What a week for climate change. A blizzard of new studies and reports. Let’s start in the Middle East – you know, that place where we dig up more oil than anywhere else in the world. Ironically, much of it will soon be uninhabitable by humans.
A new study shows that countries that border the Persian Gulf will soon be experiencing a heat index of up to 170°F – too hot and humid for even the strongest of humans to be able to survive outdoors for more than a few hours at a time. As Climate News Network explains it:
The thermometer may climb to [a point where] people in the region would be unable to keep cool, and after prolonged exposure, even young, healthy, fit people could die.
There is no record that such temperatures have been reached anywhere in the world in human history … Those forced to work outside … would all be at severe risk … Those regions already distinguished by dangerous levels of summer heat … may become uninhabitable.
As We Get Hotter . . .
Meanwhile, there’s a growing danger of North Atlantic waters becoming colder. Paradoxically, as global temperatures rise, North Atlantic temperatures fall. So far this year, temperatures there have been at record lows. More and more scientists are now concluding that this is an ominous development caused by the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. If the Gulf Stream shuts down, all of Northern Europe goes into deep freeze.
The way it works is that as fresh water from the melting ice pours into the ocean, it pushes the warmer salt water down and brings a halt to the Gulf Stream flowing up from southern waters like the Gulf of Mexico. Europe, from the middle of France on up, is further north than Nova Scotia, and its temperate climate depends entirely on the Gulf Stream. So, if the Gulf Stream shuts down, all of Northern Europe goes into deep freeze. (That’s the scenario of the movie The Day after Tomorrow, and new studies show that it’s happened many times before in our planet’s history.)
To see how the Greenland Ice Shelf is melting away, you can watch a team of scientists at work, followed by a team from the New York Times, as they measure the amount of water flowing off the ice into one of the many new rivers that vanish into sinkholes and empty out into the distant ocean. (It’s dangerous work: If anyone slips, they go into the water and down the sinkhole.)
What these brave people are doing is crucial to our understanding of how climate change will affect the planet over the next century. So, no surprise, Congress is trying to cut its funding. The Times reports:
Leading the Republican charge on Capitol Hill is Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the chairman of the House science committee, who has sought to cut $300 million from NASA’s budget for earth science and has started an inquiry into some 50 National Science Foundation grants.
The California Seesaw
Meanwhile, California is on course to keep swinging back and forth between drought and flood, ever more frequent and more extreme than what’s been happening so far this year. (Did you see those mudslides literally burying cars on Interstate 5 last week?)
That’s because the El Niño effect brings more storms to the West Coasts of America as Pacific waters get warmer. (The same effect creates more droughts in other parts of the world. Ethiopia, for example, is suffering its worst drought in more than a decade.)
Amazon Forests Dying
Adding insult to injury, the Amazon rainforest, which, over the millennia, has steadfastly captured CO2 gases from the atmosphere, is now increasingly doing the opposite. The trees are dying, and as they die, they release their stored carbon back into the atmosphere. As the Washington Post explains it:
There have been three severe droughts in the Amazon in the past decade. Research estimated that the amount of carbon released as a result of the 2005 drought was more than the annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined, and the 2010 drought’s effects were even more severe. “So if there’s going to be more and more drought, it has the potential to really make the Amazon a big source of carbon to the atmosphere,” [study author Philip] Duffy said.
The release of carbon from forests has the potential to contribute to a kind of climate feedback loop: Warming temperatures cause drought, which kills trees and releases carbon into the atmosphere, which contributes to greater warming, which brings about more drought — and so on.
… “What’s worrisome is that if drought becomes more frequent, then all of the work on preventing deforestation could be swamped by just the huge emissions from these droughts, which become really difficult to control,” Duffy said. “Because, really, the only way to control them is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.”
Nor is the Amazon the only rainforest in decline. Up north, great swaths of the boreal rainforests are also dying. Climate News Network reports that the recent outbreaks of fire in Alaska have put about 12 percent of the forest’s stored carbon back into the atmosphere during the last 50 years.
Up to 30 percent of the Earth’s terrestrial carbon is in that system. And, simultaneously, this region is warming up faster than any other parts of the world.
Yet another study projects that millions of Americans are living on land that will soon be underwater. We have already crossed an irreversible tipping point whereby the world is committed to more than five feet of sea-level rise. (Different studies offer varying dates.) And as we pour more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that oceans rise more than seven feet.
According to Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton University climate researcher:
“The potential magnitude of sea-level rise is staggering. In the short term, it risks serious disruption of life along the coast while in the long term, it could lead to obliteration of a large and priceless amount of our cultural heritage, worldwide.”
It Can Happen Very Fast
One more study, perhaps the most alarming, looks at how abruptly major climate change can happen. The general consensus has been that you don’t hit a lot of the most dangerous tipping points and feedback loops until global temperatures have risen to 2⁰C (3.6⁰F). But the authors conclude that “It is likely that the Earth system will experience sharp regional transitions at [more] moderate warming.”
“There is of course a certain tendency for the whole climate system to become more unstable when the warming gets larger,” says Sybren Drijfhout. “But we cannot say ‘as long as it’s this and this much, nothing will happen.’ Every 0.1 or 0.2 degrees in temperature is as dangerous as any other. And that’s the main message of this exercise, or this paper.”
Bear in mind that researchers are generally highly conservative in their findings. They don’t want to go out on a limb, and their papers are carefully reviewed before publication. As we wrote 18 months ago, global temperatures aren’t heading toward 2⁰C; in reality they’re heading almost certainly toward 6⁰C and quite possibly 12⁰C (21⁰F) in years to come.
Another Global Milestone: 400 ppm CO2
Finally, again this week, we had the latest report on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. This comes from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which has been measuring the concentration of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere since 1958. Scientists used to tell us that we needed, at all costs, to stop carbon dioxide going over 350 parts per million in the atmosphere. (Hence the name of scientist/activist Bill McKibben’s organization 350.org.)
Although we’ve already frequently crossed the 400 ppm mark temporarily, Scripps says we’re now over the 400 mark sufficiently for that to be the new annual baseline, and still climbing.
At the end of November, world leaders will meet in Paris to try to agree on a plan to slow down what’s happening. Their goals are minimal as the various nations try to negotiate agreements that permit them to keep their economies plowing forward in the name of “progress”.
But if humankind is going to survive, the last thing it needs is more of this kind of “progress.”