A recent climbing trip up Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park brought the bittersweet experience I’ve become all too familiar with as someone who spends much of his free time on glaciers.
On the one hand, the experience of being on ice that is thousands of years old and often hundreds if not thousands of feet thick is humbling. The accompanying awe of this reality, coupled with the sheer beauty of these landscapes carved by and now covered with glaciers is not to be missed.
Returning from the summit, after descending to the lower Blue Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in Olympic National Park, my friends and I were struck by how much of this glacier had melted off. The stark grey lateral moraine (accumulations of dirt and rocks that have fallen onto the surface of a glacier or have been pushed along by the glacier as it moves) which we had descended to reach the climbing route that morning stood before us.
That morning, we had noted how much the glacier had melted from the high point of the moraine before we dropped down onto the glacier to rope up for the climb, but perhaps now because we had to ascend the moraine, its height really hit home. Witnessing these dramatic impacts from anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) first-hand always feels like a gut punch to me. My climbing partners and I shook our heads at the spectacle, then carried on to the edge of the glacier in order to unrope and ascend the moraine.
Olympic National Park alone has lost 82 glaciers since just 1984. The Olympic Mountains have four big valley glaciers with glaciers extending down into their lower slopes, but when the park first inventoried its glaciers back in 1958, there were twice as many. The winter of 2015 was the lowest snowpack on record for the Olympics. In the aftermath of that winter, Bill Baccus, an Olympic National Park field scientist and glacier expert, told Washington’s National Park Fund blog, “What we saw on our glaciers in 2015 will probably reflect our future conditions.”
Before and after photos of glaciers in Olympic National Park starkly illustrate how much ice the park is losing.
Once back atop the lateral moraine on our way back down to our camp, the shrinking Blue Glacier, now far below us, felt far smaller as the scope of its melting became all too clear with our new perspective.
And this is not only happening in the Olympics; the cryosphere is melting apace globally.
In the Arctic, the sea ice hit a record low this year for ice older than five years, and scientists say the summers will be ice-free in the Arctic Ocean in the future — the only question is when. The last four years have been the four lowest on record for the maximum winter sea ice extend and clearly, this trend will continue.
And things are not any better in the Antarctic, where new research found that parts of the Larsen C ice shelf are actually melting during the depths of winter when temperatures stay well below freezing. This is due to the fact that “Foehn winds” are bringing warmer temperatures, and between 2015 and 2017, caused around 23 percent of the annual surface melt of the ice shelf to occur during the winter months.
Another discovery from Antarctica has shown that ACD is likely happening even faster than we know. A group of scientists found that Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is most likely not absorbing as much carbon dioxide as previously believed, which means more is remaining in the atmosphere, which of course, amplifies ACD.
Equally disconcerting is the fact that the “Atlantification” and “Pacification” of the Arctic has begun as warmer waters from other oceans are streaming into the increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean, bringing new species and signaling what is likely the upending of the incredibly sensitive polar environment.
Meanwhile, extreme weather events continue apace. The island of Kauai witnessed a shocking rain event, when one storm brought over four feet of rain in just 24 hours. Scientists warned that the event was a sign of the future, although it is now something that is a matter of history.
The second 1,000-year flood in just two years struck Ellicott City, Maryland, further underscoring the aforementioned warning from scientists.
As the 2018 hurricane season is officially underway, scientists have warned of super storms, with one of them suggesting the creation of a new Category 6 designation for extremely powerful storms as storms with higher winds and more rainfall are getting so intense, the current warning categories are soon to be outdated.
Disconcertingly, a recently published study showed that CO2 released from dying forests being decimated by tree-killing pests (which are on the increase as temperatures warm) is equivalent to the emissions from 11 million cars.
Rising temperatures bring other problems as well. One study showed that as winters continue to warm, hibernating black bears in the US aren’t sleeping. This means they require more food, and often end up searching for food from humans, which causes obvious problems. The study showed that for every 1 degree Celsius (1°C) minimum temperature increase, bears hibernate six fewer days. According to the study, by 2050, black bears will stay awake between 15-39 days longer each year, thus requiring that much more food.
Complicating things further, a recently published study showed that ACD is on track to cause a calamitous decline of insects across the world. Climate projections show that insects will lose nearly half their habitat from that alone, not even including human encroachment and other factors. Given that insects are vital to nearly every ecosystem on Earth, their widespread collapse would assuredly cause deep disruption across the planet, including humans’ ability to feed ourselves. It is worth remembering that last October, scientists warned of “ecological Armageddon” when a study found that the number of flying insects in Germany (and likely elsewhere) had plummeted by three-quarters in the last 27 years alone.
A report from last month showed that honeybees may already be dying in larger numbers due to ACD, with beekeepers citing erratic weather patterns as one of the primary reasons. Beekeepers in the US reported that 40 percent of their colonies had unexpected deaths during the year that ended March 31, according to a survey released recently. Shockingly, this is an increase by one-third from the previous year. From a human-impact perspective, this obviously ties in with the collapse of insect populations, given the critical role bees play for pollination and human food production.
Finally, warmer temperatures are expected to produce more drug-resistant infections, along with genetic mutations and increased growth of the infections, according to another recent study.
A recently published study of hundreds of species of fish showed that they are all migrating northwards to cooler water as global oceanic temperatures warm. The migrations due to ACD are larger than what had been expected. One alarming example of this is how Atlantic cod in New England are expected to decline by 90 percent by 2100, which would crash that centuries-old fishery. On the other side of the US, rockfish in the Pacific Northwest are moving away from the Native American communities that rely upon them and northwards into Alaskan waters.
ACD is already threatening salmon and trout species’ existence in the Pacific Northwest, as their river habitat is warming up dramatically.
On the other side of the world, a marine heat wave caused a grouper from waters off the coast of Queensland, Australia, to appear all the way in New Zealand, 1,800 miles away.
Meanwhile, ocean acidification — the process by which ocean waters become more acidic due to absorbing so much CO2 from the atmosphere — is causing neurological disruption in fish, causing them to have their senses of sight, smell and sound altered.
Back on land, increasingly intense droughts are now the norm across the US Southwest. A recent report showed that even in years with normal precipitation, temperatures are increasing so much that droughts are increasingly hot, doing exceptional damage to plants and trees; whereas in the past, droughts were normally caused primarily by lack of rainfall. According to climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck, “warm temperatures tend to make the droughts more severe because they pull the moisture out of plants, they pull the moisture out of rivers and out of soil — and that moisture ends up in the atmosphere instead of where we normally like to have it.”
In fact, it’s already so dry across the Southwest that forests are being closed by the US Forest Service in efforts to prevent wildfires started by errant campfires. Already this year, two-thirds of New Mexico is experiencing extreme drought due to radically low snowfall/snowpack over last winter, and this is the same story throughout much of the rest of the arid region. In Arizona it is even worse: 74 percent of that state is already under extreme drought conditions.
In Australia, sheep and cattle farmers are being forced to adapt to increasingly dry conditions as rainfall across regions of that country continues to remain far below normal, with this April having been the eighth-driest on record, at 63 percent below average.
NASA warned recently that water shortages are likely to be the largest environmental challenge of this century. Places like California, Antarctica, Greenland, China, Australia and the Caspian Sea regions are already experiencing serious declines in their freshwater supplies, and these are among numerous other places around the globe where this is happening and is expected to worsen.
On that note, a recent report from New Zealand revealed a shocking decline in glaciers in that country. According to ongoing studies there, a 30 percent loss of glacial ice has occurred in just the last 40 years.
Another recently published study showed the existence of previously unknown massive canyons hidden beneath hundreds of feet of ice in the interior of Antarctica. “[If] climate conditions change in Antarctica, we might expect the ice in these troughs to flow a lot faster towards the sea,” Kate Winter, a researcher at Northumbria University in the UK and lead author on the paper, told the BBC. “That makes them really important, and we simply didn’t know they existed before now.”
On the rising seas front, Tangier Island, a small strip of land off the coast of Virginia, which is home to about 600 year-round residents, is expected to be swallowed up by the seas as early as 25 years from now, giving rise to more climate refugees in the US.
It has been well-known for years now that ACD is increasing the frequency, duration and intensity of wildfires, so it should come as no surprise that 2018 is again off to what could be another record-setting wildfire year across the US.
By June 8, firefighters across eight US states were already hard at work on 24 different larger wildfires. Ten of these fires were in Alaska alone. By June 8, about 1,780,633 acres had burned across the country since the beginning of 2018, which already places this year well above the annual average of burned acreage for that date frame over the previous 10 years.
In a 24-hour period, one fire north of Durango, Colorado, nearly doubled in size to almost 17,000 acres, forcing new mandatory evacuation orders affecting nearly 700 homes, as the fire is expected to continue to expand and spread across conditions that the Denver Post described as “tinderbox weather conditions.”
This May was the warmest May ever recorded across the US, as at least 8,600 records were tied or broken across the country. In fact, the previous warmest May occurred at the height of the Dust Bowl. For the entire country, that month’s temperature was a shocking 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal.
This May was also the warmest ever recorded for Norway’s Arctic islands, which saw temperatures soaring as high as 6 degrees Celsius above normal.
Germany saw its hottest April and May since 1881, which the German Weather Service said was not possible without the impacts of ACD.
In Pakistan, temperatures that used to only occur in June and July are now happening in March. The country’s weather service warned that the spring heat is driving up water use and demand around the country.
Meanwhile, near-surface wind speeds over planetary landmasses have dropped by as much as 25 percent since just the 1970s, according to climate scientists. Decrease in wind speed means a decrease in evaporation, which will negatively impact irrigation and farming. It also means the dispersal of wind-blown seeds will be negatively impacted, and city-dwellers reliant upon winds to clear out pollution will also suffer the consequences.
More recent research also shows that by 2100 at the latest (it is likely already happening), ACD will cause hurricanes and typhoons to be stronger, slower and far wetter than they are today. “Hurricane Ike, for example, which devastated the US Gulf Coast in 2008, would have had 13 percent stronger winds, moved 17 percent slower, and been 34 percent wetter if it had formed later this century,” reported Yale 360 on the study. “With temperatures 9 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today — the warming expected if greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked.”
Denial and Reality
As usual, there is too much fodder from the ACD denialists to include in one dispatch, so here are just a few high/lowlights.
In early May, the Trump White House quietly cancelled funding for a NASA research program that verifies greenhouse gas cuts (agreed to in the Paris climate accord) by stitching together satellite images used to produce high-resolution models of Earth’s atmospheric carbon flows.
Then, after delaying release for months in order to delete all mentions of ACD, the Trump administration finally made public a National Park Service report — of course, with no mention of ACD.
If there were a Darwin Award for most ridiculous ACD denialist, however, it would most certainly go to Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, who in May claimed that sea level rise was not due to ACD, but instead is being caused by rocks tumbling into the ocean.
Back to reality, new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, a long-time ACD denier, recently admitted that humans are the cause of climate disruption.
Furthermore, a growing number of Republican voters are acknowledging that climate disruption is human-caused, as a recent poll showed 14 percent more of them are accepting reality.
Perhaps because more of their constituents are waking up, three House Republicans recently joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers working to address ACD threats.
Thanks to a group of high school students, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert recently signed an ACD resolution the students had championed, which acknowledges the existence of ACD and calls for emissions cuts.
These reality checks are indeed refreshing, as we must have factually accurate maps to navigate this era of runaway climate disruption in order to prioritize our life decisions wisely.
This knowledge is made more urgent by the fact that atmospheric CO2 levels recently broke yet another record, when they exceeded 411 parts per million in May, a month which also had the highest monthly average ever recorded.