Part of the Series
Climate Disruption Dispatches
Planet or Profit
There was a moment in early January when it was colder in Seattle (27F) than it was on the North Slope of Alaska in the Arctic town of Barrow (30F).
On the day that this occurred, Barrow, whose normal high temperature for that day was negative 5 degrees, saw a record high temperature of 33 degrees above zero.
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This unprecedented phenomenon sums up the direction of this month’s dispatch: a turn toward “global weirding” on all fronts.
As Truthout reported in mid-December, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded in their annual Arctic climate report card, “The Arctic is unraveling.” Record-breaking heat in the north has clearly pushed the region into uncharted climate territory.
In late December, the heating trend continued, with temperatures at the North Pole spiking to near melting point, a stunning 50 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, despite being the darkest time of the year, with literally no sunlight.
Antarctica saw equally shocking developments. Recent NASA photography revealed a 300-foot-wide rift along the Larsen C ice shelf, signaling the now imminent demise of the massive ice shelf, which will send an iceberg the size of Delaware into the southern ocean.
Words like “unprecedented” and phrases like “we haven’t seen anything like this yet” are no longer uncommon among scientists studying the ice in Antarctica, where a break in the Pine Island Glacier has now revealed yet another mechanism for collapse. (That glacier, along with so many other massive glaciers in the Antarctic, is melting due to warmer sea water from below.)
Simultaneously, in East Antarctica, a region of the ice continent assumed to be relatively intact and, thus far, impervious to the impacts of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), two recent scientific reports have exposed some seriously troubling warning signs. The studies, each of which focused in on a different East Antarctic ice shelf, showed that major melting is already occurring both from above and below that could eventually release the ice shelves — and thus release all the ice above them on the continent. Given that East Antarctica contains roughly two thirds of all the ice on the continent, this is troubling news indeed: The entire region’s stability is now under threat.
It is worth noting that by November, the Arctic and Antarctic had both hit record low sea ice coverage, and NASA recently released imagery showing how stunningly fast glaciers around the world are melting. Given that glaciers hold approximately 69 percent of all the fresh water on the planet, the implications for humans, coupled with sea level rise, are obvious.
Of course, President-elect Donald Trump’s impending inauguration looms over all of these developments. A man will occupy the White House who says, “Nobody really knows if climate change is real.” Last month, Anthony Scaramucci, an advisor from the executive committee of Trump’s transition team, went on CNN and forcefully denied ACD — while stating that the Earth is 5,500 years old.
When one thinks of ACD’s impacts on forests, droughts and wildfires generally come to mind. However, we would do well to recognize a lesser-known ACD-related impact on forests: bugs. A recent study predicts that insects will leave at least 63 percent of US forests at risk by 2027, and are already one of the single largest threats to biodiversity in the US. Surging beetle kills caused by ACD-driven warming temperatures and droughts, along with invasive species introduced via global trade, are two examples. “They are one of the few things that can actually eliminate a forest tree species in pretty short order, Harvard University ecologist David Orwig, who participated in the study, told the media. “Within years.”
A recent study published by scientists from UC Davis and the US Forest Service showed that, disconcertingly, forests are failing to regrow after ACD-driven wildfires that have become larger, hotter and more frequent across the country. The study shows how recent fires have killed so many mature, seed-producing trees across such vast swaths of land, that forests are unable to reseed themselves. Study coauthor Kevin Welch, a forest researcher at UC Davis, said, “We aren’t seeing the conditions that are likely to promote natural regeneration.”
And when dramatic ACD-impacts are causing forests in the US to suffer, trees halfway around the world are simultaneously impacted, according to another recent study. When drought, insect infestation, heat or exploitation cause a significant number of trees to die in one area, the climate in forests in distant lands is also altered. Hence, according to the researchers, if enough woodlands are burned in North America, the consequences of this are felt in Siberian forests. If enough tropical rainforests are cleared in the Amazon, conifers in Siberia experience drought and greater cold, due to what the study describes as a “teleconnection”: Activities in one region of Earth can disturb or alter the climate equilibrium in another, very far away.
“When trees die in one place, it can be good or bad for plants elsewhere because it causes changes in one place that can ricochet to shift climate in another place,” Elizabeth Garcia of the University of Washington, who worked on the study, told the Climate News Network. “The atmosphere provides the connection.”
Meanwhile, another recently published study showed that some plant species in the Himalayas, like the rhododendron, have shown indications that their spring blooming season has been moved three months forward by ACD.
Not surprisingly, wildlife continues to display distress signals from ACD impacts as well.
Another study shows that hundreds of species around the globe — land, as well as marine — are already experiencing localized extinctions, and researchers affiliated with the study said that this is just the beginning.
Not surprisingly, another study, this one coming from the University of Edinburgh, shows that ACD is already driving birds to migrate earlier as global temperatures continue to increase across the board. When the birds arrive at their breeding grounds earlier, however, they often miss out on food sources and starve to death.
In the far north, reindeer are physically shrinking, primarily due to an increasing lack of food. Their weight has gone down considerably since the 1990s.
Plus, the world’s largest herd of reindeer, located on the Taimyr Peninsula of Russia, is plummeting in size, according to another report. The herd of wild reindeer has lost 40 percent of its population since just 2000, due to warming temperatures and human encroachment, and the numbers continue to decline rapidly.
Another warning sign from the north comes from steller sea lions, whose populations in the western Aleutian Islands continue to fall. Scientists blame ACD-driven warming waters that are causing food shortages and other health issues.
More distressing news from the north comes in the form of an expected change in the food chain: Experts warned recently that polar bears are likely to become prey to killer whales and Greenland sharks. Polar Bears are already the iconic species threatened by ACD, since they have increasingly had to swim further for food due to dwindling sea ice. This leaves them much more exposed to potential attacks from the killer whales and sharks. Meanwhile, the whales and sharks are eating the seals on which the polar bears rely for food themselves.
Canada’s Hudson Bay, normally considered the “polar bear capital of the world,” was as free of ice this past November as it was on a typical summer day. This indicates that, if trends continue, polar bears there could well be extinct by 2050.
Lastly in this section, the thawing of permafrost in Alaska and the Yukon has been shown, according to a recent study, to be literally changing the chemistry of the fabled Yukon River. “Essentially, what we found is, a lot of the common kind of minerals, and some of the nutrients in the Yukon River, and the Tanana River, had greatly increased over those 30 years,” Hydrologist Ryan Toohy with the USGS Alaska Climate Science Center, told Alaska Public Radio. Impacts of this include declining numbers of salmon returning to spawn in the Yukon River, which hurts tribes that rely upon the fish to put food on their tables. The reductions in salmon populations also affects the culture of tribes that practice subsistence living.
As usual, the most obvious ACD impacts are making themselves known across Earth’s watery realms.
An amount of polar sea ice the size of India (or two Alaskas) has vanished amidst record-high ocean and atmospheric temperatures, according to climate scientists. It’s not surprising, given that parts of the Arctic were 20 degrees Celsius (36F) above normal on some days during last November.
Another study showed that ACD-driven warming is sending mountain glaciers “off a cliff,” and called these retreating glaciers “categorical evidence” of ACD, noting that the glacial retreat provides “sobering perspective on how far out of equilibrium these glaciers are.”
A 2015 winter research expedition in the Arctic left researchers shocked by how thin and weak the Arctic sea ice was, in addition to being stunned by how early a summer phytoplankton bloom arrived. They attributed the bloom to the warmer-than-normal Arctic waters.
A recently published study brings more bad news for Greenland. The study showed that the Greenland Ice Sheet will likely be melting much faster than previously believed, which is also bad news for sea-level increase around the world.
New research has confirmed what has been known for quite some time now: that ongoing melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet is bringing us closer to an inevitable long-term consequence of collapsing the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation, which would bring catastrophic climatic shifts to Northern Europe, North America and beyond.
Down in the Antarctic, things are no better. Recently released long-term satellite observations have revealed that dramatic ice loss is spreading rapidly up glaciers in the Antarctic, some of which are losing more than 20 feet of height per year.
ACD has been linked to massive changes taking place in the food web of the US Great Lakes region, as the base of the food chain drastically transforms. Warming water temperatures are causing an algae that forms the food chain’s base to increase in number, which will have unforeseen impacts on everything else in that ecosystem.
If you live in Miami, New Orleans or New York, a recent report shows that you are in one of the top US cities already experiencing sea-level rise, which is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years.
More scientific research shows that the Everglades’ water is now at risk from sea-level rise, which means the fabled “river of grass,” as the area has long been referred to, is going to be inundated with saltwater.
Across the Atlantic, a recent study suggests that the only reason coastal communities in Britain have survived sea level rise and extreme weather events thus far has been luck. The study found that the winter of 2013-2014 saw storms generate the maximum recorded sea level at half of the tidal measuring sites around the UK, as well as the largest number of extreme sea-level events of any season in the last 100 years. However, troublingly, the study showed that none of those serious flooding events happened during a severe storm, which means that things could have been far, far worse. Hence, it is only a matter of time for an ACD-fueled extreme storm to coincide with a high tide, which will bring widespread destruction to wherever it lands on Britain’s coastline.
Lastly in this section, recent research shows that the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, which was hammered by a coral bleaching event not long ago, is not likely to survive at all if oceanic warming continues, which it most assuredly will. The study projects that by the year 2050, more than 98 percent of global coral reefs will be afflicted by “bleaching-level thermal stress” every year.
The American Meteorological Society’s annual attribution report released mid-December showed that ACD-driven heat was the key factor in Alaska’s 2015 fire season, which was the second worst on record, in terms of the total area burned. The report also cited “snowpack drought” in Washington State that resulted from high temperatures as another factor that led to wildfires in that state, and indicated that in both places, rising temperatures will continue to predispose the areas to increasing frequency and duration of wildfires.
More than 100 active wildfires in South Africa, burning amidst conditions of warmer than normal temperatures, lack of rainfall and dry conditions fueled by ACD impacts, were burning at the time of this writing.
Soon, 2016 will be deemed the warmest year recorded on the planet since record-keeping began. This is certainly true in the Arctic, where autumn temperatures soared to 36F above normal and even higher in some places. Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University, explained to Yale Environment 360 that a rapidly warming Arctic will have profound implications on global weather in many ways, such as a shifting jet stream, more persistent and prolonged droughts, and heavy flooding, all of which will dramatically impact food production.
Last month, Climate Central produced this excellent graphic, which gives one a clear, visual perspective on how much warming occurred in the continental US during 2016. In summary, 2 percent of US weather stations reported colder-than-average temperatures for the year, 98 percent of them reported warmer-than-average temperatures for the year, and 10 percent of them reported temperatures that were the hottest on record.
Meanwhile, scientists in Vietnam point to ACD as the cause of an increase in vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever, due to rising seawater levels and warmer temperatures creating conditions favorable for mosquito reproduction and transmission of diseases.
Denial and Reality
With an incoming Donald Trump presidency — including a cabinet that amounts to an environmental demolition team — we can expect this denial section to become quite lengthy in future dispatches.
The Center for Media and Democracy published a leaked transition team memo that outlined Trump’s disastrous energy agenda. The plan will essentially lay waste to most federal environmental regulations that are left, and will halt efforts toward developing clean energy and addressing ACD, scant as they may be. It includes, but is not limited to, the following steps: withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, increase federal oil and natural gas leasing, lift the coal lease moratorium, give states greater say on energy leases on federal lands within state borders, expedite approvals on LNG [liquefied natural gas] export terminals, move full steam ahead on pipeline infrastructure, amend the Renewable Fuel Standard and relax federal fuel economy standards.
Conveniently, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was named Secretary of State, despite the fact that investigations have been underway to look into Exxon’s climate science disinformation campaigns.
Just as conveniently, Chris Shank, the deputy chief of staff to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and a vocal ACD denier, was selected to head the NASA transition team. It is clear that most money slated for NASA to study climate/earth science will be slashed.
Australian climate scientists have already slammed Trump’s plans to scrap NASA’s climate science work, as outrage at the president-elect’s anti-environment stance mounts around the globe.
Some of the environmental Cabinet picks read like a sick joke: Trump also picked Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a staunch ally of the fossil fuel industry and ACD denier, to head the EPA. Both Pruitt and Trump have been blatant opponents of the EPA itself.
In total, at least nine senior members of Trump’s transition team deny the existence of ACD while demonstrating a completely pro-fossil fuel agenda. Deniers have been chosen to lead every single agency that deals with ACD.
As a result of all of this, US climate scientists are frantically copying, backing up and storing abroad any and all US climate data out of fear it could be scrubbed under the incoming Trump administration.
The Guardian recently published an excellent piece that outlines what it calls the “booming conspiracy culture of climate science denial” that is happening alongside (and along with) the incoming Trump administration. The article shows how conspiracy websites and outlets, such as Breitbart, are working to create massive online audiences who believe that ACD is a “hoax.”
On the reality front, thankfully, there is some good news.
Divestments from the fossil fuel industry now represent at least $5.2 trillion, which is certainly heartening. That means that a record number of investors have agreed to withdraw, or already have withdrawn, money from the fossil fuel industry and are investing in renewables.
NASA satellites, scientists and super computers recently produced an amazing 3-D view of how CO2 flows through the atmosphere.
The single largest science event on Earth took place in San Francisco in December, when the American Geophysical Union convened for its annual meeting. There, with more than 20,000 earth and space scientists present, it was proclaimed that “the time has never been more urgent” for their work to continue.
And for the rest of us, “the time has never been more urgent” to bear witness to what is happening across the planet, and to act on the planet’s behalf.
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