Ecocide Archive

Climate Change Events: Was 2012 the Mayan Apocalypse?

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Climate change events made 2012 a watershed year for global warming awareness. Our picks for the major events of the year are outlined in this article, originally published in my newspaper column, Your Ecological House, just before New Year’s Day, 2013. Somehow I still can’t get that Mayan calendar babble out of my mind — maybe because the end of the old Mayan calendar, which marks the beginning of a period of renewal, coincided with renewed focus on reducing global warming.

~PSW

“They had neither spirit nor wisdom, and no recollection of their constructors, of their creators. … They remembered nothing of the spirits of the sky; and that is why they came to nothing…”
                                                                                         — Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation myth

If you can read this, the prophecies were false. Doomsday, ostensibly predicted by the Mayan calendar to occur on the 2012 winter’s solstice, passed unnoticed. Life goes on — for a while, at least.

Of course only a few people seriously believed that the so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” would coincide with the end of the 5,126 year Mayan calendar cycle. I was not one of them.

And neither were the Mayans, according to most of the professional Meso-American anthropologists who study their ancient culture. They claim that the Mayans believed that their calendar cycle would end, perhaps with some disturbance in the cosmic order, but then a new cycle would begin, bringing joyous renewal to the world.

Thus I wrote in my January 1, 2012 column, “No apocalypse, no drama — it’s unlikely that a single cataclysmic event will instantly change history. You, and the world, will probably still be here on New Years Day, 2013.”

However, I went on to say, environmental degradation and climate change events would continue apace in 2012, but their effects would probably be hidden from us — at least in the developed world where living is relatively easy — as they continued to degrade the environment upon which civilization rests. The real effects would be felt in the coming decades.

Perhaps I spoke too soon, for 2012 has been packed with one dramatic climate change event after another, many of them rare or even unprecedented, and many beating their anticipated arrival by decades. Cumulatively, these climate change events can be seen as a consistent pattern of global climate destabilization. Indeed, 2012 may well be remembered as the year that marked the beginning of the end of the relatively stable climate humans have enjoyed since the dawn of civilization.

A chronological list of the dozens of major climate change events in North America alone — starting with massive tornado outbreaks and thunderstorm fronts in the spring; wending through this summer’s droughts, wildfires and record heat waves; and ending with Hurricane Sandy and December’s ongoing drought — would take far more space than is allotted for this column.

Such a list could also belie the significance of each climate change event in the overall climate destabilization picture. So here’s my take on some of the year’s major events in  order of relative importance:

(1) The Great Arctic Meltdown. A mass of Arctic sea ice half the area of the continental U.S. melted into the ocean this summer. As that event transpired a cyclone the size of the entire Arctic Ocean struck the region, the entire surface of Greenland’s vast ice sheet melted briefly, and Greenland’s Petermann glacier calved an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan.

The extensive sea ice loss was predicted to occur around 2075 (three generations from now), and the ice is not expected to recover; in fact many scientists now think the Arctic will be ice-free in summer by the end of this decade. Arctic ice acts as the planet’s “air conditioner,” and its loss will affect the climate throughout the northern hemisphere by raising temperatures and possibly slowing the jet stream, exacerbating droughts and flooding everywhere.

(2) Record Heat Waves and Droughts. Thousands of temperature records were set around the world, notably in the U.S. interior where a sudden-onset drought ruined billions of dollars worth of corn and soy crops. Long predicted by climate scientists as an effect of global warming, the drought has lead to record federal crop insurance payments and affected food prices worldwide.

(3) Storms and Floods. Third place in the “weather from hell” contest goes to drought’s evil twin, unprecedented flooding resulting from severe, unpredictable hurricanes, tornados and rainstorms. As well as damaging cities, immense storms and floods, like droughts, can also destroy crops.

(4) Wildfires. The worst forest fire in Colorado’s history and the second-worst wildfire season in American history darkened Western skies. Along with destroying forests and homes, fires turn carbon sinks — forests — into atmospheric carbon sources.

So maybe it wasn’t the full Mayan Apocalypse, but we’ve certainly had a year of climate drama. Unfortunately, those climate change effects are probably just a foretaste of things to come.  2012 could be remembered as the year we passed the point of no return — or the year nature sent us a message we can’t afford to ignore at our ecological house.

“Climate Change Adaption”: Smart, Misguided or Just Plain Stupid?

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

“Climate change adaption” is the latest buzzword among those who see global warming’s long-predicted effects hitting, but don’t want to make any changes to doing business as usual — especially by reducing fossil-fuel use. Their underlying argument is that global warming has gone so far that we can’t do anything to slow or prevent it, so we should formulate climate change adaption policies that involve spending huge sums on projects to protect people — at least some people — from the coming superstorms, droughts, massive forest fires and so on. As if we could.

I wrote this column as a follow up to my recent post on superstorms and Hurricane Sandy. It first appeared as one of my Your Ecological House syndicated newspaper columns.

Is “Climate Change Adaption” Stupid?

Stupid is as stupid does. 
— Forrest Gump

“Does it get any stupider?”

That was my “readers comment” response to a New York Times post that appeared a few days after Hurricane Sandy hit.

Now in my defense, I seldom write comments like that; I strive for a more even-keeled tone. But this particular blog post, which explored ways to protect New York City against storm surges and flooding from future superstorms, proposed a “solution” — a $6.5 billion floodgate across the Verrazano Narrows entrance to New York’s upper harbor — that was just, well…stupid.

Why?

Because the floodgate (1) won’t solve the problem of flooding due to storm surges enhanced by rising sea levels, and (2) won’t address global warming, the underlying cause of the problem. On the other hand said floodgate, like many of the other proposals that have been floated to “protect New York from the effects of climate change,” would be an expensive boondoggle that uses precious resources which could be spent on real solutions.

It is perfectly understandable, of course, that the millions of shaken and frightened victims of Sandy’s wrath want protection from the next superstorm — which, everyone now realizes, could arrive much sooner than “sometime in the next generation.” It’s also understandable that their political leaders want to offer them solutions, or at least offer them hope. That’s exactly why it’s so important to get a clear understanding of our situation, and base any proposals on reality, not false hopes.

Scientists and others who study global warming have argued for several years about whether we should continue using our resources to try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — by converting to renewable energy — or to “adapt” to the realities of climate change — by beefing up flood controls, building desalinization plants and so on. But while the seemingly obvious answer is “both,” adapting, especially without a strong emphasis on reducing emissions, is likely to prove futile as the planet’s climate becomes increasingly destabilized.

Climate Change Adaption Boondoggle Proposed

New York’s predicament is a case in point. The Verrazano Narrows, a straight between the outlying boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, is the main outlet for the Hudson River.

About 6,000 feet wide at its narrowest point, the Narrows separates the city’s outer and inner harbors, and, as its primary shipping lane, is known as New York’s “gate to the sea.” It is also the gate through which Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge reached Manhattan, flooding some of the world’s most valuable property and putting the stock market on hold for a couple of days.

It comes as no surprise, then, that one “climate change adaption” strategy, initially proposed in 2009 by the Dutch engineering firm Arcadis, is the aforementioned floodgate. Why won’t it work?

There are two obvious technical issues: (1) the same barrier that would keep storm surges out of the upper harbor would dam the rain-swollen flow of the mighty Hudson, flooding Brooklyn and New Jersey communities above the floodgate, and (2) the higher the floodgate, the more it will cost to build. So its design would be optimized to protect against predicted sea-level rise. But the average prediction of a three-foot rise in sea level by century’s end could easily be doubled. What then?

There are also sociopolitical issues. When moving water hits a barrier it can’t flow over, it flows around it. A Sandy-sized storm surge would hit the sea gate and be pushed to the side, causing far more flooding in the areas adjacent to the gate.  Author Mckenzie Funk framed the issue succinctly in a post-Sandy NY Times op-ed: “But as New York begins considering coastal defenses, it should also consider the uncomfortable truth that Wall Street is worth vastly more, in dollar terms, than certain [highly populated] low-lying neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens — and that to save Manhattan, planners may decide to flood some other part of the city.”

Indeed.

These embarrassments have engendered a counterproposal to protect NYC’s wide outer harbor with a series of manmade islands and floodgates — at a cost of perhaps $150 billion. And what about the remaining 1,500 miles of the East Coast?

When treating our sick planet perhaps we should address the disease — climate change — before treating the symptoms: storms, floods and droughts. One-hundred-fifty billion dollars would develop a lot of renewable energy at our ecological house.

~PSW

 

Superstorms: Are They the “New Normal”?

Monday, November 5th, 2012

The answer to the oft-asked question of whether [a particular extreme weather] event is caused by climate change is that it is the wrong question. All weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be….

— Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the USA National Center for Atmospheric Research 

As I write this on a pleasant Tuesday morning in Oregon (Oct. 30, 2102) hurricane Sandy — the second, after hurricane Irene, of  two “superstorms” to strike the Northeast Coast within 15 months — has just blown through the North Atlantic coastal states and is ravaging inland areas from New York State to West Virginia on its way to Ontario, Canada.

The National Weather Service has issued flood warnings for Chicago where 50 m.p.h. winds are expected to bring waves as high as 23 feet to Lake Michigan’s shoreline. Moisture carried inland by the storm is meeting advancing cold fronts, and massive snowfalls are expected as far south as North Carolina. All in all, Sandy affected weather in 24 states.

Inundated with sea- and rainwater, coastal cities from Delaware to Rhode Island have been brought to a standstill, and now face an enormous cleanup job. Sandy is the largest hurricane ever to hit the U.S. North Atlantic coast. The cost of repairing the infrastructure and property damage will likely be three times higher than the $15.6 billion spent cleaning up after the monster storm Irene struck the region in 2011.

And of course the human toll of the storm — the deaths, disappearances and injuries; the loss of homes, communities and livelihoods; the traumatization of children — is incalculable.

Significantly, a few days before Sandy struck the U.S. another storm — a storm of controversy about whether the superstorm’s unusual characteristics could be attributed to global warming — erupted in the blogosphere. That’s because Sandy’s enormous size and power, and the fact that an extremely anomalous high pressure system over Greenland pushed it westward toward landfall, depended on a confluence of underlying climatic conditions and previously rare weather events that could become more common in our rapidly warming world.

When this combination of factors was described by meteorological agencies to explain why Sandy was such a dangerous storm (staffers at NOAA called it a “Frankenstorm,” because it was a rare “hybrid” of tropical and North Atlantic cyclones arriving at Halloween), supporters and opponents of the idea of human-induced climate change jumped to make their cases, and a heated, sometimes vehement brouhaha ensued.

My take? Along with 98 percent of the world’s climatologists, I consider the fact that humans are heating the planet by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to be settled science. But exactly what effects can we attribute to this global warming? Does it “cause” superstorms? Or, as some “global warming skeptics” maintain, are they merely natural phenomena that have and always will occur on this planet, regardless of human activity?

Superstorms Are Natural Events Enhanced By Global Warming

Surprisingly, the answer is — quick, grab your cognitive-dissonance shield! — “all of the above.”

Of course there have always been hurricanes, some quite powerful and some influenced by distant, unusual weather patterns. Global warming doesn’t necessarily create the conditions under which hurricanes (or other extreme weather events) arise. But it does exacerbate those conditions — and increase the likelihood that an “average-sized” future hurricane will be larger and more powerful than “average-sized” hurricanes of the past.

How?

Hurricanes generally become stronger as they pass over warm water and then they weaken over cooler water and land. Globally, September 2012 had the second-highest ocean surface temperatures on record, and the North Atlantic, over which Sandy traveled, is currently about 5ºF warmer than average, which helped the hurricane picked up strength and speed at its core as is lumbered northward.

Also, global warming has now laden the atmosphere with 5 percent or more moisture than it had a few decades ago. A September 2012 National Geographic magazine article states, “In theory extra water vapor in the atmosphere should pump heat into big storms such as hurricanes and typhoons, adding buoyancy that causes them to grow in size and power…But the jury’s still out on whether any increase has occurred yet.”

Sandy generated storm-force winds across its entire 1100 mile girth as it hit the coast. Is it the first juror to cast a vote in our new era of destabilizing climate — the first superstorm in a century of superstorms?

More important, do we want to find out? No one knows exactly what the future will bring, but many climatologists have predicted an age of superstorms, rising tides and unending droughts. Perhaps Sandy just told us that that future has arrived — and we’d better make some changes before superstorms become the new normal.

The Arctic Ice Melt and the Price of Corn

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

This is the second in a series of articles on Arctic amplification and the record Arctic ice melt of 2012. A version of this article, originally written on September 26, 2012, appeared in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.” Future articles in the series will elaborate on the threats the arctic ice melt poses to the world’s climate system. 

“Rich northern countries will adapt easily to climate change. It’s the poor, tropical countries that will suffer.”

That’s been the mantra of many authors who’ve speculated about how people will adapt to rising sea levels and changes in our weather patterns. It’s assumed, correctly, that Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be ravaged by floods and famines and will have few resources with which to adapt. It’s also been assumed that the more-developed countries will be less affected by climate change because of their fortunate location in the Northern temperate zone — where less-severe climate impacts have been anticipated — and because of their greater wealth.

America, for example, can afford to build dikes to protect its harbors from rising seas, install pipelines to move water from the Midwest to the Southwest for drought mitigation, and plant southern crops farther north to take advantage of increasingly mild climates. According to the “It’s-easy-to-adapt” crowd, climate change is no big deal.

Unfortunately, such vacuous notions could be defended until this year, helping to delay urgently needed action to slow climate change. But this is the year when climate change itself has rewritten the book about what we can realistically expect and debunked the easy-adaptation myth. This is the year of  “global weirding” — unpredictable weather, thousands of broken temperature records, and seemingly endless storms, floods and droughts — especially across the Northern temperate zone.

This summer’s drought in the U.S. — the most severe since the Dust Bowl and the devastating droughts of the 1950s — serves as a dramatic introduction to shifting global climate patterns. To quote climatologist Andrew Freedman from his Climate Central blog, “In May, the U.S. Agriculture Department predicted a record corn yield after farmers planted the largest area of corn and soybeans since 1937. Three months later…those crops lie in ruin. …the drought came on without warning…and [its] footprint…expanded from an already-high 38 percent to a devastating 64 percent [now 80 percent of the lower 48 states], engulfing…the entire corn and soybean growing region.”

What’s going on?

 The Arctic Ice Melt and the 2012 U.S. Drought

The previous article in this series discusses the alarming loss of Arctic summertime sea ice (the Polar Ice Cap). Half the ice has melted, and many climate scientists believe the rest will melt soon, probably within this decade. The arctic ice melt is directly related to the general warming of the Arctic region and its air masses, which is occurring at two to four times the rate of overall global warming.

What does Arctic warming have to do with this year’s Midwest drought, crop-destroying heat waves in Russia and record floods in France?

The polar jet stream, a four-mile high “river” of air that circulates the globe at speeds of over 100 mph, exerts an enormous influence on regional and global weather patterns. The jet stream helps move air masses, generate low-pressure centers and steer storms. “Following the sun,” the jet stream moves south in summer and north in winter, and also develops a large, somewhat random wavy pattern as it flows from west to east.

The jet stream is driven by the difference in temperature between the polar and temperate air masses, and moves more slowly if that difference decreases — as it has done in recent years due to Arctic warming. When the jet stream slows down, the weather patterns it influences tend to become “stuck,” that is, persist in one region. Thus icy storms and deadly heat waves can — and have — hung over regions for weeks rather than days. Additionally, weaker temperature differentials tend to increase the length of the jet stream’s waves, bringing frigid Arctic weather farther south and warm, almost snowless winters to places like Minnesota.

While Arctic warming is just part of the overall temperate-zone weather picture, there is increasing agreement among climatologists as to its importance. As the Arctic continues to warm, it’s likely that a weakened jet stream will drive increasingly chaotic weather to the temperate regions where most of the world’s food is produced.

This year, the price of some U.S. corn-based food products has risen as much as 17 percent while the Midwest screamed for the water that “easy adapters” would pipe to the Southwest. How much more adaptation can we afford?

~PSW

 

 

 

Record Arctic Ice Melt Threatens Runaway Global Warming

Saturday, September 22nd, 2012

This is the first in a series of articles on the Record Arctic Ice Melt of 2012. A version of this article, originally written on September 4, 2012, appeared in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House” about two weeks before the ice reached its lowest extent on September 19, and began refreezing. Future articles in the series will elaborate on the threats the arctic ice melt poses to the world’s climate system. 

There is news, and then there is news. As I write this in early September, 2012, most of the recent news has been about the U.S. political conventions, along with some coverage of Hurricane Isaac thrown into the general mix of stories about shootings, celebrity shenanigans and football.

But, puzzlingly, there have been very few stories about, and even less analysis of the most important event of the season — actually the signature event, so far, of our young century. Perhaps that’s because the implications of that event are poorly grasped by most journalists. Indeed, even most of the climate scientists and environmentalists who follow such events closely are struggling with interpreting or accepting the ramifications of the occurrence in the Arctic.

The portentous event is that Arctic sea ice, the floating ice mass also known as the Polar Ice Cap, is disappearing at a record-breaking pace. In the middle of August, the 2012 summer sea ice extent (coverage of the ocean’s surface) dropped below the previous record, set in 2007, when the ice melted to 30 percent below the annual average. With about three weeks left to go in this year’s melting season, that record will be smashed.

The context of this event is that it is the culmination, thus far at least, of an ongoing trend which in the past few decades has seen half of the arctic ice’s extent — and, more alarmingly, three quarters of its volume — disappear. (A warmer Arctic sea is thinning the ice from below). This summer’s record arctic ice melt has made it clear that there is no going back; the arctic ocean soon will be ice free in the summer months.

When Will the Arctic Ice Melt “Completely?”

How soon? One group of Arctic experts thinks it could happen in three years; many now believe it will happen by the end of this decade and even many cautious experts are saying by 2030. But the truly alarming news is that the ice-free condition is arriving about a century ahead of “schedule” — ahead of the consensus prediction made by the majority of the world’s climate scientists in their 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report, which dated the ice-free scenario at 2100 or later. That means that the effects of climate change have arrived much sooner than almost anyone thought possible.

The effects are also arriving at a much lower temperature threshold than predicted. The current scientific and international policy consensus is that the “safe” limit for global temperature rise is two degrees Celsius (3.6F) above pre-industrial averages. The thinking is that the world’s nations should try to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to keep us from passing the two-degree threshold by 2050. However, we are currently just nearing the one-degree threshold, yet we are witnessing precipitate climate change.

Arctic Ice Melt and “Arctic Amplification”

Why is this happening? Scientists have known for decades that the Arctic region is warming two to four times as fast as the planet as a whole, a process called “Arctic amplification.” Poorly understood at first, the main cause of Arctic amplification is now known to be a simple feedback mechanism. Ice is light colored and reflects sunlight, keeping itself cool. But the water surrounding the ice is dark, so it warms relatively quickly when exposed to the sun. When the sea ice began melting as global warming caused temperatures to rise, more water was exposed and heated, melting more ice — which in turn exposed more water, in an ever-accelerating feedback loop.

The polar ice masses have been called the “planet’s air conditioners” because of their cooling effect on the atmosphere and ocean currents. Regionally, the drastic reduction of arctic ice is related to the current onset of dangerous feedback mechanisms, especially the warming of the Arctic’s permafrost and shallow continental shelves. Both store massive quantities of the potent greenhouse gas methane in their biomass or locked in ice. As they warm, that methane could be released, possibly causing “runaway” (unstoppable) global warming. Soon.

Globally, arctic ice regulates the flow of the jet stream, which in turn affects climate throughout the northern hemisphere’s temperate zones, which in turn affects flooding, droughts and our food supply. The arctic ice met confirms that we have entered the brave new world of climate change, and we’ll explore its forbidding landscape in forthcoming columns at our ecological house.

 

No Nuclear Power! A Response to NY Times’s “Using Nuclear Energy”

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

On Feb. 21, 2012, the NY Times invited readers to respond via email to an article called Using Nuclear Energy by retired nuclear scientist Zvi Doran. The article began by citing the recent approval of licensing for two new nuclear power plants by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and then asked and answered two questions:

“Do we need nuclear power? Can we build safe nuclear plants? The answer to both is yes!”

I submitted the following response to the article:

 No Nuclear Power!

The quick response is that we’ve heard it all before. As a young boy in late 1950s, I watched one television show after another that told us how nuclear energy was the key to a glorious future for mankind, and it was perfectly safe because scientists had thought of every possible contingency. Nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter,” and nothing could go wrong.

We’ve seen how that turned out.

Today, nuclear proponents are fond of saying that there have been “only” three major nuclear accidents in the past 43 years (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima), so nuclear power has a great safety record. However, there are only 400 nuclear power plants worldwide, so, statistically, major nuclear accidents are quite frequent — without even counting the many recorded near misses that could have turned into meltdowns.

If we compare nuclear power to another high-tech industry, commercial air service, we see that between 2000 and 2011 there were over 18 million flights per year, but an average of just 18 serious accidents per year. No nuclear power companies have a comparable record.

Of course Mr. Doran’s article now tells us that “…nuclear plants must be built with the highest regard to safety.” And that, “Fukushima could not happen in these [newly designed nuclear] plants.” Nor, according to the experts, could Fukushima have happened at Fukushima — until it happened. What will be the next series of events that “could not happen?”

The boilerplate argument from the nuclear industry that future demands for clean energy cannot be met by renewables is simply untrue. Enough sunlight strikes the earth in one hour to power all of human civilization for more than a year, and the sun’s energy can be captured, stored and distributed economically with existing technology. It is special-interest politics, not technology, that prevents us from making the transition to renewable energy.

Also, the projected need for growth in the energy sector assumes a business-as-usual scenario, and generally ignores the value of energy conservation. But the 2009 McKinsey Report and similar studies of energy efficiency establish that, in the U.S. alone, public and private investments of $520 billion in efficiency measures can, by 2025, reduce our energy use by 23 percent, save $1.2 trillion and create tens of thousands of jobs. Let’s make that investment before investing in more energy to be squandered by our profligate lifestyles.

Last but far, far from least is the inherently unsolvable problem of nuclear waste. As things stand now, most of the nuclear waste that’s strewn around the country in pools of water and old barrels will be hot and dangerous for at least a couple of thousand years. In the best case scenario, every ounce of that spent fuel will be reprocessed so it is dangerous for “only” 300-500 years.

Isn’t it presumptuous of us to assume that against all odds society will have the means and knowledge to protect itself from the ticking time bombs of nuclear waste repositories for three, or perhaps thirty centuries? Talk about kicking the (nuclear waste) can down the road.

But there is nothing new in this nuclear hubris. We’ve heard it it all before.

~PSW

Relevant Reading:

Buy books and help Ecotecture! If you liked this article and want to learn more, we invite you to buy books through the links below — we earn a small commission on each purchase you make, without raising your cost one cent. We’ll use that commission to expand our efforts to empower you to solve environmental problems.

Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know, Charles Ferguson  0199759464
Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, Helen Caldicott
The Road to Yucca Mountain, J. Samuel Walker
Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste, Allison MacFarlane
Yucca Mountain Dirty Bomb (Fiction), Wendell Duffield
Atomic Harvest: Hanford, and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal, Michael D’antonio
Poison in the Well: Radioactive Waste in the Oceans at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age, Jacob Hamblin

Comments are welcome and generally will be posted if they are on topic and inoffensive. However, Ecotecture does not post comments to the effect that global warming is a hoax. Read our position on global warming here.