I’ve often been asked why I continue to produce these climate dispatches, given how difficult all of this information is to take in.
The answer is that they are written from a place of deep resolve, with the aim of providing the information we all need in order to live in the new reality of a climate-disrupted planet. These updates are not intended to scare people, but to provide the latest facts so we can live in the real, and make informed decisions about how to use our time each day. Like a traveler using the most current map available to navigate the wilderness, we can use this information to shape our larger choices and decisions.
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Clearly, many people in the US are still engaging in the denial of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) — they’re standing on the back end of the Titanic, the rest of the ship already underwater, and refusing to believe it is even sinking. Many of those taking the fossil-fuel industry generated bait have vested financial interests in the status quo. Others are consciously (or subconsciously) choosing to remain stuck in the denial stage of the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief model of grieving. (The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.) If we allow ourselves to see and acknowledge what is happening to our planet, it will entail grief work for all of us.
December 2017 was, by far, the hottest December ever recorded for the state of Alaska. The entire state was a shocking 15.7°F above the 20th century average, and sea ice in the Arctic Ocean hit an all-time end of year record low. “That’s really quite astonishing,” National Weather Service climate science and services manager for the Alaska region Rick Thoman explained to the Anchorage Daily News, “Usually you’re breaking those by a tenth of a degree or two-tenths of a degree.” Thoman went on to point out that, while the climate is warming far more rapidly at the higher latitudes, the rest of the country should take heed: “We are the US’s canary in that coal mine.”
2017 was the second-hottest year on record for Earth and the third straight year that all 50 US states had above-average temperatures for the entire year. The five warmest years for the lower 48 states have all occurred since 2006.
Scientists with the UK’s meteorological office state unequivocally that ACD is now dwarfing the influence of natural trends, given that 2017’s warming occurred without an El Niño (a natural phenomenon in the tropical Pacific Ocean that generates a boost in worldwide temperatures).
ACD is unfolding at a faster rate than expected, and is also more extreme than previously believed. Recent research shows that human-caused emissions will only continue to lead to greater impacts on heat and extreme weather, and this will happen even sooner than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned just three years ago.
For example, ACD’s impacts on the oceans are causing their oxygen levels to plummet, as evidenced in yet another recent study. “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters,” Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and lead author of the study told the AP. “As seas are losing oxygen, those areas are no longer habitable by many organisms.”
While it is inaccurate to believe one single climate event or aberration can be attributed solely to ACD, it’s crucial that we acknowledge and interrogate ACD’s starring role in the massive climate aberrations playing out across the planet.
A recently published survey by the World Economic Forum showed that for the second year running, dangers stemming from extreme weather events are even more threatening to human existence than weapons of mass destruction. This is primarily because extreme weather events are the likeliest to occur, according to the survey.
A study published in the journal Global Environmental Change found that depression and anxiety are linked to concerns over ACD and the fate of the planet. Symptoms include feelings of loneliness and lethargy, along with restless nights and insomnia. The study noted that the most hard-hit on this front are women and people with low incomes.
Increasingly destructive impacts from ACD could cause one million migrants every year to enter the European Union by 2100, according to a new study published in the journal Science. This means that the number of migrants trying to settle in Europe each year will triple by then — and this is only based on climate trends, not including other geopolitical factors and economics. Wolfram Schlenker, professor at the school of international and public affairs at Columbia University in New York, and lead author of the study, told The Guardian: “Europe will see increasing numbers of desperate people fleeing their home countries.”
A January heat wave in Australia was so intense that more than 400 bats from one colony alone boiled alive in southwest Sydney.
Around the same time that was happening in Australia, Florida’s iguanas were freezing and falling out of trees amidst a record-breaking cold snap there.
In Switzerland, trees in the Alps are leafing out earlier than they used to, causing the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research to worry that the buds sprout too soon and have negative impacts on their development.
Other terrestrial changes are even more dramatic. To give you an idea of the incredible amount of melting happening across the planet’s cryosphere, a recent study showed that the ocean floor is literally sinking due to the additional water weight from melting glaciers.
After record-breaking wildfires scorched hillsides, subsequent torrential rains in the beginning of January triggered huge mudslides that killed at least 20 people in Southern California.
Lastly in this section, a disturbing report titled Toxic Thaw Syndrome showed that thawing Arctic permafrost is leaching PCBs, mercury, DDT and heavy metals into the seas, threatening Arctic marine life such as, polar bears, ringed seals and beluga whales.
A recent study revealed that ACD-fueled rising seas will expose millions of people to river flooding, especially in the US, Africa, Asia and Central Europe. The study shows Asia to be the continent with the highest flood risk: The number of people impacted by river flooding is projected to increase from 70 to 156 million by 2040. In the US, the number is projected to increase from 100,000 to 1 million.
These effects are already happening. For example, ACD is driving an exodus of farmers from Vietnam’s fertile Mekong Delta due to saltwater intrusion from rising seas and droughts — combining to destroy crops.
Meanwhile, lack of precipitation is having dramatic impacts in other parts of the world.
Much of the US West has seen a near record-low snowpack this year, as a snow drought has spread. This signals big trouble for water supplies across that region of the country. Water shortages and economic damages from the drought are expected to be high.
Over in Cape Town, South Africa, a city of four million, ongoing drought is on track to cause the city to run out of water before the end of April, and residents are already rationing water.
Another study, this one published in the journal Nature Climate Change, warned that more than one-quarter of Earth’s land surface will become “significantly” drier even if global temperatures are “only” allowed to increase by 2°C. The study found that at 2°C warming, which conservative projections estimate will happen sometime between 2052 and 2070, between 24-32 percent of Earth’s land surface would dry “significantly.”
Meanwhile, as the oceans continue to warm, coral reefs are already bleaching too frequently to be able to recover from the destructive events, according to a recent study, which underscored the fact that as recently as 1980, reefs rarely bleached.
“We will not have reefs as we currently have them,” Howard Lasker, a professor of ecology at the University at Buffalo, told The Atlantic about the phenomenon.
As you read this, parts of the Great Barrier Reef are bleaching out for the third year in a row. It’s not the reef’s only problem: Another recent paper warned that a “complete feminization” of the northern population of green sea turtles in the Great Barrier Reef is possible in the near future. This is of course due to the warming oceans, and since sea turtles are among the species that experience temperature-dependent sex determination, they are being impacted dramatically.
As that is happening, ocean acidification continues apace. A recent study found that as acidification has accelerated, the shell structure of mussels has changed dramatically. Their shells are becoming much more unorganized and uneven as the crystals used to build them have shrunk and become “disoriented,” according to the study.
Amid yet another warmer-than-normal winter, scientists announced in late December that sea ice conditions in Alaska were “shockingly bad.” The state of the ice, which is coming in later and leaving sooner each winter, is making life much more challenging for hunters and communities living along the coast.
Polar ice is continuing its disappearing act at both poles, and the warming linked with this melting is likely already being felt along the latitudes between them. The melting at the poles is disrupting ocean currents and changing atmospheric patterns.
In the Arctic, as the region’s sea ice rapidly disappears, recent research warns that the melting ice could lead to a collapse of a vital food chain. The research showed that algae growing on the underside of the ice is a critical food source in the Arctic food chain, and has been shown to be traceable in animals all the way up to the polar bear.
Grimly, forecasters with the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project have recently predicted that as sea ice in the Arctic continues to decline, it will dwindle all the way down to a strip just above Greenland and Canada. According to the study, it is there where the iconic polar bear and other species will make their last stand and fight for their very survival.
Early this January wildfires and scorching temperatures raked southern Australia. It was reported that Australian authorities announced that the intensity of the heat wave had led to a 10 percent increase in both deaths and the number of ambulance calls being made.
Later that month, out-of-control bushfires were closing in on Sydney’s Royal National Park, as scorching temperatures continued, and were projected to last at least another week.
Meanwhile, a rare winter wildfire scorched acreage in eastern New Mexico in the US.
For the first time ever, climate researchers are openly stating that some extreme weather events would have been literally impossible without ACD. The admittance made it into a special annual edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
In early January, when many parts of the US Northeast were gripped in record-breaking cold temperatures, parts of Australia were seeing record-breaking heat that was enough to literally melt asphalt. Part of a highway in southern Australia did melt: The asphalt oozed apart, causing a traffic jam.
The massive coastal cyclone that raked and froze the US Northeast is, unfortunately, going to become commonplace as ACD progresses. The storm, which covered an area spanning from Maine all the way down to Florida, included record-breaking coastal flooding in Boston, where people were warned not to ride icebergs floating in on the high tide.
As for the flooding, the storm vastly exceeded any storm to ever hit the East Coast since the use of weather satellites began during the 1970s. It’s important to note that the trigger for the storm was the fact that water temperatures in the Atlantic right offshore were 7°F above normal during early January, as this caused hurricane-force winds and snow squalls that even generated lightning.
Scientists are warning that this kind of freaky weather may well become the new normal as ACD continues to unleash ever more intense impacts across the globe.
Denial and Reality
Most of us saw Donald Trump’s glaringly ignorant tweet during the Arctic cold blast that besieged the US Northeast in late December:
“In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) Dec. 29, 2017
A fifth-grader who has read a few paragraphs about ACD understands that weather is not the same as climate. Climate is about how the atmosphere behaves over longer periods of time. Weather is about what happens on far shorter time scales. (However, perhaps we should be lowering our expectations for Trump, who speaks at a fourth-grade level.)
The Trump administration’s active ACD denial — and overall science denial — continue unabated. Science advisory panels across several government agencies have been steadily diminished over the first year of his presidency, several top-level science positions have been left vacant, and other advisory panels have either been disbanded altogether or populated with fossil-fuel industry-allied “scientists.”
On the reality front, thankfully, other countries are taking steps to mitigate the ACD impacts that are already upon us, and prepare for what is coming.
Cuba has launched a 100-year plan to protect itself from rising sea levels and more extreme hurricanes, by enacting projects aimed toward strengthening its coastal defenses and to relocate low-lying villages to higher ground.
France, seeing the writing on the wall, has approved a law banning all oil and gas production by the year 2040. That country is also shutting down all of its coal-fired power plants over the next three years.
Meanwhile, even by conservative estimates, current climate trends are on track to surpass the strictest limits set by the Paris climate agreement. A draft UN report showed that unprecedented economic shifts away from fossil fuels, coupled with sucking CO2 from the air, would be required to achieve the goal of limiting global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
As we look back at the tumultuous past month — and forward to a tumultuous year — we must each take stock of our lives and our country, and think about what it would mean for us, individually and collectively, to prepare ourselves for what is coming.