Every month, after I finish writing this climate dispatch, I think that this is the most dire, intense, mind-bending, heartbreaking dispatch I have written to date. And every month, for the more than two years that I’ve been writing them, I am correct.
During the morning I was finishing this dispatch, I conducted an interview with Mike Loso, a physical scientist with the National Park Service (NPS), about ice loss in several US national parks. “We as park rangers are tasked with managing and protecting what is in our National Parks, to protect it so it will be there for future generations,” he told me. “But the glaciers are going away, and we can’t stop climate change. So if the Park Service can’t stop the change, we at least have to bear witness to it.”
The information he provided, which will be used in future writings, caused my heart to feel 50 pounds heavier.
When we finished the interview, all I could do was go outside, stand still, and gaze at the trees. I called a friend and shared some of it with him, and he listened. “Thank you for bearing witness with your dispatches, and for holding all of this information,” he told me.
Of course, it has been clear to me for quite some time that my bearing witness entails sharing all of this information with you, because there is no way that — psychologically or morally — I can hold it all myself.
The news about how rapidly the planet is changing only continues to accelerate in both frequency and intensity, and it’s all for the negative.
August became the planet’s 16th straight warmest month on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). As Mashable’s Andrew Freedman put it, “Even the records themselves are breaking records now.” NASA data showed that August tied with July for the warmest month in the last 136 years of record keeping.
NOAA also announced that this was the hottest summer in recorded history — a summer so hot that climatologist Michael Mann told USA Today, “It is plausible that this summer was the warmest in thousands of years, perhaps even longer.”
It appears as though Mann could be right, as a recently published study containing the longest-ever historic temperature record shows that the Earth is already warmer than it has been in roughly 120,000 years. Moreover, it is already locked into a path in which it will hit temperatures not seen for 2 million years. Prior to this study, the longest comprehensive temperature record available went back 22,000 years.
Former NASA scientist James Hansen, who headed NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for 32 years, just published a global temperature graph that gives a clear picture at how rapidly planetary warming is accelerating, which can be viewed here. Brace yourself.
Things have become dire enough that 375 National Academy of Sciences members, (including 30 Nobel Prize winners), frustrated with the ongoing political inaction towards anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), signed an open letter warning of the “real, serious, immediate” climate threat.
Richard Betts, the head of climate impacts research at the UK meteorological office’s (Met Office) Hadley Centre recently stated that the planet is already two-thirds of the way to the 1.5C benchmark, [the politically agreed upon goal of the upper limit of global temperature increase that is allowable before extreme climate disruption impacts ensue] and could begin to pass it in about a decade.
And the alarm bells continue to ring.
World Meteorological Organization (WMO) briefing notes from September 16 state that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is convening a “special high-level event” on September 21, aimed at convincing more countries to sign onto the Paris climate change agreement.
The WMO’s message to world leaders is that “the need to sign and implement the Paris agreement is now more urgent than ever.” The organization confirmed the overwhelming data that demonstrates accelerated warming, stating, “We have witnessed a prolonged period of extraordinary heat which is set to become the new norm.”
Meanwhile, the tangible signs of warming abound, all around the planet.
Although the Southern Hemisphere is still technically in its winter season, in early September, temperatures across the Antarctic Peninsula and areas of Western Antarctica reached levels of 15 to 23 degrees Celsius (27-40 degrees Fahrenheit) above normal, with the Larsen C ice shelf experiencing thawing temperatures during winter.
Yes, you read that correctly. Parts of Antarctica are melting during the winter.
Scientists are also now closely monitoring a key ocean current in the North Atlantic to find out if rising seawater temperatures and increasing freshwater from melting ice are combining to alter the “ocean conveyor belt,” which they describe as “a vast oceanic stream that plays a major role in the global climate system.” In their own words, they are studying “how climate change could jam the world’s ocean circulation.”
Along similar lines, a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which collaborated with the work of 80 scientists from a dozen countries to produce it, stated that the soaring temperatures of Earth’s oceans is the “greatest hidden challenge of our generation.” The report warned of the “truly staggering” rate of warming that is happening within oceans.
Meanwhile, the atmosphere has experienced “unprecedented” behavior, according to a team of scientists from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) at the University of Oxford and the UK’s Met Office. In early September, they released a report stating that earlier this year, there was an “unexpected disruption” in one of the most repeatable atmospheric patterns on Earth. The disruption, they said, has changed the pattern “forever.”
“The normal flow of air high up in the atmosphere over the equator, known as the quasi-biennial oscillation, was seen to break down earlier this year,” the report said. Dr. Scott Osprey, an NCAS scientist in the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics, commented: “The recent disruption in the quasi-biennial oscillation was not predicted — not even one month ahead.”
Is this how life in our ACD-driven world will be, going forward? How much unpredictability can our planet and its inhabitants take?
Soils around the planet are soaking up far less carbon than we previously believed. This is a harrowing development. Soils absorb trillions of tons of carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere. However, recently released research revealed that soil will absorb far less carbon as we near the year 2100 than was previously estimated. That means this is yet another factor that will cause more warming to the planet.
The number of species nearing their extinction continues to increase. Recently released data show that four out of six great ape species are one step away from their extinction, with ACD being one of the key drivers behind the catastrophic situation.
Another recent study showed that an endemic honeycreeper (bird) in Hawaii is also nearing extinction, and warmer temperatures from ACD are one of the primary causes.
Meanwhile, millions of trees throughout US forests are dying from drought, insects and wildfires, all increased by ACD, in forests spanning Hawaii to California to Montana. The pace of their death is only continuing to accelerate.
As usual, much is happening in the water realm, when it comes to ACD.
A recent Truthout report showed how a parasite that is killing tens of thousands of fish in Montana’s Yellowstone River is tied to the warming waters, largely due to ACD.
Speaking of Yellowstone, a recent study showed that the snowpack there, which has been declining precipitously in recent years, will only continue to decline at this rapid pace. Thus, snowmobilers who currently enjoy riding their machines in Yellowstone National Park will need to find a new hobby.
Bad news on the warming waters front came recently from scientists in Maine, who released the results of a study showing that baby lobsters struggle to survive when they are reared in water 5F warmer than the temperatures that are currently typical of the western Gulf of Maine. The UN’s IPCC expects the Gulf of Maine’s temperature to warm by 5F by the year 2100. Keep in mind, too, that thus far, the IPCC’s temperature predictions have consistently been too low.
Meanwhile, the impacts of drought around the planet continue to intensify.
In South Africa, rangers in Kruger national park are choosing to slaughter around 350 hippos and buffaloes that are threatened by severe drought there. The reasoning? It is an attempt to prevent the animals from suffering from dying of starvation due to lack of food caused by the drought.
Closer to home in the US, the California drought continues, and millions of people’s lives continue to be impacted by it. As the drought has persisted into the fifth year (with no end in sight), wells in smaller communities across the state are continuing to fail, forcing folks who live there to find other ways to get their water.
This is obviously bad news, particularly given that a recent study carried out by UCLA and published in the journal Nature notes that California’s drought could continue, literally, for centuries.
China is dealing with extensive drought as well. Ancient water tunnels built 2,000 years ago in that country’s western Xinjiang region are running dry, and ACD is one of the leading causes.
Meanwhile, things on the ice front are looking grim.
Up in Alaska, one year after President Obama visited Exit Glacier (whose name is becoming more fitting by the day), record-breaking high temperatures coupled with heavy late-summer rainfall have caused the already-receding glacier to quicken its pace of decline even more. It is retreating so quickly, an NPS ranger there said the retreat is even noticeable on a day-to-day basis.
Further north, the summer Arctic sea ice tied its second-lowest ever annual minimum (2007), and there were even open-water areas near the North Pole. Since satellites began monitoring sea ice in 1979, researchers have observed a decline in the average extent of Arctic sea ice in every month of the year.
More bad news from the Arctic comes in a recently published study which showed that, disconcertingly, the massive Greenland Ice Sheet is losing ice much faster than previously thought — at a rate of 20 billion tons more per year than earlier estimates. This, of course, also means that the melting of Greenland is contributing far more to sea level rise than previously believed.
Ice is vanishing so rapidly across the globe that scientists in the French Alps recently completed a mission of extracting ice from some of the world’s most rapidly retreating glaciers there, one of which is right beneath the summit of Mont Blanc. Their aim is to preserve the ice for future study by shipping it to Antarctica, with the goal of creating a long-term store of Earth’s endangered ice, so that scientific clues can be gleaned from its frozen air bubbles to learn more about Earth’s past atmosphere.
At the bottom of the globe, an incredibly prescient study recently published in the journal Nature Communications showed that large sections of Eastern Antarctica can collapse, and have done so in the past under conditions very similar to those we’ve created today on the planet, given the amount of CO2 we’ve pumped into the atmosphere. The study showed that during the Mid-Pliocene warm period, a time when atmospheric CO2 levels were very similar to what they are today, global temperatures were 1-2C warmer than they are right now. During that time, all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, and oceans worked their way well into Eastern Antarctica, driving sea levels dozens of feet higher than they are right now.
But rising oceans are not simply a thing of the future: Noticeable sea level rise has already begun.
In the US, one only need look towards Virginia, Florida and Louisiana, among other places, to see that warnings about sea level rise are not theoretical; it is already causing flooding on a daily basis.
Looking west, sea level rise is now causing increasing numbers of people to move off of the Marshall Islands.
The same can be said for most of the population of the atoll of Takuu, which is in the Bougainville region of Papua New Guinea. Ten years ago, 600 people lived on the atoll. Now there are only 50, and sea level rise is a large part of the reason why.
Lastly, a disconcerting report from Australian Geographic cites two recent studies showing that life in the oceans is diminishing so rapidly that they are literally going quiet, since diminishing nutrients and increasing ocean acidification (driven largely by ACD) are killing off sea life.
In addition to the global temperature records mentioned above, another interesting study was published last month about ACD-related atmospheric changes.
Published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the study shows how, since 1977, ACD has doubled the number of Category 4 and 5 storms making landfall in eastern and southeastern Asia.
The study also showed that the overall destructive power of storms striking the aforementioned regions of Earth has increased by nearly 50 percent over the same time period. The increases in power and strength are due to ocean warming related to ACD.
Worrying news on the bird front came recently when researchers on the northwest coast of Alaska were stunned to find Caspian terns 1,000 miles farther north than had ever been recorded. The researchers blamed the record-high temperatures the state had experienced over the summer, and for the better part of 2016. “To be 1,000 miles further north attests to how much the globe has warmed,” said one of the researchers.
Another recent report showed that ACD is threatening birds that migrate along the Great Lakes. Thanks to increasing temperatures, the birds are arriving earlier each year. Over time, this will cause them to arrive at areas along their migration routes where there will no longer be food for them. [ACD-driven season shifting is causing insects to hatch sooner, so by the time the birds arrive, there is no food for them.] Hence, disrupting the natural balance is, quite literally, putting entire species at risk of extinction.
In addition to wildfires burning more often, hotter, and with greater frequency around the planet as ACD advances, a recent report showed that there is an alarming increase of fires across the Brazilian Amazon.
According to the report, 2015 saw more than double the number of fires across this area (nearly 2.5 million); as compared to all previous years going back to 1999.
Meanwhile, wildfires continue to burn in Southern California, where in late September a fast-moving fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains destroyed a home, caused numerous evacuations and burned more than two thousand acres. Several other wildfires across that state continue to keep firefighters busy.
Denial and Reality
As usual, there is plenty of material from the ACD-denial camp for this dispatch.
A recent report by Reuters showed that several of the US companies that have publicly expressed the strongest support for President Obama’s climate agenda are simultaneously funding “climate skeptic” lawmakers who are the agenda’s biggest enemies. The companies include DuPont, PepsiCo, AT&T, Google, GE and Verizon, according to the report.
A recent study by a team of Oklahoma State University sociologists showed that political polarization about ACD is growing in the US, largely due to a conservative media bias that is inflating ACD denial. It’s not a complicated formula. For example, The Wall Street Journal’s so-called reporting was “full” of ACD denial, according to the study.
Meanwhile, hypocrisy abounds in North Dakota, where the state government is working to adapt to ACD, while simultaneously continuing to claim it is not real. The state is warming faster, by far, than any other in the contiguous 48, and will likely see temperatures at least 10F hotter than they are today by 2100.
More news of the “not surprising” kind comes from Donald Trump, who recently said that ACD science needs to be “investigated.” Previously, of course, he called ACD a “hoax” and a Chinese plot to steal jobs from the US.
Thankfully, the number of people and organizations recognizing ACD’s reality far outweighs the deniers.
Joining a growing handful of other states, Washington State recently adopted a new rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from large carbon polluters. The change covers fuel distributors, power plants, oil refineries, pulp and paper mills, and other industries.
A recent report from the US military has called ACD a “significant and direct” threat. More than a dozen retired military and national security officials signed a statement saying that “climate change presents a strategically significant risk to US national security, and inaction is not a viable option.”
Similarly, a recently released US government report stated that ACD is going to get worse. “The impacts of climate change on national security are only going to grow,” Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said of the report. The report noted that over the next 20 years, ACD will pose an increasing security challenge, due to the heightening of social and political tensions which will threaten the stability of some countries and cause increasing risks to human health. The report also said that extreme weather events already have dire implications for humanity, which “suggest that climate-change related disruptions are well underway.”
On that note, during a recent interview President Obama said that when it comes to ACD, the trends are “terrifying.”
That is certainly the feeling I have, too, coming to the end of this dispatch. However, despite this and other challenging feelings that arise when we take in what is happening to the world, it is more important than ever that we see it clearly, so as to make more informed decisions about how we live our lives during this key time.