Signs of Climate Change; Portents of Disaster

© Copyright 2014 John J. Berger.  All Rights Reserved.

Below is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis.  The section below summarizes some of the dramatic impacts of climate change that have already appeared in response to an average global temperature increase of 1.4° F (less than 1° C).  One degree centigrade is less than half the average warming that is commonly regarded as the “danger point” by many international policy makers.  As I explain elsewhere in Climate Peril, however, that amount of warming is really not a safety threshold but a transition between dangerous and extremely dangerous temperature increase. FAQ 1.2, Figure 1 Image via the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Assessment Report 4 (AR4), Working Group I (WG I): Chapter 1: Historical Overview of Climate Change Science

“By altering temperature, rainfall, wind, and weather patterns, sea levels, ocean chemistry, and ocean currents, a rapidly changing climate affects all natural resources, all species, all people, everywhere.  This chapter provides far-ranging, irrefutable evidence of several major climate changes that are already profoundly affecting the Earth, its ecosystems, and ourselves.  The evidence suggests that a climate catastrophe has already begun. The first decade of the 21st century (2000-2010) is the hottest ever recorded.  The year 2012 now appears to have been the hottest ever recorded in the lower 48 states―three and a half degrees above the long-term average and a degree higher than the previous hottest record year, 1998. Climatologists believe that before industrialization, global mean temperature had not varied as much as 1.8 F within the past 10,000 years.  But in the past 100 years, the world got 1.4 F hotter.  That’s 66 times faster than normal.  So the Earth is not only warming astonishingly quickly by historical standards, but the sizzling pace is itself steeply accelerating.  Many natural processes, societies, and living organisms, are already showing the effects of the temperature increase that has already occurred. Climate change is perhaps most visible in the vanishing of northern polar ice, the melting of the world’s glaciers, and in sea levels that are rising quickly.  Yet we are still in the very early and comparatively mild stages of the first human-induced climate change in history.  A long and sobering litany of climate-related disasters has begun, and more are forecast by climate scientists. * Huge, Powerful “Superstorms.”  Hurricane Mitch in 1998Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Hurricane Sandy in 2012destroyed lives, brought vast coastal flooding, and knocked out power for millions.  Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed, damaged, or disrupted. As sea levels rise and storms intensify, many large coastal U.S. cities are increasingly subject to flooding from high tides and storm surges associated with large storms.  New York City was hit by an 11-foot high storm surge in conjunction with Superstorm Sandy.  Even larger storms are likely in the future, as National Geographic points out.  Financial losses from weather-related disasters are up sharply, setting global records. * Heat Waves.  The European heat wave of 2003 killed 35,000 people and did $15 billion in damage to agriculture alone. 3Image via Russian Fires Approach Nuclear Plants (2010) The 2010 Russian heat wave killed 55,000 people and produced massive crop damages.  Five hundred wildfires raged over the bone-dry land around Moscow.  While heat waves like the European disaster were formerly expected only once in 500 years, such heat waves may become fairly common in the overheated world we’re now creating.”

Huge Wildfire Erupts in California

Because average global temperatures are greatly exceeded at high latitudes and in continental interiors, some temperate forest regions can get extraordinarily hot and dry even at relatively low average global temperature increases, as in the huge Rim Fire now burning within and around Yosemite National Park illustrates. It is one of the largest wildfires in California’s history and is currently considered the most important wildfire in the country.  Average minimum temperatures in parts of the central Sierra where the park is located have risen 5.4° F in the past 100 years and this may well be contributing to the increased occurrence of large, very hot, and difficult-to-contain wildfires in parts of the U.S.


A firefighter watches for spot fires during a burnout operation while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013.

Image via AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

“Along with its worst drought in 130-years in 2002, India had a heat wave in May 2002 that killed more than 1,000 people.  The temperature reached nearly 124˚F in one village of Andhra Pradesh where a local official reported that birds fell dead out of the trees from the heat. *  Tropical Diseases.  Lethal insect-borne and waterborne illnesses formerly restricted to the tropics are now spreading to large regions previously free of them.  South Africa, for example, virtually malaria-free in the early 1970s, has nearly 60,000 cases a year.  Malaria has also reached highland regions of Kenya and Tanzania where it was previously unknown. * Melting Glaciers, and Ice Sheets.  Scientists are observing that the Greenland Ice Cap and the West Antarctic ice sheet are melting at an accelerating rate—faster than climate models have predicted.  Glaciers in the Himalayas, the world’s largest mass of ice outside the polar regions, are receding faster than anywhere else in the world.  They are the source of many important rivers, including the Indus and Ganges. The loss of high-altitude glaciers and diminishing snow packs is already starting to bring more frequent droughts and threaten the water supplies of more than two billion people who already live in in parts of India, Nepal, China, and Pakistan and other regions of water scarcity.  The East Asian monsoon has also been unreliable over the past 30 years, reducing rainfall in parts of China. * Sea Level Rise.  Sea level rises on a warming Earth because of ice and snow melt, and due to the expansion of warming sea water.  Significant sea level rise has occurred—about 8 inches in the past century—a much faster rate than forecast.  As seas rise, parts of heavily populated, low-lying coastal regions and major cities around the world will be below sea level.  In the U.S., parts of coastal cities like Boston, New York, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., will be flooded as well as large parts of Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere.  Using Google Earth, anyone with a personal computer can now see what these cities will look like at various expected sea levels. * Sea Ice Melting.Highly reflective summer sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing. As this highly reflective ice vanishes, it is replaced by darker-colored water that absorbs vastly more of the sun’s heat and acts as another very strong positive feedback that contributes to global warming and climate change. * Melting Permafrost and Frozen Methane. Permafrost in northern latitudes and frozen methane deposits in the ocean known as clathrates together those contain trillions of tons of stored carbon. The permafrost and clathrates both have slowly begun to thaw and release methane and carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The more permafrost and clathrates melt, the hotter the earth becomes, and so the more melting occurs.  If continued, at some point, the melting of these vast stocks of carbon would transform the climate beyond recognition and lead to a “runaway” greenhouse effect, transforming the earth into an ice-free planet as it was millions of years ago.  (Methane is 72 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide on a per molecule basis over a 20-year period.)  According to the geological record, when Earth was ice-free, sea level was about 250 feet higher than at the present. * Extinctions.Plant and animal extinctions are accelerating on land and in the sea.  The Amazon tropical rain forest is already beginning to suffer from repeated severe droughts and increased tree mortality.  Millions of acres of the forest were devastated in 2010; other severe droughts preceded it in 2007 and 2005.  If unchecked, this will destroy the rainforest ecosystem with disastrous consequences for global climate, wildlife, and humanity. ) * HarmfulOcean Changes.Vast harmful oceanic changes (temperature increases, acidification, coral reef death, low-oxygen zones) are already occurring. Coral reef bleaching, a sign of severe and potentially fatal stress caused by ocean warming and other factors, is evident in oceans of the world.  Half the reefs of the Indian Ocean and around South Asia have already lost most of their living coral, and current trends suggest that 95 percent of the reefs will be dead by 2050 if this pace continues. The drastic climate changes that have already occurred after only 1.4° F—less than 1° C—of warming show the climate system has already been gravely destabilized.  This indicates that greatly amplified additional warming and disastrous consequences are likely should warming continue unabated.” © Copyright 2013 John J. Berger.  All RIghts Reserved.