin could melt a large portion of the region’s sea ice, warning that the situation is a “ticking time bomb.”
Back on land, mountaineers in Europe are bemoaning the fact that ACD is literally melting the French Alps, causing rocks to become unstable and more prone to collapse as permafrost and ice melt.
Meanwhile, the oceans continue to warm unabated. In August off the coast of San Diego, scientists recorded an all-time high temperature of seawater, causing scientists to warn that much sea life is now “in peril.” The number of marine heatwaves doubled between 1982 and 2016.
Scientists have also warned of “unprecedented” changes to Japan’s marine life as atmospheric CO2 and acidification both continue to increase.
As land-ice melts and oceans warm, sea levels continue to rise unabated as well.
Jakarta, a mega city of more than 10 million, has now become known as the fastest-sinking city in the world. Large parts of the capital of Indonesia will be completely submerged by just 2050, and parts of it are already disappearing underwater. As Jakarta and other major coastal cities begin to be swallowed by the seas, we must ask: Where will these millions of people go?
Things aren’t much better in Europe, where a recent analysis showed that the cost of coastal flooding there could reach $1 trillion annually by 2100 if current trends continue. At the moment, there is no reason to think they will not.
Bangkok, another city of at least 10 million, is struggling to stay above water as some forecasts warn that large portions of it could be submerged in just over 10 years.
In India, while the monsoon is a regular event and always brings flooding, it is clearly amped up due to ACD impacts. Flash flooding in the southern Indian state of Kerala resulted in the death of at least 324 people, which officials there declared to be the worst in at least the last century.
In the US, historic flooding hit the northeast that same month, causing New Jersey to declare a partial state of emergency and evacuations occurred.
A recent study warned that the US West could experience three times as much destructive flooding if ACD is left unchecked, with communities in the Rocky Mountain and Sierra Nevada ranges at particular risk from rapidly flooding rivers and “rain-on-snow” flash floods that are predicted to become more frequent.
Meanwhile, droughts continue around the world.
A drought in Switzerland was bad enough this summer that the Swiss army had to airlift water to thirsty cows in pastures that were plagued with drought amidst the intense heat wave that swept that continent this summer.
Back in the US, Glacier National Park was plagued with fires and high temperatures this summer, made worse by dry winds and ongoing drought in the state of Montana.
You don’t need to read this dispatch to know this summer has been exceptional for wildfires.
At one point, Canada’s British Columbia had 566 wildfires burning across it, causing the province to declare a state of emergency that prompted thousands of people to evacuate. That declaration was then extended as the fires continued, with 2018 becoming the worst fire season on record (breaking the previous record, set just last year) for British Columbia. The warmer the atmosphere becomes, the longer, hotter and drier wildfire season becomes in British Columbia, as well as around the rest of the world.
Smoke from those fires, along with hundreds of others across the US West was visible from, literally, a million miles away in space.
In California something occurred never before seen in the history of wildfires in that state: A literal tornado of fire the size of three football fields emerged, as vast areas of that state burned in what has become a normal situation there during the summers, thanks largely to ACD.
Things were bad enough in Washington State that at one point western Washington saw its worst air quality on record. Because of the wildfires, in late August, Spokane had worse air quality than Beijing and Delhi combined.
It is only a matter of time before several cities begin to see 50°C (122°F) temperatures — which is halfway to boiling — on a regular basis. This spring, Nawabshah, Pakistan, and two years before that Phalodi, India, both experienced 50°C. Bear in mind that even 35°C (95°F) temperatures, along with humidity, can be fatal to humans after just a few hours. A recent report warns that temperatures of at least 35°C will likely become common across India, Pakistan, southeast Asia and China sooner rather than later, with half the world’s population exposed to potentially deadly heat for 20 days a year by 2100.
Simultaneously, increasingly warm temperatures around the globe have sparked yet another feedback loop: Warmer temperatures are causing soil to release more CO2 into the atmosphere, which then causes temperatures to increase further.
Lastly in this section, to give you an idea of the intensity of this summer’s heat wave, Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs reported recently that 4.53 million cows, ducks, pigs, chickens and other farm animals died from the heat wave that swept that country. This was a 56.5 percent increase over the number of animals killed by the heat last year during the same time period.
Denial and Reality
The usual ACD denial from the Trump administration continues, despite the planet spiraling deeper into abrupt ACD impacts daily.
During a visit to the apocalyptic Redding fire zone in California, Trump administration officials Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke refused to talk about ACD when it came to how to address the worsening wildfires.
The Trump administration also proposed a new rule that relaxes carbon limits on power plants, which allows the plants to run longer. The EPA’s own analysis has shown that this step could lead to 1,400 more premature deaths by 2030 due to the pollution. Explicit warnings about ACD impacts were also cut from the Trump administration plan to weaken curbs on power plant emissions.
Meanwhile, big oil has asked the federal government to protect its infrastructure from the impacts of ACD, as Texas aims to acquire billions of dollars of federal funding to build up its coast in an effort to protect its oil infrastructure from hurricanes, flooding and sea level rise.
On the reality front, the State of California recently passed legislation, including steps to take to make it happen, geared toward the cessation of using fossil fuels to generate electricity by the year 2045.
Yale’s climate change communication program released an up-to-date visualization showing that the vast majority of Americans believe ACD is real, as well as a graphic that enables one to focus in on the parts of the country where willful ignorance is the most rampant.
Things are already dire enough that several countries in the Caribbean recently pleaded with the Trump administration to grasp the dire threats that accompany ACD and do something about it. So far, of course, their pleas have not been answered with action.
An important article published in The Tyee, citing recently published research warns, “If we can’t stop hothouse Earth, we’d better learn to live on it,” with the subheading: “New research is warning that we face a desperate global struggle.”
A fascinating graphic was also published by The Revelator, which provides an interactive map you can use to zoom in on where you live to see how much your temperatures will increase by the year 2050. I strongly recommend looking at the map, paying particular attention to the US Midwest, given the realities of crop loss and decreasing nutrition in crops.
To conclude this month’s dispatch, a UN official recently announced that governments are “not on track” to cap global temperatures to below 2°C, the goal of the 2015 Paris climate talks. Many scientists have long warned that a 1°C warming was already enough to lock in catastrophic ACD impacts. We are already over 1°C. The ongoing failure of the world’s governments to face these facts guarantees a lasting and devastating impact for all species on Earth, including humans.
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