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Pay attention and adapt

August 4, 2023

Back in the in the last bits of the 20th century, I was involved in geology. I was basically a glorified volcanologist, but I used radiogenic isotopes to trace material movement in the mantle. So there was mathematical modeling in what I did. And there were isotopic analysis labs. Furthermore, I was in New Mexico which has two national labs and a good deal of oil research.

Climate modeling has its origins in the same maths and data analysis that I used to trace elements through the mantle, so I could and did read climate research. There were also clients of our lab who used both the stable isotope and radiogenic isotope machines to measure ratios in ice cores and other preserved chemical signatures. Since I was running the machines, I got to see the data before it was turned into information. Then there were the national labs. Los Alamos and Sandia National Labs were both initially focused on weapons development, actual rocket science, and more modeling of complex phenomena like explosions. So they both had the computer capacity and the expertise to take on climate modeling. Several climate models came out of those labs. Several of my colleagues worked on the data and the maths. Again, I wasn’t directly involved except to run the isotope machines, but I was very much adjacent to the science.

I did not look too closely at oil, but you can’t help but absorb some of that slime if you work in geology at all. Mind you, this was back before fracking and other forms of low permeability hydrocarbon extraction. The mood in the late nineties and early aughts was… well, let’s say, somber. Conventional wells were degrading and new plays were all in expensive, resource intensive locations such as submerged under deep water or located in unfriendly countries. We fought wars to protect our access to oil because the alternative was an economic crash unlike anything the world had experienced. What I could see of oil research at the time definitely justified that level of desperation, and there were more than a few oil people who decided to try something, anything, else — because they didn’t believe they would have a job in a decade or two. (There were also a few who decided they didn’t want anything to do with an industry willing to drop bombs to protect its assets.)

All this is to say that I’ve been privy to much specialized information and thinking in both climate science and energy research. I’ve had decades to internalize the looming catastrophes and to come to terms with appropriate responses. This blog is one such response. I’m trying to share ideas for sustainability in ways that don’t lead to despairing shut-down. Which is about where I was around 2003 or so…

Recently, we’ve experienced one heat record after another. This is only interesting in that it shows that the Earth is, in fact, heating up — just as climate modeling predicted. It may be happening a bit faster than the timelines in some models. But all models come with degrees of uncertainty on the timing, and we’re still within the error bars. Researchers uniformly give those time ranges in publication, but the media almost always defaults to reporting the distant side of the range. If you follow the popular science rather than the numbers out of scholarly journals, you would be forgiven for thinking that we didn’t know how soon all this would be happening. We did… it’s just that the message didn’t make for either good politics or good sales and readership. So we’ve been told to expect the more dire effects at the end of the 21st century, while the models actually show that heat would be affecting climate and weather at least by the middle of the century, likely well before then.

Now, we have been mildly taken aback at the rapid rise in ocean temperature. But then we also knew that the ocean was warming more quickly than early models predicted, and we’ve had corrective data showing faster warming at least since the beginning of this century. So it’s not a complete shock. But then this happened…

There have been many studies of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (henceforward AMOC), sometimes known as the Gulf Stream because if flows around the Gulf of Mexico and then heads northeast with those Gulf waters. Humans have been keenly interested in this Atlantic current for as long as humans have been traversing the Atlantic. But, recently, our interest has turned to concern because this crucial current is faltering.

The AMOC is the flow in the Atlantic that carries warm tropical water north and nutrient-dense arctic water south. It is central to ecological balance throughout the Atlantic. However, it is also central to bathing northern Europe in warm waters, raising temperatures far above what would be expected from land located at such high latitudes. Remember, Europe is far north of the United States. Rome is further north than Chicago, and London is about the same latitude as Calgary in Alberta, Canada. The climate in Europe would be much colder and drier if it weren’t for this Atlantic flow.

However, it’s worse than that. When the AMOC stops flowing, the entire northern hemisphere turns frigid. The AMOC has failed many times in geologic history. Humans existed for the last crash. This happened at about 12,500 BCE and coincided with the Younger Dryas period of global cooling (these are interrelated phenomena). This short phase of worldwide increasing cold and decreasing precipitation was so disruptive that many human cultures turned to farming in order to try to regulate food supplies. The extinctions of many of the mega-fauna fall within this period, and those Pleistocene mammals that made it through the millennia of drought quickly succumbed to warming temperatures when the Younger Dryas ended.

But the truly terrifying thing about this current collapse is that it can happen and has happened abruptly. This is one geologic process that can happen on human timescales, with but a handful of decades separating robust flow and complete collapse. And we’ve known the AMOC is slowing for at least two decades.

I don’t know if many of you remember, but back in the late 20th century climatologists feared two apparently different paths to climate breakdown. One model showed that increasing hydrocarbons in the atmosphere would increase global temperature. This future climate would be energetic and wet and fundamentally unstable. But other models looked at the failing Atlantic circulation and predicted a future ice age. These are not as diametrically opposed as one might think. In fact, these two processes feed back into each other. Heating the globe leads to heating the oceans. Heating the oceans leads to heat spreading to cold waters. Heating the cold Arctic waters leads to less temperature difference between the poles and the tropics which reduces flow between them. Reduced flow is the breakdown of the Atlantic current. So warming the globe may likely crash the AMOC which could, in turn, freeze the globe — or at least dry it out rather stressfully. We might be saved from the heat, but the drought will kill us… (Or we could have icebergs chasing us around like in that goofy movie, The Day After Tomorrow…)

There are other feedback loops in this messy system. For example, the melting of Greenland is sending cold water flowing south in a collision course with the AMOC. This has already deflected the AMOC’s northerly flow so that it turns east when it hits the glacial meltwaters. This causes the current to stagnate. It may continue east and eventually reach Europe, but it may also get lost in the wide expanse of the middle Atlantic. In either case, it will not reach the north of Europe. The UK and Ireland and the countries surrounding the North Sea will not be bathed in warm water. Tropical moisture in the air will be squeezed out with the cooler ocean temperatures and never reach continental interiors. Far fewer nutrients are suspended in glacial meltwater than in Arctic seawater, so there is less transport of nutrients even where the current is flowing. Greenland melt alone has the potential to cause another Little Ice Age, a time of routine crop failure and intensified cold all around the Atlantic.

In any case, there is a newly loud round of worry about the AMOC. I suspect the recent study published in Nature Communications is merely a refinement on existing data and models. The difference is probably increased computing power that has allowed for more detailed analysis of recursion and feedback. As I said, we’ve known the AMOC was already in the process of stalling, and we’ve known that this process can happen within a few decades. What this study has shown is that this system’s tipping points, the stages at which feedback becomes chaotic and self-sustaining, are imminent. The AMOC may still be flowing at the end of this century, but it may also be shut down by 2025.

In the wake of this study’s publication, people — who are mostly not climate scientists but who write about ‘the science’ — are quibbling about this time range. That latter end of the range, 2095, sounds like we have enough of a cushion of time to prepare. They like that end. If the catastrophe is a lifetime away, we, ourselves, those who are reading and writing about this study, are not going to be around to feel the effects. But I think this arguing over time is, at best, a distraction. (I think it may actually be intentional obfuscation.) Let’s use up all the oxygen arguing about when this will happen — so we can ignore the glaring fact that it will happen.

Because there is no preparing for this. There is nothing that we can do to adapt all of Europe to drastically reduced rainfall and temperatures that are at least 30°F colder than 20th century averages. Just like there is nothing we can do to prepare for New York being submerged in seawater. The best we can do is to try to deflate this disaster before it rolls over us. And to do that we’d be provoking the most devastating economic collapse the world has ever seen. Whether this hits in 2025 or 2095, the only thing we can do to prepare is ensure that no more hydrocarbons are pumped into the atmosphere and that a concerted effort is made to draw down what is already up there. And no more hydrocarbons means no more economy. Full stop.

It would be nice if we had some industrial-scaled tech that could pull hydrocarbons out of the air so that maybe some industry could keep driving the economy. But there is no such thing now, and I suspect that if it hasn’t been invented and scaled up by now, it will never be — for a whole host of reasons. However, there are hydrocarbon vacuum cleaners all over this globe — we call them trees. Along with all the other photosynthesizing beings. But it is nearly impossible to get rich off of tree planting if the goal is to leave the trees in place and not cut them down in a decade or so. So while we have the tech to remove hydrocarbons, we don’t have the economic incentives. Certainly, nothing that can mitigate the gutting of the current system when we stop using fossil fuels.

And yes, that is a when. It won’t be because we have to to save ourselves and the planet from hydrocarbon-fueled climate chaos. It will happen because we’re running out of cheap fossil fuels. Remember I said that all my oily colleagues were concerned about job stability way back in the 1990s. They were given a very short reprieve through some epically uneconomic drilling processes that allowed humans to temporarily make up for the waning conventional wells with things like shale oil and fracking, combined with financing that was the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet. Investments that never turned profits, loans that were largely defaulted. But that flow of money kept the fuel taps flowing. And now… even the funny money schemes are insufficient to coax more oil out of the Earth’s crust. These new ways of getting oil are not only more costly, they are depleting much faster than conventional methods.

Can I point out that we could have just as easily flushed funny money down the toilet at profitless ventures that increased ecological sustainability rather than throw away funny on more of the same thing that got us into this mess? No profits would accrue either way. So why not plant trees? Why not localize needs? Why not adapt? Why not address just a little of the destruction we’ve caused? Because there is no way to maintain wealth and status in the small and localized world we are entering, and elites are fucking idiots. They will choose these worthless symbols over life every time, and they will take us down with them.

So we are running out of the oil we can afford to extract and we are running out of time before what we have extracted tips the climate into chaos. This is happening now. Today. That is the heightened anxiety behind the recent AMOC story. There is no future out-there other who will have to deal with the mess, maybe with some new ideas and tools for coping coming along before then. This is happening in the present, to us, without any new ideas or coping mechanisms. The fresh wave of anxiety comes from the fact that those of us who are alive now have never been explicitly told that we, ourselves, are going to feel the effects of biophysical collapse, the effects of our actions. The AMOC story tells us just that. We get to experience the mess because it is here and now.

But the models have been telling us this for decades.

I don’t know why the media latched on to this particular disaster to finally report the near end of the error bars. I suspect it’s not some new awareness on the part of publishers and bloviators. In fact, the cynic in me thinks it’s probably some weird ploy to show that science doesn’t know what will happen in the future. That there is debate about the time framing. But also that there are such complex interdependencies that we can’t even say whether we’re forcing the planet into runaway heating or a new ice age. Maybe it’s both — and they’ll cancel each other out so that everything will turn out fine. Except it is both already. And nothing is particularly fine. July 2023 is the hottest month ever experienced by humanity. And the AMOC is already bent and slowing. So I would caution anyone who thinks that hot and cold extremes will equilibrate to a balanced happy medium to note that balance is not here now though both processes are well underway. I would also say that balance will not be regained in your lifetime. Nor that of your grandchildren’s grandchildren. This is how the planet works now, and it will take hundreds, if not thousands of years to achieve a new equilibration. And no, the models don’t show what that distant new normal will be.

What all this means is that these weather headlines, these record temperatures, record fires and floods, record storms, record extremes in geographic locations where extremes have not existed in human experience, these are not anomalies. These are all the predicted outcome of throwing hydrocarbon compounds into the atmosphere. This is logical, expected and normal. Chaos is normal for the rest of your life. We knew this would happen. Some with political motivations massaged the error bars on the timelines to make it seem like consequences were for a distant future, but those error bars spread both ways and we are well within them now. We have entered the modeling period where consequences accumulate. Where tipping points are breached and chaos is quotidian. Where a pleasant sunny day in which nothing is destroyed and nobody dies is the actual headline news. Where a day without extremes is the anomaly. And this is also true for the rest of your life.

The kicker is that climate chaos and economic chaos, both fueled by our blowing through vast but limited pools of hydrocarbons, are not our only dilemmas. We have polluted the atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon compounds, but we’ve also concentrated and created myriad poisons and toxins, spreading them all over the planet. We have tapped out the economically feasible fossil fuels, but we have also drained numerous other finite resource pools — from rare earths and metals to soils and freshwater and functioning ecosystems filled with hydrocarbon vacuums. We have spread ourselves all over the globe so thickly that the only beings that aren’t forced to cower in the margins are those that prey upon us and our systems.

Energetic storms and raging fires are the expected normal these days, but so are failed harvests, collapsing fisheries, and dust storms of the remnants of dead soil. Localized population crashes, reduced reproductive viability, and extinction will continue to wreak havoc on biological sustainability, not only in the wild out there, but also in our food production systems and in our own bodies. Transportation and many forms of heavy industry will become more expensive as the cost of oil increases, so that it will be harder to move and make these things. But this is true of everything. Dwindling reserves of everything will make it harder and harder to manufacture, replace and repair everything. Some things that we consider essential — like this machine I’m using to communicate — will simply evanesce as cost eclipses any possible profit or use value. Money itself will fall apart when there is nothing to buy and no bodies willing to work for others when they have so many immediate needs that can’t be met through the dying economic system.

Many people on Earth are already occupied with finding water, food, and shelter from the extremes. What is making news is the new egalitarian spread of need. These days there is no avoiding or escaping or rising above the extremes. Fire and flood affect all alike. So does heat. Some may have air conditioning, but extremes will wear down everything humans have built, regardless of the money put into it.

Here’s an example. My sister works for the CDC in southern Arizona. During July’s heat bubble, in which few nights saw temperatures that dipped below 95°F and many nights had lows in the triple digits, the air conditioning in the county offices could not keep the computing equipment cool enough to function. So the whole department was split up and sent home, some of them tasked with rebuilding data systems lost in the meltdown. (Which was apparently literal.) This is not happening in some distant and impoverished place. This is wealthy Phoenix. A good deal of American money was thrown at the problem — and it failed. Because money and privilege no longer provide shelter from the extremes. And money and privilege will soon buy nothing at all when economic tipping points bring everything to the same level — that of meeting daily needs with what resources are at hand.

Climate modeling has predicted this new age of extremes. We knew it would happen and there was reason to expect consequence sooner than later, on the near end of the timescale error bars. We had very good ideas of exactly what sort of consequences to expect. We could have prepared better. But here’s the thing: these models, and more generally the systemic thinking that underlies these models, can be applied to more than climate response to hydrocarbons. And they have. We can model biological systems and ecological systems. We can model economic systems and political systems. Physics is almost nothing but models.

We can also just think logically and dispassionately about causes and effects, dependencies and relationship, physics and biology — as mature beings, without privileging ourselves or our desires — and we can arrive at fairly accurate predictions. That’s what humans do, why we have these over-large heads. We make predictions. We’re very good at it. That’s why humans, until recently, have been very successful, as individuals and as a species. So we are all able to sit down and consider reality and come to the same conclusions as a computer model. We can all see where all these trends are going. We don’t need experts to tell us that placing a finite resource at the foundation of an economic system and then blowing through that resource in a few decades is sooner or later going to topple the economic system… probably sooner. In fact, it seems we need — or rather the elites need — ‘experts’ to convince us that our common sense conclusions are wrong and that the economic system is just fine… nothing to worry about, folks, just keep spending that hard-earned money.

The point is we can use our brains to predict many things. A model is really only an extension of our own thought process, a prophylactic mind. We don’t need it to analyze our surroundings and determine the best responses and adaptations. We can use our heads to reach conclusions — perhaps modified by the new 21st century rule of thumb: it will be extreme, for any and all ‘it’ — and then we can act on those conclusions.

And this is how I clawed my way out of despair and rediscovered hope.

There will be disasters. There will be death. There will be destruction. These things already are and they are increasingly extreme. But there is also life and there is adaptation and there is resilience. More than that, there is beauty, happiness and abundance. All we need to do is just stop doing the things that cause harm. And yes, this means the economic and political systems will topple. But ask yourself why these systems that cause harm should be propped up at such expense to the entire Earth. What good do these systems do for you, your community, other humans, other species, the planet? Now ask yourself: What good does the planet not provide as long as all its parts are living and functioning in harmony? What exactly do we lose when this mess is cleaned up? What do we not gain!

I have done the math and the reasoning and the modeling. The conclusions are common sense. Stop doing poisoning and polluting things. Don’t depend on distant resources and labor to meet your needs. Build up systems that can withstand extremes. Don’t rely on one system for any need. Don’t rely on failing systems for any need. Don’t underestimate the power and abundance in small and marginal spaces. Expect problems and anticipate solutions, but don’t presume you’ll be able to solve dilemmas. Instead, be prepared for change and adaptation. Most importantly, remember that you are a part of many systems which are all part of one system, Earth. Neither you nor the system are functional when you are broken or when you break other parts. So work for balanced functionality. Be a good neighbor. Take care of your family and whatever comprises your community. Promote health and happiness and life in everything. Be content. But be ready to find wonder and joy in each day.

Models have shown us that these things we do have consequences. That the consequences of extreme actions will be extreme. That causing harm is going to… cause harm, to ourselves along with the rest of this Earth-body. But we probably could have figured that out for ourselves if we hadn’t been hoodwinked by those who are blinded by greed. Now, we’re feeling those consequences. And I think the best way of adapting to the extremes is to get out of the system that has led us here. Stop listening to the quibblers. The science, whether found in scholarly publications or in your own capable mind, is clear — so clear it takes a veritable hurricane of disinformation to confound us and throw us off the path of commons sense. But the consequences are quelling the voices of confusion. There’s just no arguing with the logic of flood and fire.

One of my favorite models was a rather silly thing. It began as a field of randomized colored squares. You could select the number of different colors and the number of rows and columns up to a set maximum (which I have long forgotten, but as this game was played on early desktop computers there weren’t that many colors). Then every time you hit return on the keyboard the rules were applied from top left to bottom right. The rules went like this: If a square was adjacent on any two sides to squares of the same color, then that square became that color. If a square was adjacent on any three sides to squares of the same color, then that square became the color of the fourth dissimilar side. This is a very simple recursive system. But it produced fantastic results. Patterns and shapes. Sometimes rapidly settling, sometimes cycling through several rounds of chaos interspersed with startlingly beautiful organized forms. Two rules and a bit of random selection could make both order and chaos.

When I look around at what some humans have done to the world, I remember that model. We’re in the chaos. But there is no reason not to expect order to flow from the simple rules of biology and physics. Just pay attention to the patterns in your surroundings… and then, logically, adapt. That’s following the science.



Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient societies, climate change adaptation