A recent mountaineering trip found me and two climbing partners camping alongside a beautiful glacial lake in North Cascades National Park.
Purple flowers swayed in the cool breeze coming down from the glacier above us. No less than five wispy waterfalls flowed down a rock wall behind our camp — the melting runoff from a smaller glacier up above.
The scene was idyllic, but it also betrayed a sinister reality. The place where we were camping used to be all glacier. The lake beside us used to be solid ice. Now, like most glaciers globally, the glacier is in rapid retreat.
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Still, the views afforded by our climb the next day — stunning glaciers, peaks, glowing orange clouds as the sun rose and turquoise lakes far below — soothed the soul.
Any time in the wilds of Earth now brings solace, without which I lose my psychological and spiritual footing as the ongoing litany of loss, corruption, degradation, aggression, death and trauma that is the daily news assaults us all. It is in nature, and my loving nature with all my heart on a daily basis, where I find the equanimity necessary to continue walking forward into our increasingly broken world.
And you, dear reader, where is it you find your equanimity? Whether it is a place, a person, an activity, or a mental state, please remember to go there, regularly or as you are able, as the unraveling of Earth’s biosphere continues apace.
The signs are ever with us. In particular, in the past month, scientists have warned that it appears as though the Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced a record melt year. This year alone, it lost enough ice to raise global sea levels by more than one millimeter. Researchers told the BBC they are “astounded” by the acceleration in melting and expressed fear for coastal cities in the future. One scientist told the BBC, “So, we’re losing Greenland — it’s really a question of how fast,” and said Greenland is already facing a melting “death sentence.”
At the same time, the Amazon rainforest was burning amid record wildfires (an 80 percent increase of fires compared to the same period last year) that have scorched more than 1,300 square miles at the time of this writing. Stunningly, Thomas Lovejoy, who has been studying the Amazon since 1965 and had already warned of Amazon tipping points due to deforestation, told The Washington Post that if the Amazon is lost, its disappearance alone would add the equivalent of 38 parts per million to atmospheric CO2 levels, which are already at a record of 415 parts per million. Given the critical role the Amazon currently plays in sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere, these developments mean yet another self-reinforcing feedback loop has been added to the planetary climate crisis.
The situation is dire enough that the UN’s chief of biodiversity warned that the burning of the Amazon could lead to a “cascading collapse of natural systems” across the planet.
Meanwhile, scientists are warning people who live in coastal areas to get out. It’s not a question of whether they’ll need to move, researchers emphasize in a recent study — it’s a question of when.
The psychological toll from the climate crisis continues to make itself known as we progress deeper into runaway climate disruption. A recent Reuters piece thankfully brings our attention back to this fact, alongside the obvious psychological challenges brought about intensified disasters like floods, fires and other extreme weather events. Such disasters correlate with rises in suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, among other issues, according to the American Psychological Association.
In places around California that have been devastated by climate-crisis-fueled wildfires, the psychological toll is evidenced by a growing mental health crisis in the aftermath of large areas being burned off the map, such as in Paradise and Santa Rosa. Entire communities are having to cope with PTSD as a result, and we can expect this only to intensify.
A recent draft UN report warned that damage from climate-disruption-driven superstorms and rising sea levels could increase by 100-fold or even more, displacing as many as 280 million people around the world. Additionally, the report warned that without dramatic changes, at least 30 percent of all the permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere could thaw within 80 years.
Another component of rising seas is thermal expansion of the water: As water warms it expands, taking up more room and thus leading to rising levels. Warming water also has a negative impact on marine species dependent upon cooler waters, like salmon.
In Alaska, the water is already so warm it is killing off large numbers of salmon, as has been the case during an “unprecedented” atmospheric and marine heat wave this summer. The fish are dying from heat stress.
Additionally, the warm Alaskan waters are intensifying paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) levels across the Southeastern region of that state. This means that harvesting shellfish is becoming increasingly dangerous, as ingesting enough PSP contaminated seafood can literally kill you.
This is all occurring because, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, another major marine heatwave is happening across the northeastern Pacific Ocean. The waters off the west coast of North America are now 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than usual, and the event has been dubbed the “northeast Pacific marine heatwave of 2019.” Scientists are concerned it could resemble the “blob” that occurred several years ago in the same region, which caused massive algae blooms and killed sealions and myriad other species of marine life up and down the coast. Current temperature charts show this heatwave could even be worse.
Meanwhile, water woes are besetting the Great Lakes region of the U.S., causing the city of Detroit to declare a state of emergency. “The havoc wreaked on communities bordering the Great Lakes is a result of their water level steadily rising over the last five years and spiking to record levels this spring and summer,” the Guardian wrote of the crisis. “In 2019, the lakes’ depths ranged from 14in to nearly 3ft above long-term averages, according to data from the US army corps of engineers.” Naturally, the extreme rainfall is linked to the climate crisis, and the flooding ravaged homes and roads across the region.
A recent study showed that 100-year flooding events could soon be happening on a yearly basis around parts of the U.S., showing that the aforementioned crisis in the Great Lakes will probably become a regular occurrence. The study warned that both the Northeast and Southeast will likely experience this as tropical storms and hurricanes intensify. Extreme rain events will continue in other regions as well.
It is clear, and now being reported more regularly, that people living in coastal areas will have to leave. Homes, businesses and entire major cities will all have to be abandoned or relocated entirely. Indonesia is already in the process of relocating the capital city of Jakarta, a major city with millions of people. This could well be the model for other major coastal cities around the planet, assuming there is time to carry out such relocations.
In fact, a group of scientists, in a paper published in the journal Science, have urged people living on coasts to move away from them while they still can, so as to avoid the panic and chaos that are looming on the very near horizon as sea level rise accelerates and storms and their flooding events intensify in both frequency and power. Retreating from coastal areas now, rather than waiting, is the obvious and prudent thing to do.
The biggest news on the wildfire front has, of course, been the fires scorching the Amazon, which continue to burn.
However, those are far from the only ones. This summer, wildfires have raged across Alaska, the Arctic, Greenland and Siberia (where more than 21,000 square miles of forest were scorched). Fires in the Canary Islands forced 8,000 people to evacuate).
In the Congo, the world’s second largest rainforest, there were 50 percent more fires than the 2,000 burning up the Amazon, as at the time of this writing the Congo had 3,000 fires burning, while the Amazon was being scorched by 2,000.
As to be expected, wildfires becoming increasingly common, larger and more devastating around the world as runaway climate disruption deepens.
Record high temperatures continued in many places around the planet. Anchorage, Alaska, saw its warmest August on record — the third warmest month ever recorded for the state since record-keeping began — as wildfires continued to ravage much of the U.S.’s northernmost state.
The heat waves that beset Europe over the summer killed 1,500 people in France alone, according to another report.
Because of our increasingly heated planet, Hurricane Dorian, which ravaged the Bahamas, was wetter and more deadly than it would have been without the added energy from a climate disrupted warmer ocean and hotter and wetter atmosphere.
Denial and Reality
Amid all of this, the Trump administration’s blatant denialism continues.
Trump was the only national leader at the G7 to skip a special session that had been dedicated to addressing the climate crisis as well as the wildfires scorching the Amazon.
Lewis Ziska, a top-level climate scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), resigned in August because the USDA had buried his research. Ziska explained that the administration is actively censoring climate science, and told a reporter, “This is no longer about the science. This is somebody’s ideology.”
Meanwhile, the corporate media remains true to form as well, when it comes to largely ignoring the climate crisis. A recent report by Media Matters for America showed that ABC, CBS and NBC mentioned the fact that climate disruption was responsible for the intensification of Hurricane Dorian only a single time over 216 different news segments covering the devastating storm.
And it isn’t just the Trump administration and corporate media actively censoring the reality of the climate crisis. Not to be left out, the Democratic National Committee actively voted down a resolution for a presidential primary debate that focused solely on the climate crisis. Instead, the candidates had to rely on CNN holding a debate on the topic.
Meanwhile, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of attempting to roll back regulations on oil and gas companies that require them to run inspections for methane leaks at drilling wells and platforms. Methane is 85 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2 over a 10-year time scale.
Lastly, to underscore the severity of this ever-worsening crisis, a recently released book has revealed how scientists have been consistently underestimating the pace of climate disruption — and underestimating the severity of its threats.
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.