Many years ago, not long after I first got onto the internet, I created a website to try to encourage community groups to make preparations for the hard times to come. It was titled “The Stormwatch Project” — why, yes, I was a Jethro Tull fan back in the day; how did you guess? ? — and it never did get any noticeable traction, so I let it go the way of all websites in due time. Yet the name, not to mention the underlying image of eyes turned to the turbulent heavens, watching for signs of trouble to come, seemed worth keeping, so I’ll be repurposing it here.
I considered just doing a monthly link roundup, but there are already quite a few good sites that provide that service on a daily basis — two that I visit regularly are Naked Capitalism and the Collapse subreddit — so reinventing that particular wheel didn’t seem like a good idea. Instead, I’m going to try a monthly post with links from the internet and commentary from me, focusing on one theme at a time. This month we’re going to talk about the current pace of anthropogenic climate change.
That’s perhaps the most massive story of our time; it’s happening a good deal faster than I expected — though in all fairness, a great many climate scientists have been caught flatfooted by the pace of change as well. It’s a measure of how drastic the situation has become that so many people have fled into a flat denial that anything of the kind is taking place, or the equal and opposite insistence that we’re all going to die soon so it doesn’t matter. That’s understandable, as the alternative is coming to terms with the impending failure of the myth of progress and the really messy future we’re making for those who come after us.
On that note, fellow stormwatchers, don your waterproof boots; we’re going to visit a planetwide flood zone.
One of the dismal advantages of the way we’ve treated the atmosphere as a gaseous trash can is that scientists now get to learn much more than they want to learn about the complex interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans, and the planet’s waning ice caps. Ars Technica has a useful summary of one of the feedback loops now under way: as arctic sea ice melts, the climate balance shifts in ways that drive more melting. Similarly, a paper released by www.phys.org shows that the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet is going into overdrive as a result of fewer clouds and more summer sunshine due to shifting climate belts. Meanwhile, down in Antarctica, the rate of melting is such that plants and insects are beginning to colonize the once-frozen landscape.
(A while ago, if I may interject something relevant, I fielded a diatribe from a climate denialist who insisted that there were trees growing on the shores of Antarctica when the Robert Scott expedition arrived there in 1911. That’s what is known in the business as a bald-faced lie. There are plenty of good photographs of Scott’s base camp; I’m looking at some of them right now in a book I own. It’s one of the volumes of the Life Nature Library, The Poles, which was published before anybody but a few physicists thought that anthropogenic climate change was an issue, and it shows that Scott’s camp on the shores of McMurdo Sound was set in a wasteland of snow and bare ground, without a tree or even a patch of moss in sight. Anyone who wants to argue that point had better be prepared to show something more than empty rhetoric.)
Okay, back to the changing climate. Remember those craters that started appearing in the Siberian tundra a few years back? They’re still appearing, and witnesses have watched the methane explosions that cause them as they happen. As far as I know, this is still purely a Siberian phenomenon — this is not surprising, as Siberia has heated up faster than any other land mass bordering the Arctic Ocean — but as permafrost continues to melt and methane to bubble up, expect more loud booms from the Alaska north slope and arctic Canada.
Speaking of loud booms, an iceberg the size of the state of Delaware is poised to drift off into the southern seas in the months immediately ahead. Longtime watchers of the climate change scene will remember the ballyhoo a few years ago when the first two parts of the Larsen Ice Shelf, unimaginatively labeled Larsen A and Larsen B, turned out to be unstable. They’re gone now — as in drifted free, broke up, and melted — and it’s now the turn of the much bigger Larsen C sheet. There’s more in line once that’s gone.
Rounding out the loud boom category, the west coast of Greenland was hit by a tsunami, which killed four people and washed away eleven houses. That in itself doesn’t signal anything out of the ordinary — tsunamis happen all the time — but if it turns out to be the first of many, the North Atlantic basin is in deep trouble. The weight of all that ice pushed the portion of the Earth’s crust we call Greenland more than a thousand feet down into the mantle; as the ice melts, what geologists call isostatic rebound will raise the crust back up, and any geological fault under strain has a sharply heightened change of pupping an earthquake as that happens. The result, to judge by what happened at the end of the last ice age, will be tsunamis hammering the coasts of eastern North America and western Europe at unpredictable intervals — another good reason, dear reader, to be sure you live on high ground if you’re anywhere near the ocean.
Here in the US, as a result of rising sea level, the number of high tide-related floods has nearly doubled — 520 last year, according to NOAA, as compared to the usual average of 275 a year. In response, real estate investors in the greater Miami area are quietly moving to higher ground, relocating away from beachfront property into formerly poor neighborhoods that are a few more feet above sea level. Fort Lauderdale, meanwhile, is having to raise fees for drainage in order to deal with the increased cost of flooding. Expect much more of this in the years ahead. Nobody’s yet willing to deal with the reality of the situation, which is that most of Florida will have to be abandoned to the sea in the decades ahead of us.
Elsewhere, the Earth’s zone of tropical climate is steadily expanding as climate belts shift, and heatwaves severe enough to kill people in large numbers have become steadily more common since 1980. Europe spent much of June baking beneath unaccustomed heat as a direct result. As the climate shifts, furthermore, diseases and parasites spread accordingly; five counties in Florida now have populations of the unappealingly named rat lungworm, which can eat your brain — no, I’m not making that up. It’s a nasty tropical parasite that afflicts humans as well as rats. Expect much more of this, too, as climate zones shift and living things follow them.
There’s much more along the same lines, but these are indicative. Meanwhile President Trump has insisted that he’s going to take the US out of the Paris climate accords. The mainstream media has duly lambasted him for that, wihtout ever quite mentioning that the Paris climate accords don’t actually commit anyone anywhere to decrease the amount of greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere. Dr. James Hansen, arguably the dean of climate scientists researching the mess we’re in, has thus described the Paris accords as “a fraud.” As usual in today’s America, the choices offered us by the two parties consist of business as usual on the one hand, and business as usual with a few futile face-saving gestures on the other. If you want a different option, dear reader, you’re going to have to make it yourself.
What we’re heading toward, in the absence of meaningful leadership from either side of the political scene, is a future most people alive today can’t even imagine. Ironically, they could learn a lot about it by reading up on recent research into the end of the last ice age. Scottish and Norwegian researchers have tracked the way that the ice sheets of the last glaciation collapsed, flooding millions of square miles of once-dry land and kicking off a cascade of climatic and ecological changes. Another team of researchers has figured out how relatively modest shifts in atmospheric CO2 turn the north Atlantic currents on and off like a switch, as happened during previous bouts of global warming.
It’s a real mess. It’s probably necessary to point out, though, that it’s not the end of the world. It may be the end of your personal world, if you happening to be vacationing on Cape Cod when a forty-foot tsunami comes rolling in from the southern end of Greenland, or one of those rat lungworms decides that your brain is its next meal. It may be the end of your economic world, if your job depends on overseas trade at a time when rising sea levels are making the infrastructure of every seaport in the world an example of (literally) sunk costs, or you still have your net worth invested in Florida real estate when enough people realize that the ocean’s just going to keep rising. It may be the end of your social world, if your nation gets torn apart by the inevitable conflicts of a world in chaos, or the neighborhood where you’ve put down roots happens to be a little too low-lying and you have to flee to higher ground.
It’s certain to be the end of a world of mythic narratives, the one in which Man the Conqueror of Nature bestrides the planet on his way to his purported destiny out there among the stars, and we can ignore what we’re doing to the only planet we can live on because somebody will surely think of something to solve the problems we’re creating. For a great many people, that will be at least as traumatic as any of the other ends I’ve just mentioned; people very often find the loss of their lives, their wealth, and their social setting less difficult than the loss of the stories that give meaning to their existence. Coming to terms with a future in which human beings have to give up their supposed status as destiny’s darlings is going to be painful for many of us, but it’s not the end of the world.
A couple of centuries from now, when the American West from the Great Plains to the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada is uninhabitable desert, when jungle wraps a Gulf coast a couple of hundred miles further north than it is today, when apples grow in Greenland and magnolias bloom in Ohio, and when modern industrial civilization and the abundant resources and climatic stability that made it possible are fading memories, the descendants of that very small fraction of us whose genetics will survive the bottleneck ahead will be living in the world that we’ve made for them. I suspect that’s why climate denialism and its Siamese twin, climate apocalypticism, are so popular these days. It’s easier to pretend that nothing’s wrong or, conversely, that everybody’s going to die anyway so none of it matters, than to grapple with the future we ourselves are bringing about.
In not completely unrelated news, I’m delighted to announce that the complete set of collected Archdruid Report essays — all ten volumes — are now available for preorder, at a hefty discount for the set, from Founders House Publishing. (The first volume will be available in September of this year, with the rest to follow as soon as editing permits). Details? They’re available here.
Teaser photo credit: By AusAID, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32164838