Babeldaob Island, Palau — The Gaia principle, formulated by chemist James Lovelock, proposes that Earth is essentially a synergistic self-regulating complex system that actively perpetuates the conditions for life on the planet.
The Republic of Palau, a small island nation of roughly 22,000 people in Micronesia, in the far Western Pacific, is what I would refer to as an altar of Gaia. Here, diving into the waters, which contain in excess of 700 species of fish and more than 1,000 species of hard and soft corals, one’s senses can barely keep pace with the kaleidoscope of life swimming/growing/floating/being in front of one’s eyes.
I’m now writing from the northern coast of the Babeldaob Island in the archipelago, an area not too many humans on the planet will ever see, simply due to the amount of effort it takes to get there.
I stand atop a hill looking north. The Pacific Ocean is to the east and the Philippine Sea to the west, and I feel truly on the edge. Solitude, quiet, birdsong, a steady warm tropical wind, lush vegetation — away from human civilization, I feel the pull of the crystal blue turquoise waters and want to dive in and remain enveloped within them as long as possible. The place is so beautiful it is difficult to bear.
Truthfully, part of me wants to submerge into these waters and never come up for air again, to remain away from what is happening above their surface.
Even in the midst of deep beauty, the reality of a human-caused global crisis is all too clear. I’m here doing research for articles, and a book. Although I’m here during the “dry” season, it is raining buckets outside, and has been doing so the majority of the time I’ve been here.
While I’m interviewing plenty of scientists about what is happening here, anecdotal evidence abounds. In December 2012 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather reports called Super Typhoon Bopha “a one in a million typhoon” that hit Palau. With 35-foot waves, it devastated many reefs in this UNESCO World Heritage site that is world-renowned for its rich marine habitat in the scuba world.
Only three typhoons had threatened the Palauan archipelago with serious damage over the previous 60 years. However, less than one year after Super Typhoon Bopha hit, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the island of Kayangel in Palau’s north.
“Normally we only have a typhoon, on average, every 20 years,” Jeffrey Nestor, a local boat captain in Palau told Truthout. “But we just had these two major typhoons. Not only that, we’re seeing major changes in our weather patterns.”
As rain poured down around us while we spoke, Nestor laughed and pointed to it, adding, “We are in our dry season now, but now our wet season is becoming our dry season.”
He went on to tell me that the strategies Palauans have long used to track and adapt their lives to the weather “no longer work,” and that “everything is flipping around,” as far as the weather goes.
Remote, exquisite Palau is on the front lines of the impacts of runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
During the last month, NASA released data confirming that globally, 2016 was the hottest year on record — the third consecutive year this record has been broken. Even more disturbing, in the last three years alone global temperatures rose 0.4°C: an extreme acceleration of planetary warming that has been unmatched in 136 years of record keeping.
Planetary warming continues to make itself the most obvious in the polar regions.
In Antarctica, a British research station located on an ice shelf is being shut down over the upcoming southern hemisphere winter due to fears of it floating off on an iceberg.
Simultaneously, the Arctic is clearly in crisis as ACD impacts there are leaving scientists in a state of bleak amazement. Ice pack growth has been brought to a halt, and at times reversed. In the last six weeks, parts of the Arctic have seen temperatures reaching nearly 50°F above normal, even nearing the melting point near the North Pole itself during December.
Scientists have said that 2016 in the Arctic was “beyond even the extreme” as ACD is literally remaking the region. Sea ice was at a record low maximum last winter for the second year in a row, and recorded the second-lowest minimum extent last fall.
January showed the Arctic was up to 35°F above normal in some locations, and in Greenland, the ice sheet is melting away rapidly and pushing up sea levels in the process.
A study in the journal Science, released in January, showed that sea-level rise could be far greater than expected, with levels increasing by 20 feet over the course of centuries, even if governments somehow succeeded in putting a cap on ACD. The study is based on clues from an ancient warming period, 125,000 years ago, when conditions were, according to the study, “indistinguishable” from today.
A report released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the last day of the Obama administration showed that sea-level rise could reach eight feet by 2100, a level far higher than even the worst-case prediction by the International Panel on Climate Change. As usual, in many cases, the trend of each new scientific study showing dramatically increased impacts when compared to the previous study continues.
Such is life on Earth now, as ACD advances amid a climate of extreme denial within the US government. This, paired with global capitalism, will keep us lurching full steam ahead down the path of fossil-fuel oblivion, unless we change course soon.
The Earth’s flora and fauna continue to bear the impact of runaway ACD.
In the UK, bird species are vanishing due to warming temperatures and habitat loss, according to a recent report. While some species are shifting their habitats to different regions, other species have already vanished entirely.
Meanwhile, forests continue to fare badly.
A recent report revealed that during the 2015-16 El Niño, the Amazon rainforest experienced record-breaking high temperatures and severe drought. As in past severe droughts in the Amazon, tree mortality has increased, while growth of trees decreased, which has dire implications for the global carbon cycle. The severe drought reduces the capacity of the Amazon rainforest to store CO2, and over time, this could result in the Amazon shifting away from being a carbon sink that pulls CO2 from the atmosphere to being a carbon source, which would contribute greatly to atmospheric warming.
A recent and disturbing report has revealed that, at current rates of deforestation around the globe, rainforests will vanish altogether within a century. Scientists emphasize that any real efforts geared towards mitigating the impacts of ACD, without the rainforests to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, would be utterly futile.
Meanwhile, the planet has lost 7 percent of its intact forests in just the last 16 years, according to another recent study. This shocking statistic demonstrates the dramatic implications of ACD on biodiversity.
A recent US Fish and Wildlife Service report warned that polar bears are not likely to survive without dramatic and “decisive” interventions on a global level.
Finally in this section, when we consider the impacts of ACD on humans, we must remember that Indigenous peoples are often the ones experiencing its impacts first and most deeply.
In Canada, Indigenous peoples on Lennox Island have lost more than 400 acres to rising seas in just a few generations. “That bay has claimed a lot of people,” one of the elders there told The Guardian. “Now it’s claiming land.” And now, this First Nations community is unsure if it will have a future.
Despite Alaska having a colder winter than last year (which saw record-setting warm winter temperatures), the famous Iditarod sled dog race has again had to move its starting point to Fairbanks, rather than its traditional starting point of Anchorage, due to lack of adequate snow cover on the trail.
At the recent Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, plenty of bad news came from scientists studying how warming ocean waters off Alaska’s coast are bringing widespread ecological changes, with more to come, the vast majority of which are bad. Arctic Cod are suffering from the heating waters, the Bering Sea is warming faster than previously expected, and toxic algae blooms that have been blamed for huge bird die-offs are expected to continue and possibly increase.
Another obvious sign of warming in the North comes in the form of recent data that show that January’s Arctic Sea Ice volume is the lowest it has ever been in recorded history, by a wide margin. We have never seen a winter when the sea ice in the north was as weakened and reduced as it is right now.
Waters are warming in the Antarctic as well. A recently published study in the journal Science Advances showed that over the last decade, an accelerated freshening of deep Antarctic waters [overabundance of fresh water being added] could alter ocean circulation and contribute further to sea level rise. “If you change the circulation, you change everything in the ocean,” the study’s lead author Viviane Menezes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) said on the WHOI website.
As global ocean waters warm, coral bleaching events continue to wipe out reefs.
Recently released data from Japan’s Environment Ministry revealed that coral bleaching has killed 70.1 percent of that nation’s largest coral reef, off the coast of Okinawa, as of the end of 2016. That is up from 56.7 percent, merely a few months earlier.
As the atmosphere warms, it can hold more moisture, so extreme flooding is becoming the norm across the globe.
According to the reinsurance giant Munich Re, the US had more floods in 2016 than any year in recorded history with 19 different floods swamping the nation.
Meanwhile, sea level rise continues.
In Louisiana, as seas rise the coastline is rapidly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, and as it does, it is taking ancient Native American historic sites with it.
In Florida, the city of Miami Beach is about to break ground (so to speak) on its most ambitious anti-flooding project to date: a $100 million flood prevention project aimed at raising streets in an attempt to stay ahead of rising seas.
Across the Atlantic in Denmark, “once-in-a-century” flooding events are already becoming far, far more frequent than that. “The historically abnormal weather we see today following one low-pressure system after another low-pressure system, which can result in flooding, is a reminder that climate change is in full vigor,” Jens Hesselbjerg, a climate professor at the University of Copenhagen, told the Metroxpress newspaper.
“We can’t rule out that climate change’s effect on flooding is accelerating even more swiftly than we had anticipated.”
And speaking of flooding in Europe, another recent report from the aforementioned Munich Re has shown that devastating flood disasters across that continent have more than doubled in the last 35 years.
Lastly in this section, here’s a very sobering view of what Earth looks like when all the land ice melts.
A recent mega-drought in Chile that has now lasted more than a decade has led to “an unprecedented drought,” according to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, fueling more than 85 wildfires that have consumed over 750 square miles of land there. It is the worst fire disaster in the history of that country.
“We have never seen something of this size, never in Chile’s history,” Chilean President Michelle Bachelet told Reuters.
The drought that has led to the fires has now surpassed historic low records of precipitation and stream flow reconstruction. In fact, scientists estimate that — beyond the historical record — precipitation has not been this low in Chile in at least the last 1,000 years.
And Chile is not alone. Huge swaths of the rest of South America, according to NOAA, are also experiencing severe drying which, of course, leads to escalated wildfire risk.
2016 marked the first time in several million years that global atmospheric CO2 concentrations passed 400 parts per million (ppm). The last time there was this much CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere, the world was several degrees hotter and melted ice found sea levels tens of meters higher than they are today. “We’re in a new era,” Ralph Keeling, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s CO2 Program, told Yale 360. “And it’s going fast. We’re going to touch up against 410 pretty soon.”
At the current rate of growth, CO2 levels will reach 500 ppm less than five decades from now.
A new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has documented patterns of “thermal expansion,” a process in which greenhouse gases cause atmospheric temperatures to increase, which then causes the oceans to warm, and their warmed waters expand in volume. In this way, greenhouse gases are leaving a lasting impact deep within the planet’s oceans.
Meanwhile, atmospheric temperature records continue to be broken.
Recent data showed that 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded for the entire state of Alaska, by a very wide margin. The average temperature for the entire state was a jaw-dropping 5.9°F above the long-term average.
In the Northeast, climate scientists with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst recently showed that their region will experience significantly accelerated warming compared to much of the rest of the planet over the next decade, as well as beyond. Second only to Alaska, New England is warming faster than anywhere else in the US, and the study showed that temperatures there will increase 3.6°F above preindustrial baseline levels by the year 2025.
Lastly in this section, a recent heat wave gripped Eastern Australia, leading to fire bans across vast swaths of the country which were sweltering amidst their hottest January ever recorded.
Denial and Reality
With Donald Trump and his cabinet of jackals now mostly in place, the levels of ACD denial have ventured into record territory. Less than a week after being sworn in as president, Trump ordered all references to ACD to be deleted from the White House website, and they were.
Furthermore, the Trump administration is looking into shutting down the EPA’s enforcement office, while a GOP crony in Florida has even gone as far as proposing a bill titled, literally, “Terminate the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Many state leaders now fear that Trump and his GOP-dominated Congress could also begin working to put a halt to state actions geared towards mitigating ACD impacts.
In fact, in Wisconsin, state agencies are already deleting any mention of ACD from state websites.
Meanwhile, as a response to the instantaneous and draconian measures of denial taken by the Trump administration, large numbers of government scientists from the EPA, NASA and at least 10 other government agencies went rogue on Twitter, demanding the president get real about the facts and issuing other calls to action.
Additionally, a website established and run by the Columbia Law School now sends out an alert anytime Trump or Congress acts to change a rule involving ACD or energy policy.
Also on the reality front: A top NASA scientist recently debunked the idea that ACD has “paused” by pointing to the record-setting warm temperatures over the last three years, and noting that he expects the rate of increase in global heating to accelerate even further.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the GOP on the whole continues to deny the reality of ACD, the US military is pushing ahead with plans to protect its bases and assets across the globe from sea-level rise and other ACD-related impacts.
Trump’s buddy Vladimir Putin even has Russia beginning to work on a national ACD adaptation strategy, and various governmental ministries and regional officials are already working to assess the risks of adverse impacts and produce adaptation measures.
Lastly, one week after Trump was inaugurated, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced they had moved the “Doomsday Clock” 30 seconds closer to midnight. The membership of the Bulletin, which includes 15 Nobel laureates, decided to move the clock closer to midnight because of concerns about “a rise in strident nationalism worldwide, President Donald Trump’s comments on nuclear arms and climate issues, a darkening global security landscape that is colored by increasingly sophisticated technology, and a growing disregard for scientific expertise.”
The clock, which is now set at two and a half minutes to midnight, is the closest it has been to midnight since 1953, when it was two minutes before midnight.
Meanwhile, here in Palau, 3,500-year-old taro fields on the coast are being overrun by rising seas, and local environmental conservation groups are working with residents to assist in adapting to the growing impacts of ACD.