I’m graced to live adjacent to Olympic National Park and have it as my backyard sanctuary.
Recently, I hiked up to an alpine lake at 5,000 feet, where my friend John and I pitched camp and settled in to climb a nearby peak. The clear, rarified air wafting through sub-alpine fir expands the soul, not to mention the power of the incredible mountain views.
But the trip, fantastic weather and summit aside, had a bittersweet edge to it.
We are at high latitude in upper Washington State, relative to the rest of the contiguous 48 states. The trip was in late January, and on the climb we were well over one mile above sea level, but we never saw the temperature drop below freezing, even at night. Large areas of our route up the peak found us slogging up scree slopes bare of snow, when normally the basin we were in would have required the use of avalanche transceivers and other precautions for traveling in heavy snow on steep slopes.
The signs of anthropogenic climate disruption are all around us now, evident to anyone willing to see them.
I brought my snow shovel, but it never left my pack as we pitched our tent on terra firma, on the banks of a formerly frozen alpine lake that was melting out. “These plants are budding, I can’t believe it,” John, who has lived in the area for more than 25 years, told me from nearby our tent. “These are spring conditions, but it’s January!”
After our climb, we hiked back down toward the trailhead. The trail, just below our campsite at the lake, wound past thick, old-growth cedar trees with orange trail markers placed 10 feet up the trees in order to be visible to skiers amid deep snows. These days, we hiked up bare ground, and had to look up to see the trail markers.
The signs of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) are all around us now, evident to anyone willing to see them.
This month’s dispatch was a difficult one to write, given the preponderance of earth-shaking reports about how far along we truly are in this anthropogenic climate catastrophe.
But don’t just take my word for it, dear reader.
2014 is officially in the books as the hottest year on record, and all 10 of the hottest years have occurred since 1998.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data also revealed that the 2010s decade is on pace to become the hottest on record, which means it would surpass the 2000s as the previous hottest, which surpassed the 1990s as the same, which surpassed the 1980s.
The trend is clear.
What’s more, 2015 began with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels already above the 400 parts per million level, which is a troubling sign, given that annual levels tend to peak in May.
Sea levels are now rising 25 percent faster than previous estimates, and the acceleration witnessed in the 1990s is even more dramatic than previously calculated.
With experts calling our current time period the sixth great mass extinction event in earth’s history, we have been warned to expect between 30 to 50 percent of all current species to go extinct by 2050 due primarily to ACD. A recent report listed several key species we must expect to see go extinct in 2015, including the Amur leopard, Sumatran elephant, Javan rhinoceros, leatherback turtle and mountain gorilla.
A stunning new study published in the prestigious journal Science concluded that we are on the verge of causing “a major extinction event” in the oceans, and one of the scientists who authored the study stated frankly, “I honestly feel there’s not much hope for normal ecosystems in the ocean” without a dramatic shift away from the current business-as-usual fossil-fueled economy.
Additionally, another recent study found that sea levels are now rising 25 percent faster than previous estimates, and the acceleration witnessed in the 1990s is even more dramatic than previously calculated.
To make matters worse, another major study published in Science recently found that human activity has already pushed the planet beyond four of its nine “planetary boundaries.” The conclusion of the study said that at the rate things are progressing, the coming decades will see the earth no longer as a “safe operating space” for human beings, let alone most other species. The four boundaries we’ve already crossed are the extinction rate, deforestation, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (land fertilizers) into the oceans.
This is precisely why climate scientists have recently begun begging their respective governments to leave the rest of the planetary fossil fuels in the ground.
All of these terrifying developments, along with the others this series has covered over the last year, have led members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to recently move the hands of the Doomsday clock to three minutes to midnight. This is two minutes closer to planetary catastrophe than we were in 2014, and closer than we have been since the height of the Cold War.
ACD’s impacts across the planet’s landmasses are becoming much more pronounced.
In January, a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that California has lost half of all its large trees since the 1930s, and ACD is seen as a major factor.
Among many different species, mass die-offs, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, are now increasing in both frequency and in the numbers of dead.
Up in the Arctic, the region of the planet that continues to see the most pronounced changes, a little bird known as the dovekie (auk) has become a sentinel of ACD, due to the fact that shrinking sea ice is having a profound impact on its feeding habits, adult birds are losing body mass and their future survival rates look precarious.
There are other ways birds, as well as fish and mammals, serve as warning sentinels: Among many different species, mass die-offs, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, are now increasing in both frequency and in the numbers of dead, according to a recent study.
In Borneo, half of the mammals there will see their habitats shrink by at least one-third by 2080, recent research shows. Conservationists warn that by then twice as many mammals will be at risk of extinction, due to ACD, loss of rainforest and hunting.
Another report in January showed that conditions across the Himalayas, which, in 2014, found 43 people killed during unseasonable snow storms on summer trekking routes and the single worst disaster ever for Sherpas on Mount Everest when a collapsing hanging glacier killed 16, are continuing to warm due to ACD.
Also in that region of the world, mountain communities in Pakistan are now facing more natural hazards than ever before, due to warmer temperatures and increasing rainfall.
Similarly in Kathmandu, Nepal, hotter temperatures are crippling the supply of power and food to the capital of what is already the poorest country in Asia, after Afghanistan.
In the United States, tens of millions of acres of mountaintop forests spanning the Southwest are now in danger of being scorched out of existence by ACD (due to lack of moisture and increasing temperatures), according to a recent report.
Another report shows that ACD is likely to have a dramatic effect on agriculture in the Midwest, where farmers are facing myriad impacts of weather-related challenges as temperatures continue to increase. Seasonal variations, increasing temperature fluctuations and drought are some of the key impacts, among many others.
The World Health Organization already estimates that ACD will cause at least an additional 250,000 deaths per year around the globe between 2030 and 2050.
A report commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences warned that the US agricultural livestock field must undergo massive systemic changes if it has a hope of coping with food security and sustainability issues stemming directly from ACD. The authors of the report said that in order to meet rising demand from an ever-increasing global population, animal scientists must develop more sustainable production methods while simultaneously coping with ACD’s effects on crop yields and animal well-being.
Human health impacts continue to manifest as well.
A recent survey of members of the American Thoracic Society, which represents 15,000 physicians and medical professionals involved in respiratory and critical care medicine, found that they are already seeing dramatic health effects in their patients that they believe are linked to ACD. An overwhelming 89 percent of the health-care professionals agreed that ACD is occurring, 65 percent of them said ACD was relevant to patient care, and 77 percent said they have already seen an increase in chronic diseases related to air pollution.
A report published in the National Academy of Sciences by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher warned that ACD might give you intestinal worms: Rising sea levels around coastal river deltas could lead to increased prevalence of flukes that can cause infections and internal organ inflammation if ingested by humans.
Another recent report, this one from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, listed seven ways ACD can kill you, from deadly bug bites, to respiratory and asthma problems, to lack of water.
Furthermore, the World Health Organization already estimates that ACD will cause at least an additional 250,000 deaths per year around the globe between 2030 and 2050.
Experts also have warned governments to plan for ACD migrants, citing evidence that ACD and natural disasters already force three to 10 times more people from their homes than all of the conflicts and wars in the world, combined.
As usual, the amplification of ACD is most apparent while looking through the water lens.
A recent study published in Nature Climate Change showed that extreme weather arising from La Niña events in the Pacific Ocean will “double,” and parts of the world will have their weather patterns switch between extremes of wet and dry, according to scientists.
The Atlantic Salmon Trust released a report showing that wild Atlantic salmon are now in danger of extinction, due to farming and ACD.
The NOAA warned recently that US coastal cities will face daily flooding by 2050, again due to ACD.
A study published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the fate of the Galapagos Islands’ coral reefs – most of the reefs surrounding the islands have died out since the 1980s – is likely a preview for coral reefs around the world: The study warned that nearly all reefs could face the same fate by 2050.
Anomalies regarding marine life continue as well. Southern California saw its rare marine life reach record numbers in 2014, due to increasing ocean temperatures spurred on by ACD. Rare sightings of false killer whales, pilot whales and sperm whales are becoming more common.
The US East Coast is already facing dire consequences of ACD, as Baltimore, Boston, Annapolis and other cities are seeing their land sink beneath rising seas, their fishing industries suffer and their barrier islands disappear.
The NOAA warned recently that US coastal cities will face daily flooding by 2050, again due to ACD. Thus, it comes as no surprise that massive cities like Miami are only treading water for now. Their adaptation measures are only postponing the inevitable and show the folly of battling nature, according to a recent report.
In Pakistan, coastal villagers are already retreating further inland due to rising seas, as land erosion is causing fishermen to say things like “the seawater stole our homes.”
News on the sea level front is certainly not expected to get any better.
NASA’s chief scientist Ellen Stofan, during a lecture at the University College of London at the end of 2014, projected a two-meter sea level rise by 2100 due to increasingly rapid melting of the Western Antarctic ice shelf.
Stofan has thus doubled the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) worst-case prediction.
Even the tourist and adventure businesses are being kept on their toes by ACD.
In New Zealand, where the glaciers are retreating dramatically (as they are in most other regions around the planet), tour operators are having a tough time keeping up with the changes in a way that keeps their businesses sustainable.
The blatant harm humans have wrought upon the oceans of the world has become quite obvious, with increasing acidification, massive plankton and fish die-offs, melting Arctic ice, and dead zones.
Adventurers on Kilimanjaro in Africa are having a similar experience. Ice climber Will Gadd, who aimed to climb atop the world’s highest glaciers, did not know he would end up racing against time and ACD to do so. “We were climbing ice that isn’t going to be there next week,” he said of his climbs.
California once again stands out in terms of ACD impact because of its ongoing drought. State and federal water officials gathered in January to sound the alarm about California’s fourth straight year of drought. Officials said that dramatic action will be needed to deal with what is to come as worsening drought and increased wildfires are expected this year, as well as in following years.
According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the current state of drought in California is unlike anything ever seen there before. These graphs tell the story of how, for example, San Francisco usually averages four and half inches of rain in January, its wettest month of the year. But in January 2015, that city received exactly zero. And the closest it had come to that amount was in January 2014, when it received just 0.06 inches.
Looking south, Brazil’s most populated region is currently experiencing its worst drought in eight decades.
The blatant harm humans have wrought upon the oceans of the world has become quite obvious, with increasing acidification, massive plankton and fish die-offs, melting Arctic ice, and dead zones – but now the harm we have done to the oceans is even becoming visible on land. For example, in Thailand, where the coastal mangrove swamps have been destroyed and overrun by increasingly powerful storms, storm surges are rushing into and destroying that country’s industrial areas, causing billions of dollars in damage.
At the poles, the dramatic impacts of ACD continue to make themselves glaringly apparent.
In January, NASA released a video showing how ACD is causing the Arctic ice sheet to progressively lose its mature, thicker ice, despite some growth during some years. Thus, the perennial Arctic sea ice continues to shrink its way out of existence.
Researchers with Britain’s University of Leeds recently showed that an Arctic ice cap in Norway’s Svalbard island chain is quite literally sliding into the sea. Since only 2012, a portion of the ice cap that covered the island has thinned by 160 feet, according to satellite measurements. One of the researchers described the phenomenon as “a very large signal.”
Given the disconcerting news, NASA’s chief scientist reported recently about the Western Antarctic ice sheet. It is particularly alarming to note that even the largest glacier in East Antarctica, the Totten Glacier, is being melted by warming oceans. The Totten’s annual output now releases enough water over two and a half days to fill Australia’s Sydney Harbor – and its pace is only increasing.
Some of the worst wildfires in the Southern Hemisphere continue to be in Australia, which at the time of this writing was battling its worst fires in more than 30 years. Climate scientists have long since found that ACD is increasing wildfires’ frequency, season length and intensity.
More bad news for that country comes from its national science agency as well as its Bureau of Meteorology, which recently released their projections based on 40-year global climate models. The projections show that ACD will impact Australia more intensely than the rest of the world, and that the country is most likely on track for a temperature rise of more than 5 degrees Celsius by 2100.
As wildfires in California continue to increase in frequency and intensity amid that state’s ongoing drought, continued discussion and public education efforts, which bring in climate scientists to speak with the public there, are becoming more common.
The changing jet stream continues to be the biggest story on the atmospheric front. In early January, commercial jets traveling from New York to London made the trip at nearly supersonic speeds due to a jet stream roaring at more than 200 miles per hour. A flight that typically takes more than six hours took five hours and 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, it comes as no surprise to see high temperature records continuing to be set around the globe, including Alaska, where 2014 was the warmest year on record for the state. It was also the warmest year for the Bering Sea, Anchorage’s warmest year since 1926, and incredibly, the first time in recorded history that the temperature in Anchorage never dropped below zero for an entire calendar year.
In nearby Canada, researchers are now warning that warmer temperatures pose a threat to the quintessential Canadian experience of outdoor ice rinks.
In the Arctic, the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia has gotten much attention during recent months due to several massive holes in the ground that appeared, which scientists have linked to methane releases. In the same area, methane releases are on the rise, according to recent reports in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Geophysical Research Letters and Truthout.
Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and scientists warn that increased methane emissions already in the atmosphere could warm the planet between 4 and 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Denial and Reality
As usual, the denial section of this month’s climate dispatch contains a healthy dose of delusion. Also as usual, this denial is emanating from the bowels of the US Congress, where a full 53 percent of the latest iteration of said Congress denies the reality of ACD. In the Senate the situation is even worse, where 72 percent of the members refuse to acknowledge climate reality. In fact, only eight US states do not have a member of their congressional delegation who is in ACD denial . . . Just in case we needed another reason to loath the US House of so-called Representatives.
The last time an anti-science caucus in Congress was this strong was probably during the Scopes “monkey trial,” 90 years ago, and most of these current congressional monkeys are guaranteed chronic re-election and jobs for life.
Thankfully there are some climate scientists that have taken it upon themselves to speak truth to power.
In said Congress, there are also five members who – incredibly – do accept the science of ACD, but on important policy votes like the Keystone XL pipeline, are still going to vote with their ACD-denying colleagues. These five are Rep. Chris Gibson (R-New York), Rep. Garret Graves (R-Louisiana), Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
These five are proof that knowledge without action is useless. The same can be said for morality.
But thankfully there are some climate scientists that have taken it upon themselves to speak truth to power.
Consider the recent letter penned by climate scientist Michael Mann for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where he succinctly describes the concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry to take down key ACD scientists.
In “The Serengeti Strategy: How Special Interests Try to Intimidate Scientists, and How Best to Fight Back,” Mann wrote: “It is difficult to take on an entire group of scientists at once. But bringing down individuals is easier, and it serves the larger effort of dismissing, obscuring, and misrepresenting well-established science and its implications.
“By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of ‘anti-science’ to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defense difficult,” he added. “It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd.”
A recent, brilliant op-ed by Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt, which exposes the fossil fuel anti-science lobby industry, makes clear how scientists themselves are practicing a form of self-denial by disallowing themselves the right to believe anything that has not passed an exceedingly high bar of standards.
On a more cheerful note, coverage of ACD in the news appears to be improving, as a study released by The Daily Climate showed coverage returning to its 2009 peak.
In a 2015 encyclical, the pope is rumored to focus on the fact that it is the world’s poorest 3 billion people who will suffer disproportionate harm from runaway ACD.
In Davos, Switzerland, the president of the World Bank urged the international community to assist developing countries in coping with a warming planet, as the World Economic Forum went on to become dominated by calls to make this year one of action on ACD.
On the mitigation front, the “electric highway” in Washington and Oregon, which has one of the largest and most useful concentrations of fast-charging stations, is now serving thousands of electric car drivers, and the numbers are increasing rapidly.
The global fossil fuel divestment movement continues apace, as roughly 300 professors at Stanford University, including Nobel laureates, have called on that university to jettison all of its fossil fuel investments.
Pope Francis, head of the 1.2-billion strong Catholic Church, has continued his global calls for action toward mitigating ACD. Making ACD his top priority for 2015, the pope’s unprecedented moves have been at odds with the conservative roots of the church. Nevertheless, in a major document called an “encyclical,” which will be published in March, with a message that will be spread to congregations around the globe by the Catholic clergy, the pope is rumored to focus on the fact that it is the world’s poorest 3 billion people who will suffer disproportionate harm from runaway ACD.
The encyclical is also likely to address the fact that by contrast, it is the world’s richest 1 billion people who are responsible for between 50 to 70 percent of the greenhouse gases that are to blame.
All good news, yes.
However, we were reminded recently of the karma we have sown and will assuredly reap by a recent paper in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Forensic Engineers. The paper reports that the United States has caused more ACD than any other country, and the planet is set to take its revenge by way of the rapidly melting West Antarctic ice sheet. In 2014, NASA revealed how we have irrevocably destabilized that ice sheet, which will eventually add 11 feet of sea level rise.
According to the paper, when West Antarctica collapses completely, a process that is already well underway, the United States will bear the brunt of the 11-foot sea level rise input, possibly more than 14 feet of it, due to Newton’s law of universal gravitation.
A reality check for the deniers, indeed.