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Whose Temperature Should You Be Taking?


While passengers arriving from West Africa at Dulles International Airport last week were having their temperatures taken, this woman was sitting on the other side of the airport, in the Departures area, wearing a homemade, head-to-toe Hazmat suit.

The woman’s paranoia might be excused if she were concerned about seasonal flu, which kills up to half a million people a year. But of all the things we can be seriously worried about right now (like mass extinction), catching Ebola in the Departures area of an airport is not one of them.

At the same time, in Mississippi, hundreds of parents were keeping their children home from school because the principal had recently visited Zambia. These folks could have used a day in school themselves, where they might have learned that Zambia is on the other side of Africa – as far away from Liberia as is Paris, and further away than New York is from California. It’s hard to find anyone talking about the temperature that we really should be panicking over: the temperature of the planet.

But with all the panic and temperature-taking that’s going on at airports and hospitals, it’s hard to find anyone talking about the temperature that we really should be panicking over: the temperature of the planet.

Once again, we’ve just had another warmest month on record. May and August were record breakers, too. And 2014 is on track to be the warmest year on record.

But the latest poll from CBS News and The New York Times reveals that few Americans regard climate change as a serious challenge. The economy still tops the list of important problems – even though, ironically, it is our endless quest for more economic “growth” that’s driving the unfolding climate catastrophe. (People even said that immigration is a bigger challenge than climate change!) And 41 percent of those polled still believe either that global warming is a natural phenomenon or that it’s not even happening.

Meanwhile, every week brings new discoveries, including two new red-alert studies of what’s driving some very dangerous feedback loops:

The first is about the serious surge in methane gas being released from the Arctic.

This video, a first of its kind, shows methane bubbles rising up through the waters of the Arctic Ocean. The phenomenon was spotted by scientists who are studying the enormous deposits of methane trapped in the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

According to the Weather Network, “This discovery … has serious implications for Earth’s climate in the years to come.”

With typically Nordic reserve, the study’s chief scientist, Örjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University, called this discovery “somewhat of a surprise.”

Journalist Robert Hunziker explains what it all means in CounterPunch:

If only a tiny percentage, not big, maybe only one percent, of the ancient deposits of methane trapped under, and within, ice in the Arctic is released, everyone will suddenly know all about runaway global warming. All they’ll have to do is go outdoors, and/or, depending upon whether they live coastal, wade through waist-deep water.

With 50 percent of Arctic ice mass already gone in the last three decades, methane is a much bigger problem than carbon dioxide. It’s more potent and lasts much longer in the atmosphere. And the release of methane in the Arctic sets in motion a dangerous feedback loop: As the air warms, more ice melts, which uncovers more dark earth under the ice. The dark earth absorbs more of the sun’s rays, thus releasing more methane, which warms the air some more, uncovering more of the dark earth, and on and on in an exponential feedback loop.

Hunziker quotes Dr. Natalia Shakhova, director of the Russia-U.S. Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Center, as saying that if just one percent of the methane in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf alone were to be released (and that’s a very low estimate of what to expect), this would double the amount of methane in the atmosphere globally.

In an interview at the European Geophysical Union, she said:

“We do not like what we see there. We do not like it at all.”

The second serious discovery is that upper-ocean warming has been underestimated by up to 58 percent.

Hunziker emphasizes that we’ve now moved into unknown territory and that we can have little idea of how the feedback loops resulting from ocean warming are going to play out:

The deadly combination of warming oceans and tenuous ice shelves that contain humongous quantities of methane may result in the perfect storm for runaway global warming, but nobody knows for sure. Once again, that’s a key point: Nobody knows for sure.

What is known is that the elements that lead to runaway global warming are “worse than we thought.” For example, the end of the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean, a warm tongue of water that flows northerly past Europe through the Arctic Ocean and towards East Siberia has likely been warming up … 

… Too much ocean heat destabilizes the world’s riskiest cache of methane, resulting in a ratchet up of global warming, bringing in its wake unpredictable, brutal climate change, ruined crops, anomalous weather patterns, horrendous storms, alternating droughts and flooding as well as brutal cold fronts and/or sizzling heat in unusual locales or, in short, human lifestyle metamorphoses into permanent warfare clashes over sources of food and access to dry land.

So whose temperature should we really be concerned about?

Even if Ebola were to take out half the human population worldwide, it would be a minor blip in the history of the planet. Climate change is a whole other order of catastrophe. But all it takes is a few photos of people in hazmat suits and stories of vomiting and diarrhea, and humankind is in mass panic.

What a strange species we are!