Skip to content Skip to footer

Dahr Jamail | Climate Disruption’s Legacy: Megadroughts, Extinctions, Obituaries for Reefs

As the planet continues to warm, studies show that global wildlife numbers have fallen by 58 percent since just 1970.

More than one-fifth of the Great Barrier Reef died off this year during a major bleaching event — and there is nothing to indicate that ocean waters will not continue to warm apace. (Photo: dave / Flickr)

Part of the Series

Look around.

Look outside your window.

It doesn’t take much effort to notice the radical changes happening to the planet, if one only pays attention.

September of this year saw Earth pass a dramatic threshold — one that signifies our entrance into a new era of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). September 2016 will now be remembered as the month that Earth passed the threshold of 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere permanently, according to scientists.

That means that no one currently alive on the planet will ever again see an atmosphere with less than 400 ppm CO2.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

A recently published paper by former NASA senior climate scientist James Hansen and 11 other experts showed that Earth is now the hottest it has been for 115,000 years. According to the paper, the planet has not seen temperatures this high since the last interglacial era, a time when global sea levels were 20 to 30 feet higher than they are right now.

We are watching giant pieces of our planet’s biosphere die before our eyes.

Recently, Outside Magazine ran a heart-wrenching piece titled Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 million BC-2016). More than one-fifth of the reef died off this year during a major bleaching event. Of course, much of it remains alive, but there is nothing to indicate that ocean waters will not continue to warm apace, and corals around the world won’t continue to die off from ocean acidification and increasingly severe bleaching events.

In fact, just six months after the bleaching event wiped out one-fifth of the Great Barrier Reef, another report was released showing that the devastation on the northern half of the reef is worse than previously believed. “On the reefs we surveyed close to Lizard Island [off the coast of Cooktown, in far-north Queensland], the amount of live coral covering the reef has fallen from around 40 per cent in March to under 5 percent now,” one of the scientists said.

It is continuing to die.

The Great Barrier Reef obituary is a sign of our times, and we must brace ourselves for more tragedies like it — for coral reefs, glaciers, ice fields, forests, lakes, rivers, and of course, species.

Climate Disruption DispatchesThe recently released UK State of Nature report shows that 56 percent of all the species in the UK have declined since 1970 and nearly 1,200 species are now threatened with extinction.

As has been true for every one of these monthly climate dispatches, the planet only continues to warm. September set yet another global temperature record, according to NASA, virtually ensuring that this year will be the warmest ever in the agency’s 136 years of record-keeping.

Even in late October, Arctic sea ice hit a new record daily low extent, underscoring the fact that this year’s record low readings are three million square kilometers below the same day readings (October 23) of that day in 1981.


A recently published report on Earth’s biodiversity revealed that global wildlife numbers have fallen by 58 percent since just 1970. The report — called The Living Planet assessment — produced by the Zoological Society of London and the World Wildlife Fund also said that if trends continue, this decline will likely reach two-thirds among vertebrates in only four more years. The report lists ACD as one of the driving factors of the great dying.

The report confirms what many of us have been watching for a number of years now — that we are bearing witness to the collapse of wildlife. We are so obviously living in the Anthropocene: the era in which humans exert the dominant influence over Earth and its destiny.

“We are no longer a small world on a big planet,” Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, wrote in the foreword of the report. “We are now a big world on a small planet, where we have reached a saturation point.”

A report by the Audubon Society recently showed that vanishing summer sea ice in the Arctic is forcing Arctic birds into new ways of living as they adapt to warmer weather and shifting food sources. Some birds are having to travel further in order to find food since the sea ice is melting away, while others are becoming prey to starving polar bears.

In Hawaii, seven species of a bee native to the islands have become the first bees to be added to the US federal list of endangered and threatened species.

Evidence of the impacts of invasive species, fueled in part by ACD, continues to abound. A study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, which canvassed more than 700 other recent studies for data, shows that invasive insects now cause at least $77 billion in damage every year. However, the study also added that this figure “grossly underestimated” the real number, because the study only covered a fraction of the globe.

Meanwhile, another recent study has prompted US wildlife officials to propose more protections for two rare insects in Glacier National Park. These insects — the western glacier stonefly and the meltwater lednian stonefly — are struggling to survive: Warming temperatures caused by ACD are drying up the mountain streams in which they live.

Glacier is not the only national park facing a crisis. A recent report showed that ACD is causing spring to come earlier, by several weeks, in at least three-quarters of all US National Parks. It noted that this phenomenon is causing invasive species to become more difficult to manage.


This month, as usual, ACD-fueled dramatic changes in water-related phenomena abound.

A recently published study found that multi-decade megadroughts due to ACD are “virtually certain” across the US Southwest.

Perhaps this has already begun as by late October, over 120 million people (28 percent of the population of the lower 48 states) were experiencing drought. California entered the sixth year of its drought.

Things are looking grim for the Mediterranean region as well, as another study warned that even if the Earth only warmed 2C (which is a laughably low estimate at this point) widespread desertification will overtake huge swaths of this lush region and render the ecosystem there “unrecognizable.”

At the other end of the extreme water event spectrum, Louisiana is struggling to figure out what to do about rising seas. This recent report shows what that state will look like in 50 years if nothing is done, and it’s not pretty. The coastline of Louisiana is already disappearing faster than all of the other coastal states in the contiguous 48 combined, and the state map is already in desperate need of revision, as the geographic reality already looks very different from the maps on its road signs or textbooks.

A report published in the New Scientist shows that islands around the world will not only lose land along their coasts, but will also lose their fresh-water supply as it is pushed upwards by the rising seas, and will evaporate atop the island.

A study published in the journal Science showed that as the planet’s oceans continue to warm, oceanic algal blooms will worsen, causing deleterious impacts to marine life across the world.

Meanwhile, another new study shows that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet is being undermined by warm, dense saltwater from below, threatening to destabilize the entire shelf, which would increase global sea levels from between four and 15 feet. One kilometer of ice has vanished in just the last seven years, and there is nothing to indicate that this frightening trend will not continue.

Sea level rise is already hammering low-lying Bangladesh where the rise as well as intensifying tropical cyclones have turned the drinking water increasingly saline, making life there very challenging.

Along those lines, the UN warned recently that ACD is already well into the process of killing East Africa’s water resources.

Back on land, melting glaciers are causing other kinds of problems.

In Bolivia, glaciers are melting so quickly that they are threatening to wash away entire towns. Glaciers there have shrunk by nearly 50 percent in just the last four decades alone.

In the US, another report warned that Hurricane Matthew’s destructive storm surge is likely to become the new normal. The only question is whether state governments will react accordingly, or continue to rebuild in areas that are clearly going to be uninhabitable in the future.

Underscoring that point, a story published by Climate Central based on a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that Hurricane Sandy’s surge, as extreme as it was, will also likely be a commonplace occurrence as ACD continues to intensify.


Evidence that conditions in the atmosphere are worsening continues to unfold.

A study recently published in Nature shows that, thanks to leaks from oil and gas activities around the world being far more persistent and larger than previously believed, methane emissions from that industry are likely 60 percent higher than estimated. Methane is 22 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Meanwhile, on October 15, the far-north village of Barrow, Alaska set a new record for the latest date ever without snow cover. This came five months after a record-early spring snowmelt, during what is most certainly going to be the hottest year ever recorded since record keeping began.


Given that this year saw the hottest summer ever recorded, it comes as no surprise that there has been a preponderance of fires, many of which persisted well into the fall season.

Massive fires covering millions of acres across Russia prompted many residents to sign a petition to Vladimir Putin, in which they complained of suffocating from the smoke. According to independent satellite analysis from experts, huge fires across Siberia have burned millions of acres year after year, and have caused a dramatic uptick in the number of fires facing that region.

In Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology recently released a report stating that that country is experiencing more extreme fire weather and hotter days as ACD progresses. Fire season there has been extended by several weeks, according to the agency, and that trend is expected to continue to increase.

In the US, a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that ACD is what is behind the recent surge in wildfires across the west, as the research ties them directly to escalating temperatures.

Up in Alaska, a late-season wildfire burned north of Palmer along the Glenn Highway, as another wildfire burned up spruce and tundra in the far northwestern region near the village of Noorvik.

These fires are both present-day disasters and dramatic signs of events to come.

Denial and Reality

Anyone still in denial about the fact that Canada’s government is pro-fossil-fuel (even though it is now led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) had some help letting go of said denial recently when the Trudeau government approved what has been referred to as a “carbon bomb.” The “bomb” is in the form of a $36 billion liquefied natural gas project called the Pacific Northwest LNG Project.

Meanwhile, those who are in denial about Hillary Clinton’s climate policies have also had their opinions tested by several strong doses of reality this month. Documents were revealed showing Clinton boasting about how she has pushed for more fracking around the world, while carefully opposing the Keystone XL pipeline out of political necessity.

ACD denial was bolstered by every presidential and vice presidential debate, as, stunningly, not one question about it was ever brought up by a moderator.

Clinton’s obligations to the fossil fuel industry have been on glaring display recently with Bernie Sanders openly calling for a halt to the Dakota Access Pipeline, while Clinton keeps silent, despite the draconian crackdowns on the Indigenous water protectors blocking the pipeline.

Another obvious act of denial comes in the form of housing reconstruction in New Jersey, happening right in the path of rising seas and where the next hurricane will eventually make landfall.

It was also recently revealed that several Minnesota-based companies that had signed on to the Obama administration’s American Business Act on Climate Pledge last year — in which they promised to make significant reductions to their carbon emissions and water use — have continued to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to ACD deniers. The companies are Target, Best Buy, General Mills and Cargill.

However, on the reality front, renowned economist Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the Stern Review on climate change in 2006, warned that the entire global economy could very well “self-destruct” if the world continues to burn fossil fuels as it is doing right now.

Meanwhile, a top general and chairman of the Global Military Advisory Council On Climate Change warned recently that climate disruption wars are coming, and they will generate millions of refugees around the world.

Given what has been made abundantly clear in this dispatch — along with every one that I’ve written — we know that it is not just the economy that will “self-destruct.” Even more importantly, we are witnessing the destruction of the biosphere of the planet, a process which is already well underway.

Countdown is on: We have 5 days to raise $36,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.