Several active ‘tipping points’ of irreversible change in the world’s climate system threaten to unleash a global cascade of events that amounts to a planetary emergency, scientists warn.
The concept of tipping points was introduced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just over 20 years ago, but researchers now warn that already nine of these vulnerable environmental thresholds are in very real danger of being breached – and much sooner than was ever anticipated.
“A decade ago we identified a suite of potential tipping points in the Earth system, now we see evidence that over half of them have been activated,” says climate system researcher Tim Lenton from the University of Exeter in the UK.
“The growing threat of rapid, irreversible changes means it is no longer responsible to wait and see. The situation is urgent and we need an emergency response.”
In a new research comment, Lenton and an international team of climate scientists warn that these tipping points – which many assumed were low-probability risks that might only be dangerous if global temperatures rose 5°C above pre-industrial levels – are in fact becoming exceeded at increases of 1–2°C.
“We think that several cryosphere tipping points are dangerously close, but mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions could still slow down the inevitable accumulation of impacts and help us to adapt,” the authors write in their paper.
The nine active tipping points identified by the team include warming ice regions in the Arctic, Antarctica, and Greenland, in addition to dramatic changes underway in boreal forests, Atlantic Ocean currents, the Amazon rainforest, warm-water coral systems, and thawing permafrost.
While some of these destabilised systems may appear to be unrelated to one another, the researchers warn increasing evidence suggests the disparate crises are actually linked together – and in fact are part of a global continuum of climate destabilisation that amplifies itself in numerous alarming scenarios.
“As soon as one or two climate dominoes are knocked over, they push Earth towards others,” says Earth systems scientist Will Steffen from the Australian National University.
“We fear that it may become impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over, forming a cascade that could threaten the existence of human civilisations.”
While acknowledging that we might have already committed future generations to almost unimaginable sea-level rises of several metres, the team argues that the timescale of such effects is still something we can control with our actions today.
“The rate of melting depends on the magnitude of warming above the tipping point,” the researchers write.
“At 1.5°C, it could take 10,000 years to unfold; above 2°C it could take less than 1,000 years.”
Taking drastic action now to limit carbon emissions won’t just mean we put fewer chemicals in the air; it would also mean we could limit feedback systems like permafrost thawing, which threatens to unload its own huge stored reserves of carbon into the atmosphere.
While our understanding of how these tipping points are linked is still emerging, the existing research firmly indicates that betting against climate tipping points is too risky.
One study last year found that “exceeding tipping points in one system can increase the risk of crossing them in others,” the researchers say, and determined these cascading links were found for 45 percent of possible interactions.
There’s no way of sugar-coating this. The researchers themselves conclude that the planetary emergency we are facing represents an existential threat to civilisation, one which calls for immediate, real action – and now.
“No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us,” they warn.
“We might already have lost control of whether tipping happens. A saving grace is that the rate at which damage accumulates from tipping – and hence the risk posed – could still be under our control to some extent.”
Chunks of ice float past the hull of the Akademik Fedorov as the ship moves through the southern edge of the Arctic Ocean ice pack.
Arctic researchers just starting out face an intriguing but unsettling reality: much of the sea ice that’s covered the Arctic Ocean for thousands of years may rapidly melt away over their careers. In fact, some projections say the region may see its first ice-free summer in modern history by 2040.
A group of grad students got to see this reality in person on a recent expedition that set off in September from Tromsø, Norway. It took five days of traveling through open water to get to the sea ice in the middle of the ocean, longer than it likely would have taken decades ago.
It’s night when the ship finally gets there. After being alerted by a member of the expedition who’d seen a scrap of ice floating by, many stand out on deck, peering into the darkness for a glimmer of white. PhD student Mauro Hermann sees it first.
“Oh! There’s ice!” he shouts, pointing towards the dark water. And indeed, a small shape comes bobbing into view.
“It looks like white and it stays there, so it’s not a wave,” he says, distinguishing it from the small whitecaps on the open ocean.
This ship — the research vessel Akademik Fedorov — is headed north to help with a massive scientific experiment to study the changing Arctic. It’s called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate, or MOSAiC.
20 graduate students are along for the experience as part of a 5-week “school,” where they listen to lectures from the scientists participating in the expedition, and help with some of the work. Many have never seen Arctic sea ice before.
Robbie Mallett is a PhD student at University College London studying sea ice using satellites.
“I thought I might cry actually when I first saw sea ice,” says Robbie Mallett, who studies sea ice at the University College London using satellites. “But I don’t think I am going to cry, I think I’m just excited.”
He’s standing out on deck later the same night as we arrive at the ice’s edge. By now, bigger and bigger pieces of ice are appearing around the ship.
“It’s such a precious resource,” he says. “It’s not going to go away in the winter for awhile, but it’s certainly going to change… We’re privileged to be here and see it, I suppose.”
You might imagine Arctic sea ice as a flat white cap on the ocean, sort of like snow-covered ice on a lake. Sometimes it does look like that.
But as the days pass, the ship moves through many different ice landscapes, each with its own colors, textures, and behaviors.
“There are areas that are just a tiny little skin on the surface of the ocean which is kind of moving and shimmering as the water moves up and down,” says Lisa Craw, a PhD student from the University of Tasmania.
There are also “flowers of frost that grow out of this young ice, giving these little white sparks on a gray background,” says Sam Cornish, who’s getting his PhD at the University of Oxford.
“There’s caves, there’s little hills, ridges,” says Marylou Athanase, another PhD student from Sorbonne University, “it’s really impressive and it really, really looked like the moon.”
Not all of these students are sea ice researchers. Cornish, for example, studies the Arctic ocean. But he recognizes the ice as a poignant symbol of how our world is changing.
Sam Cornish (in orange) is a PhD student studying ocean physics at the University of Oxford.
“The Arctic sea ice is like the canary in the mine,” he says. “It’s the first thing that’s really giving us this very bleak signal of climate change which is not constrained to the Arctic.”
Most of these students are in their 20s. That means that in the 2040s, they could find themselves on a ship like this one, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean at the end of summer, without any ice in sight.
“To be honest, it’s just hard to imagine,” says Mallett, currently 26, who hopes to be doing field work related to Arctic sea ice then. “A huge space in the middle of the Arctic Ocean that is not covered in ice… I can’t visualize it.”
Cornish says that studying the dramatic shifts happening on earth due to climate change are fascinating to him from a scientific point of view. “But then it’s also really scary,” he says, “And it’s sad.”
Lisa Craw typically studies Antarctic ice shelves at the opposite pole, where the ice is also melting but is much thicker, on the scale of thousands of feet. She says that seeing the thinner ice of the Arctic makes her feel more urgency about what she does.
Lisa Craw is a PhD student at the University of Tasmania who typically studies ice shelves in the Antarctic. She says that seeing the thinner ice of the Arctic made her feel more urgency in her work.
“Because it just feels like what we have here is not permanent,” she says. “And I guess I’ve never really felt that so viscerally before.”
Some of the other young scientists echo that thought. Athanase, who studies the ocean under the sea ice, says she feels even more motivated now to keep studying the Arctic. For her, the changes here have gone from being abstract, to “very, very real.”
Arctic sea ice ranges widely in color, texture, shape, and behavior. This is from the start of the ice zone, where it tends to be thinner, with patches of open water.
Scientists on the research vessel Akademik Fedorov spent a week or so setting up a network of scientific monitoring equipment up to about 25 miles from the MOSAiC ship.
Arctic sea ice is one of the most dramatic indicators of the changing climate. Ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is in some months about half what it was decades ago, and its thickness has shrunk, by some estimates 40%.
Changes in the ice may also mean a host of other changes, in the Arctic system and around the globe. To better understand this, scientists have frozen an icebreaker alongside an Arctic ice floe that they will observe for a whole year.
The project is called MOSAiC, for Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate. And the primary questions they’re trying to answer: what are the causes of diminishing Arctic ice, and what are the consequences?
At just about 5 degrees from the North Pole, ocean physicist Tim Stanton from the Naval Postgraduate School stands next to a hole in the ice, surrounded by boxes of tools and equipment.
“I’ve got to just get the ‘hair dryer,'” he says, eyeing two electrical connectors for a science buoy that need to be warmed up in the 18 degrees Fahrenheit temperature.
A hair dryer? He clarifies: “Well, it’s an electrical what-do-you-call-it… heat gun,” he says. “It will frizz your hair, that’s for sure!”
Stanton is in the middle of a grueling eight hour process to install the buoy about 15 miles from the spot where the MOSAiC ship, the German icebreaker Polarstern, is moored.
It’s part of a network of equipment that’s being distributed around the Polarstern and will operate independently throughout the next year. It will provide additional data to what’s being collected at the central research camp on the ice next to the ship.
Ocean physicist Tim Stanton with the buoy system he’s installing in the ice. The aim is to get a better sense of the ocean factors that may be driving Arctic ice melt.
The buoy is a big banana yellow device, with a whole bunch of scientific bells and whistles that hang below it in the water.
“The flux package mounts on here,” says Stanton, pointing to a cylindrical instrument with sensors on it that will run up and down a metal rail hanging vertically in the water. “And that’s what measures the transport of heat, salt and momentum in the water column.”
Stanton wants to collect data on those attributes of the ocean because he thinks it may help explain why sea ice is disappearing as fast as it is.
“At first glance it must be obvious, right? You add heat, you melt ice,” he says. “But it is so complicated.”
As more sea ice melts in the summertime, it’s contributing fresher water to the top of the ocean. The saltier ocean water, which sits lower because it’s more dense, can create a barrier that prevents the fresher water from going down.
If that top water is trapped near the surface all summer, Stanton thinks it can absorb a lot more heat from the sun, and lead to even more ice melting.
“You can get these fresh warm layers that, when a little bit of wind comes along, does a little bit of mixing, really melts the heck out of the ice,” he says.
Tim Stanton installing a science buoy with the help of student Rosalie McKay. The buoy will measure heat, salt and momentum in the upper layer of the ocean over the course of a year.
While Stanton is asking questions about things that are going on below the ice, other scientists are looking at things going on above it.
Jessie Creamean of Colorado State University, for example, is out on the ice testing a device that collects and counts tiny particles in the atmosphere called aerosols.
“Alright little aerosol sampler, do well today,” Creamean says, closing a pelican case about the size of a carry-on piece of luggage. She’s tested it before in Colorado, but today’s experiment is to see how well it does in the cold.
People may be most familiar with aerosols created by pressurized cans like hairspray, but that’s just one kind. Aerosols can also come from natural sources like dust, pollen, fungi, or sea salt, and they’re actually the seeds that clouds need to form and grow.
In the Arctic, scientists think that microbes in the ocean, like bacteria or algae, can generate aerosols. And Creamean hypothesizes that less ice on the Arctic Ocean could mean more aerosols getting blown from the water into the atmosphere, and seeding more clouds.
Scientist Jessie Creamean moves a portable aerosol sampler out onto the ice to test it in the cold conditions.
Ravenna Koenig /NPR
The mechanism for that could be twofold: through more sunlight getting to the ocean as sea ice decreases, and potentially causing more growth of microbes, and also through the increased contact between the ocean and atmosphere.
MOSAiC scientists are interested in clouds because they’re important for regulating temperature, similar to a thermostat. Depending on the season, whether clouds are over water or ice, and the properties of the clouds, they can wind up cooling or warming the earth below.
Scientist Jessie Creamean and her portable aerosol sampler in the lab on the research vessel Akademik Fedorov.
“That affects how much heat can basically help melt the sea ice, or it can actually reflect sunlight from the sea ice,” says Creamean. “So it has a big role in controlling how much sea ice we have here.”
Creamean and Stanton are among hundreds of scientists from different disciplines trying to better understand this changing region.
“We’re looking at the interactions in the system,” says Matthew Shupe, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and one of the coordinators for the expedition.
“How the atmosphere interacts with the sea ice, how the ocean interacts with the sea ice, the ecosystem, the biogeochemical processes,” he says.
The overarching goal of collecting all this data is to improve the way the Arctic is represented in climate models. Those are the computer simulations scientists use to estimate things like how much the earth could warm in the next 50 years.
The better you reflect how reality works in simulation, the better a prediction you’ll get. But because so little is known about how the Arctic Ocean system works, Shupe says predictions for how the Arctic will respond to climate change vary significantly.
The primary questions MOSAiC is asking: what are the causes and consequences of diminishing Arctic sea ice?
“The Arctic is a place where the models agree the least,” he says. “So that tells us that we’re missing something.”
But this research will also help scientists figure out how changes in the Arctic will impact other places on earth.For example, it may contribute to scientists’ understanding of the possible connections between warming in the Arctic and extreme weather events at mid-latitudes.
“We need to understand the physics, and ultimately improve our models that can help answer those questions for us,” says Shupe.
It will also help scientists anticipate the speed at which the Greenland ice sheet could melt, raising global sea level, and improve projections for how much global temperature will rise in the coming years.
By drifting across the Arctic Ocean for the next year and observing how all the smaller pieces of the Arctic system fit together, scientists hope they can bring these big picture questions into clearer focus.
Loss of ice opens pathways for disease transmission among sea lions, ice seals, sea otters and others
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA – DAVIS
Scientists have linked the decline in Arctic sea ice to the emergence of a deadly virus that could threaten marine mammals in the North Pacific, according to a study from the University of California, Davis.
Phocine distemper virus (PDV), a pathogen responsible for killing thousands of European harbor seals in the North Atlantic in 2002, was identified in northern sea otters in Alaska in 2004, raising questions about when and how the virus reached them.
The 15-year study, published today in the journal Scientific Reports [Open access] , <<https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-51699-4>>highlights how the radical reshaping of historic sea ice may have opened pathways for contact between Arctic and sub-Arctic seals that was previously impossible. This allowed for the virus’ introduction into the Northern Pacific Ocean.
“The loss of sea ice is leading marine wildlife to seek and forage in new habitats and removing that physical barrier, allowing for new pathways for them to move,” said corresponding author Tracey Goldstein, associate director of the One Health Institute at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “As animals move and come in contact with other species, they carry opportunities to introduce and transmit new infectious disease, with potentially devastating impacts.”
AS ICE MELTS, A VIRUS ON THE MOVE
Researchers sampled marine mammals for phocine distemper virus exposure and infection from 2001-2016. Sampled mammals included ice-associated seals, northern fur seals, Steller sea lions and northern sea otters from Southeast Alaska to Russia along the Aleutian Islands and the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Arctic ocean sea ice and open water routes were assessed from the North Atlantic to North Pacific oceans. Satellite telemetry data helped the researchers link animal movement and risk factor data to demonstrate that exposed animals have the potential to carry phocine distemper virus long distances.
The authors identified widespread infection and exposure to the virus across the North Pacific Ocean beginning in 2003, with a second peak of exposure and infection in 2009. These peaks coincided with reductions in Arctic sea ice extent.
“As sea ice continues its melting trend, the opportunities for this virus and other pathogens to cross between North Atlantic and North Pacific marine mammals may become more common,” said first author Elizabeth VanWormer, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis during the study and currently an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “This study highlights the need to understand PDV transmission and the potential for outbreaks in sensitive species within this rapidly changing environment.”
Aug 6, 2018 … Even if the Paris agreement is successfully implemented, the planet could still heat up by 5 degrees Celsius, scientists warn.
The lead authors say:
“Our study suggests that human-induced global warming of 2 degrees Celsius may trigger other Earth system processes, often called ‘feedbacks,’ that can drive further warming — even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases.”
“These tipping elements can potentially act like a row of dominos. Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth toward another. It may be very difficult or impossible to stop the whole row of dominoes from tumbling over.”
The above referenced PNAS article:
Steffen, Rockström et al. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. PNAS August 2018. [Open access]
“We could be up to a month behind where we should be at this time of year”
“Freeze-up is very, very late this year,” says Gjoa Haven’s Willie Aglukkaq, who took this photo on Oct. 18. “Can still drive boats to mainland, which is very unusual for Gjoa Haven. Never seen the ocean open this late in my lifetime.” (Photo by Willie Aglukkaq)
“We were tied for the second-lowest [amount of ice] with 2007 and 2016, but quite a bit above 2012,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
“But now we’re actually below 2012 levels for this time of year because it’s a slow freeze-up—2012 recovered pretty quickly, but we’ve been very sluggish in growing ice this year.”
As of Oct. 15, sea ice levels dropped below those from 2012, which previously held the record. (Graph courtesy of the NSIDC)
With sea ice growth, the big driver is air temperature.
“If you have an area of open water and the temperatures above it are cooler than the water temperature, it’ll lose heat into the atmosphere and the water will start cooling off to the point where it reaches freezing,” said Langis.
From April onward, every month has ranked in the top three warmest—in terms of Arctic air temperature—on record, with May and August now holding top spots.
According to Meier, because of this, there was an abundance of ice-free water throughout the summer that absorbed a lot of solar energy and warmed up quite a bit.
“That heat is just taking a while to dissipate into the atmosphere and for the ocean to cool enough to grow ice.”
(Photo courtesy of UNEP)
What’s going on this year is representative of something larger.
“Under the influence of global heating caused by human-induced greenhouse gases emissions, we have seen a sharp decrease in the extent of Arctic sea [ice] since 1979,” says Pascal Peduzzi, Director of GRID-Geneva, in a press release published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Much like the scenario currently playing out across the Arctic this year, declining sea ice has amplified Arctic warming over the last several decades.
According to the press release, “Temperatures increased by around 0.5°C per decade between 1982 and 2017, primarily due to increased absorbed solar radiation accompanying sea ice loss since 1979. This is twice as fast as the global average.”
This season isn’t an exception.
But while the year-to-year trend continues on, ice coverage this year is on the rebound.
“It’s just finally starting to freeze,” said Aglukkaq.
Over the last 10 days, since Oct. 20, sea ice coverage has increased by almost 1.5 million square kilometres, including the water near Gjoa Haven.
If the current pace of ice growth continues, 2019 may soon once again be above 2012 levels.
Now in the deep of fall, Alaska’s profound change continues. Record warm ocean temperatures mean that sea ice in the state’s northern waters is at historic lows for early November. The ice refuses to regrow.
“For old-timers like me, till the day I die, my jaw will drop at the sight of this stuff,” Thoman said.
“It has been a remarkable freeze-season (or lack of) so far,” noted Zack Labe, a climate scientist and PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine. “Overall, the last month has featured large areas of open water north of Alaska and Siberia.”
The stagnant ice growth is most apparent in the Chukchi Sea, above and to the west of Alaska’s northernmost town of Utqiaġvik, which is, appropriately, also experiencing record warm air temperatures. Back in the cooler 20th century, sea ice would usually be present beyond Utqiaġvik’s shores.
But this early November, the main pack ice is still some 400 miles away.
The slow freeze-up can be largely blamed on exceptionally warm ocean waters, emphasized Thoman. “We’ve got these incredibly warm seas,” he said.
How warm? The Chukchi Sea had its warmest June through September temperatures on record. Meanwhile, the Bering Sea, which has had a dismal show of sea ice all year, experienced its warmest May through September on record, Thoman said.
This means that instead of bright, white ice reflecting sunlight back into space, the dark open oceans were able to absorb bounties of warmth for months on end. “This summer we had an early melt and record low sea ice coverage in the Chukchi Sea,” explained Lars Kaleschke, a sea ice researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute’s Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research. “Consequently, the ocean could store more heat in its upper layers, which now delays the ice formation.”
These warm, open oceans must release this heat before ice can form. The waters will need to drop to about 28.5 degrees Fahrenheit — the freezing point of salty ocean water — to do that. When it comes to growing sea ice, simply frigid temperatures won’t cut it. “Thirty-five [Fahrenheit] may sound cold, but that’s not enough to make ice,” Thoman said.
2019 remains an outlier for #Arctic sea ice around Alaska. There has been very little change (so far) in the Chukchi Sea since the annual minimum (mid-September).
Compare recent years (red/white lines) to the 1980/90s (purple lines)
These ice-free portions of ocean are a conspicuous consequence of a vicious cycle in the Arctic, called “Arctic amplification,” wherein the warming ocean melts ice, which then allows the oceans to grow even warmer. This, in turn, inhibits sea ice growth.
Alaska isn’t the only Arctic region now experiencing stagnant sea ice regrowth. Overall, Arctic sea ice is struggling. “The growth is well behind schedule in other areas,” noted Kaleschke. “The total ice extent is very low for the date, in fact, the second-lowest after 2016.”
“[Total sea ice extent] remains well below average,” added Labe. “This is contributing to the long-term Arctic amplification trend.”
Diminished sea ice and toppled records aren’t just one of the clearest indications of a rapidly changing climate; the warming Arctic also impacts powerful weather systems around the planet. There’s growing evidence that a warmer Arctic results in stagnant weather patterns, like the remarkable fall heat wave in the U.S. that occurred in late September and early October.
The lost sea ice has profound impacts for Alaskans, too. “Not only is sea ice important for their livelihoods, but it also acts as a barrier against coastal erosion from strong storm systems in the North Pacific,” said Labe.
A continually warming Arctic, however unpleasant, is a long-term trend and likely a prominent actor in the planet’s future, at least this century. “This is because of climate change mainly caused by human emission of greenhouse gases like CO2,” said Kaleschke.
The country of Iceland has held a funeral for its first glacier lost to the climate crisis. The once massive Okjökull glacier, now completely gone, has been commemorated with a plaque that reads: “A letter to the future. Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”
This reality is reverberating across the globe, far beyond Iceland. Even when no literal funeral is being held, we are, in a sense, witnessing an ongoing funeral for the world we once knew.
July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth since record keeping began in 1880. Nine out of the 10 hottest Julys ever recorded have occurred since 2005, and July was the 43rd consecutive July to register temperatures above the 20th century average.
Also for the first time in recorded history, Alaska’s sea ice has melted completely away. That means there was no sea ice whatsoever within 150 miles of its shores, according to the National Weather Service, as the northernmost state cooked under record-breaking heat through the summer.
A recent UN report estimates 2 billion people are already facing moderate to severe food insecurity, due largely to the warming planet. The other contributing factors are conflict and economic stagnation, but extreme weather events and shifting weather patterns are a large and growing contributor to this crisis, which is sure to escalate over time.
Another recent study, titled “Adaptive responses of animals to climate change are most likely insufficient,” showed that many animals are no longer able to adjust quickly enough to the climate crisis. While birds are laying their eggs earlier as temperatures and conditions change, and are doing what they can to coax their chicks to hatch sooner, it is still not enough to keep apace with the dramatically shifting climate. Many more extinctions are on the horizon.
Speaking of, Beluga whales in the Arctic are now clearly in a downward spiral toward their demise, due largely to climate crisis impacts, according to another study. Warming waters, lack of food, and pollution are taking their toll on the embattled whales. Over the past 20 years, their growth rates have been declining, which means their ability to forage for food is now also compromised.
In Greenland, residents are already traumatized by climate impacts, as they are coping with the reality that their traditional ways of life are clearly on the way out. Courtney Howard, board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, told The Guardian that she believes the climate crisis is causing worsening states of mental and physical health around the world, and says these issues will become some of the most important of our time. “Temperature change is magnified in circumpolar regions,” she told The Guardian. “There is no question Arctic people are now showing symptoms of anxiety, ‘ecological grief’ and even post-traumatic stress related to the effects of climate change.”
In the financial realms, a leading economic historian warned recently that the climate crisis could very well become the trigger for the next global financial crisis by way of causing instability and massive disruptions in markets.
Distressingly, a recently published study warned that a new superbug which erupted at the same time on three continents may well have been brought about from warming temperatures. The study pointed out how a drug-resistant fungal disease has now been made more prevalent by existing on a warming planet.
A recent report from Canada warned that British Columbia could see “catastrophic” consequences from climate disruption-related events in the next three decades. These include more severe wildfire seasons, increasingly intense and longer heat waves, water shortages, and storm surges across the province.
Speaking of Canada, that country’s Pediatric Society recently warned that children’s health is expected to be increasingly negatively affected by climate-disruption impacts, including things like air pollution and heat stress.
Drought-induced blackouts are now besetting the people of Zimbabwe, where some places are seeing 18 hours per day without electricity. Imagine that in the summer heat. Dams providing hydropower lack water. Power blackouts are spreading.
In Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, the taps have run dry, affecting more than 2 million people, who have been trying to cope with not having access to municipal drinking water.
Back in the U.S., New York City’s summer has served as a preview of things to come, as an extreme heat wave coupled with flash flooding beset the iconic city.
On the other end of the water spectrum, a recent study published in Science Advances warned that megadroughts will likely beset the U.S. Southwest within decades. The study stated that the megadroughts are “almost assured,” and will be on a scale not seen since medieval times.
At the same time, by 2050, another report warned that “snow droughts” will become far more common across the western U.S. This is critical, in that it compounds the aforementioned impending drought crisis, as mountain snowpack is vital to providing water into the spring and summer.
A recent and critically important studyshowed that one quarter of the total global population across 17 countries is already affected by extreme water stress. Lebanon, Qatar and Israel/Palestine top a list of places with the worst water shortages, as the growing climate crisis threatens more “day zeroes” — days where major cities will literally run out of water.
Meanwhile, sea levels continue their inevitable and accelerating rise. In the U.S., a recent report showed how 21 beach towns, including Miami Beach, Galveston, Atlantic City and Key West, will soon be underwater.
Speaking of Galveston, the state of Texas is looking toward Dutch expertise for assistance in how to construct what would be the nation’s most expensive and most ambitious coastal barrier for protection against intensifying hurricanes. The Netherlands has been devising ways to protect massive parts of its low-lying country against the ocean for centuries. Now the skills it has cultivated are, soberingly, increasingly relevant worldwide.
Meanwhile, the oceans continue to warm as they absorb the brunt of the heat human activity is adding to the atmosphere, and the warming waters are literally pushing Pacific salmon to the brink of their ability to survive, according to another report.
Distressingly, a recently published study showed that unexpected marine heat waves are now becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Greenland experienced a record heat wave in the middle of this summer, which dramatically accelerated the melting of the ice sheet, meaning its contributions to sea level rise are in the process of accelerating as well.
Meanwhile, scientists have expressed alarm and shock about the fact that the permafrost across the Canadian Arctic is thawing out 70 years sooner than previously predicted.
These stunning satellite photos show an Arctic burning up in front of our eyes. In Alaska alone, at the time of this writing, at least 1.6 million acres have burned from at least 100 wildfires this summer. Wildfires in Siberiacould well burn into October when the first snows fall, as at least 6.7 million acres have burned across Russia.
Another report showed that, due to climate disruption, wildfires in California have already become 500 percent larger than they were since the 1970s.
Canadian media are reporting that forests that have been scorched in the Pacific Northwest are not growing back as expected. This brings into question numerous species of trees’ ability to regenerate as the fires get increasingly hot, burn longer, and scorch longer areas.
At the same time, another report reaffirmed the fact that even the rainy Northwest is now facing the inevitable increased risk of wildfires due to higher temperatures, increasing drought and lower humidity.
By 2050, Florida will have more days that feel like 100 degrees Fahrenheit (100°F) than any other state in the U.S., according to a recent study. Washington D.C. currently averages one week per year of 100-degree days, while by 2050 that could rise to two months. The same study warned that climate disruption will expose millions of people across the U.S. to “off-the-charts” extreme heat.
Meanwhile, Europe sizzled under a record-breaking heat wave this summer, as heat from the Sahara baked the continent and temperature records toppled en masse. There are far too many records to name from that heatwave, but notable was the fact that Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands recorded their highest temperatures ever during Europe’s second major summer heatwave.
In Canada, the far northern community of Nunavut saw warmer temperatures than the city of Victoria, far to its south. According to CBC News, “the source of the Arctic beach weather is a large current of air that somehow found its way north from the U.S. southeast” — a much more common occurrence as warming intensifies.
Denial and Reality
Ever busy denying the crisis, in the last month the Trump administration buried a large climate disruption response plan, as revealed by Politico. The outlet revealed how the Agriculture Department prevented the release of an already completed and sweeping plan about how the government should best respond to the climate crisis.
Meanwhile, in what could have been a slip of the tongue, Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry said during a recent nationally televised interview, “The climate is changing. Are we part of the reason? Yeah, it is. I’ll let people debate on who’s the bigger problem here.”
It’s not just the Trump administration that’s fueling denial. It was also revealed how DNC Chair Tom Perez introduced a resolution in an attempt to kill a climate debate among the Democratic presidential candidates.
Nevertheless, reality has a way of not going away, despite human efforts at denial.
A recent report showed that the climate crisis is already well along in causing childhood deaths and the stunting of growth in Australia and across the Pacific. Other impacts on kids include lowered cognitive capacity and higher susceptibility to the spread of diseases.
And, to keep all of this in perspective, as a final reality check, the burning of fossil fuels reached an all-time record last year, according to oil giant BP.
For perspective on the rate of acceleration now baked into the system, half of all fossil fuels used by humans have been burned since just 1990. Many more consequences are lurking just around the corner: It takes at least 10 years before we begin to see the impacts of the CO2 once the fuels are burned.
In 2012, Sue Natali arrived in Duvanny Yar, Siberia, for the first time. Then a postdoctoral research fellow studying the effects of thawing permafrost due to climate change, she had seen photos of this site many times. Rapid thawing at Duvanny Yar had caused a massive ground collapse – a “mega slump” – like a giant sinkhole in the middle of the Siberian tundra. But nothing had prepared her for seeing it in person.
As you walk along you see what look like logs poking out the permafrost. But they aren’t logs, they are the bones of mammoths and other Pleistocene animals – Sue Natali
“It was incredible, really incredible”, she recalls while speaking to me from The Woods Hole Research Center, Massachusetts, where she is an associate scientist. “I still get chills when I think about it… I just couldn’t believe the magnitude: collapsing cliffs the size of multi-storey buildings … and as you walk along you see what look like logs poking out the permafrost. But they aren’t logs, they are the bones of mammoths and other Pleistocene animals.”
What Natali describes is the visible, dramatic effects of a rapidly warming Arctic. The permafrost – up until now, permanently frozen land and soil – is thawing out, and revealing its hidden secrets. Alongside Pleistocene fossils are massive carbon and methane emissions, toxic mercury, and ancient diseases.
The rapid thawing of permafrost causes “mega slumps” that puncture the landscape like the holes in swiss cheese (Credit: Sue Natali)
The organic-rich permafrost holds an estimated 1,500 billion tonnes of carbon. “That’s about twice as much carbon in the atmosphere, and three times as much carbon than that stored in all the world’s forests”, says Natali. She explains that between 30% and 70% of the permafrost may melt before 2100, depending on how effectively we respond to climate change. “The 70% is business as usual, if we continue to burn fossil fuels at our current rate, and 30% is if we vastly reduce our fossil fuel emissions… Of the 30-70% that thaws, the carbon locked up in organic matter will begin to be broken down by microbes, they use it as fuel or energy, and they release it as CO2 or methane.”
Around 10% of the carbon that does defrost will probably be released as CO2, amounting to 130-150 billion tonnes. That is equivalent to the current rate of total US emissions, every year until 2100. Melting permafrost effectively introduces a new country at number two on the highest emitters list, and one that isn’t accounted for in current IPCC models. “People talk about a carbon bomb,” says Natali. “In geological timescales this is not a slow release. It is a pool of carbon that is locked away and is not accounted for in the carbon budget to keep rises below two degrees (Celsius).”
The Northern Hemisphere winter of 2018/2019 was dominated by headlines of the “polar vortex”, as temperatures plummeted unusually far south into North America. In South Bend, Indiana, it reached -29C in January 2019, almost twice as low as the city’s previous record set in 1936. What such stories masked, however, was that the opposite was happening in the far North, beyond the Arctic circle. January 2019 also saw Arctic sea ice average just 13.56 million square kilometres (5.24 million square miles), some 860,000 square kilometres (332,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average, and only slightly above the record low reached in January 2018.
Melting ice can release methane, which will exacerbate global warming (Credit: Alamy)
“We are seeing a big increase in the thaw of permafrost”, confirms Emily Osborne, program manager for the Arctic Research Program, NOAA, and editor of the Arctic Report Card, an annual peer-reviewed environmental study of the Arctic. As a direct result of rising air temperatures, she says, the permafrost is thawing and “the landscape is physically crumbling as a result… things are changing so fast, and in ways that researchers hadn’t even anticipated.”
The headline of the 2017 Arctic Report Card pulled no punches: “Arctic shows no sign of returning to a reliably frozen region”. One paper co-authored by Hanne Christiansen, professor and vice dean of education at University Centre Svalbard, Norway, studied permafrost temperatures at a depth of 20 metres (that’s 65ft, far enough down not to be affected by short-term seasonal changes) and found temperatures had risen by up to 0.7C since 2000. Christiansen, who is also president of the International Permafrost Association, tells me, “temperatures are increasing inside the permafrost at relatively high speed… then, of course, what was permanently frozen before can become released.” In 2016, the autumn temperatures in Svalbard remained above zero throughout November, “the first time this has happened in the records that we have, going back to 1898”, says Christiansen. “Then large amounts of rain came – the precipitation here is typically snow… we had mudslides crossing roads for 100s of metres… we had to evacuate some parts of the population.”
The melting permafrost is transforming Alaska’s landscapes (Credit: Alamy)
In some places in the Alaskan Arctic, you fly over a swiss cheese of land and lakes formed by ground collapse – Sue Natali
The rapid change in North American permafrost is equally alarming. “In some places in the Alaskan Arctic, you fly over a swiss cheese of land and lakes formed by ground collapse,” says Natali, whose fieldwork has moved from Siberia to Alaska. “Water that was close to the surface now becomes a pond.” Many of these ponds are bubbling with methane, as microbes suddenly find themselves with a feast of ancient organic matter to munch on, releasing methane as a by-product. “We often walk across the lakes because it’s so shallow and it’s like you’re in a hot tub in some places, there is so much bubbling,” says Natali.
The melting permafrost released anthrax in Siberia (Credit: Alamy)
But methane and CO2 are not the only things being released from the once frozen ground. In the summer of 2016, a group of nomadic reindeer herders began falling sick from a mysterious illness. Rumours began circling of the “Siberian plague”, last seen in the region in 1941. When a young boy and 2,500 reindeer died, the disease was identified: anthrax. Its origin was a defrosting reindeer carcass, a victim of an anthrax outbreak 75 years previously. The 2018 Arctic report card speculates that, “diseases like the Spanish flu, smallpox or the plague that have been wiped out might be frozen in the permafrost.” A French study in 2014 took a 30,000 year-old virus frozen within permafrost, and warmed it back up in the lab. It promptly came back to life, 300 centuries later. (To read more, see BBC Earth’s piece on the diseases hidden in ice.)
Adding to this apocalyptic vision, in 2016 the Doomsday Vault – a sub-permafrost facility in Arctic Norway, which safeguards millions of crop seeds for perpetuity – was breached with meltwater. And listed amongst the membership of The Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost, is Swedish Nuclear Waste Management who presumably also rely on a permanently frozen permafrost (when BBC Future approached them for comment on this point, they did not respond).
Long-preserved human archaeology may also be emerging, but just as quickly lost. A frozen Palaeo-Eskimo site in Greenland, preserved for some 4,000 years, is at risk of being washed away. This is just one of an estimated 180,000 archaeological sites preserved in the permafrost, often with soft tissues and clothing that uniquely remain intact but would rot quickly if exposed. Adam Markham, of the Union of Concerned Scientists has said, “with rapid, human-caused climate change, many sites or the artefacts they contain, will be lost before they have been discovered.”
More modern (and unwanted) human detritus will, however, not rot away: marine microplastics. Due to circular global marine currents, much plastic waste ends up in the Arctic, where it becomes frozen in sea ice or permafrost. A recent study of marine micro-particles demonstrated that concentrations were higher in the Arctic Basin than all other ocean basins in the world. Microplastic concentrations in the Greenland Sea doubled between 2004 and 2015. “Scientists are finding that those microplastics are accumulating across the entire ocean and being dumped into the Arctic”, explains Osborne. “This is something we didn’t [previously] realise was a problem. What scientists are trying to find out now is the composition of these microplastics, what sort of fish are feeding on these… and whether we are essentially eating microplastics through eating these fish.”
In 2016 the Doomsday Vault – a sub-permafrost facility in Arctic Norway, which safeguards millions of crop seeds for perpetuity – was breached with meltwater (Credit: Alamy)
Mercury is also entering the food chain, thanks to thawing permafrost. The Arctic is home to the most mercury on the planet. The US Geological Survey estimates there’s a total of 1,656,000 tonnes of mercury trapped in polar ice and permafrost: roughly twice the global amount in all other soils, oceans, and atmosphere. Natali explains that, “mercury often binds up with organic material in places where you have high organic matter content… organism’s bodies don’t remove it, so it bio-accumulates up the food web. Permafrost is almost the perfect storm – you have a lot of mercury in permafrost, it is released into wetland systems, those are the right environment for organisms to take them up, and then [it] heads up the food web. That’s a concern for wildlife, people, and the commercial fishing industry.”
Are there some positives of a thawing Arctic? Could a greener Arctic start to see more trees and vegetation take root, sequestering more carbon and offering new grazing land for animals? Osborne agrees that “the Arctic is greening”. But she adds that studies of animal populations actually suggest that, “warmer temperatures also increase the prevalence of viruses and disease, so we’re seeing a lot more caribou and reindeer becoming more sickly as a result of this warming climate… it is just not an environment that is suited to thrive at these warmer temperatures.” Natali also says that many areas are experiencing “Tundra browning”: the higher temperatures lead surface water to evaporate into the atmosphere, causing plants to die off. Other areas are experiencing sudden flooding due to the ground collapsing. “It’s not happening in 2100 or 2050, it’s now”, says Natali. “You hear people say ‘we used to pick blueberries over there’, and you look over there and it’s a wetland.”
Natali doesn’t want to end the conversation on a downer. There is a lot we can do, she says. The fate of the Arctic is not a foregone conclusion: “The actions taken by the international community will have a substantial impact on just how much carbon will be released and how much of the permafrost will thaw. We need to keep as much of the permafrost as we can frozen. And we do have some control of that.” Our emissions cannot remain “business as usual”. The Arctic depends on it. And we depend on the Arctic.
A shocking new study says that sea ice in the Arctic could completely disappear through September each summer if average global temperatures increase by as little as 2 degrees Celsius and climate conditions continue to worsen.
“Most likely, September Arctic sea ice will effectively disappear at between approximately 2 and 2.5 [degrees] of global warming,” said the abstract of the study, published in Nature Communications. “Yet, limiting the warming to 1.5 [degrees] under the Paris agreement may not be sufficient to prevent the ice-free Arctic.”
Polar bears sleep on the beach in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in early September waiting for the ice to form on the Arctic Ocean. (Credi: Michael Miller)
September is usually the month that sees the least amount of ice in the Arctic and is being used as a measure because it’s the “transition period” between summer and winter, said Won Chang, the study’s co-author.
“Ice recedes from June to September and then in September, it begins to grow again in a seasonal cycle. And we’re saying we could have no ice in September,” Chang said in a statement.
Using a new statistical method of 21st-century climate projections, Chang and the other researchers found that there is at least a 6 percent probability that the sea ice disappears if temperatures rise 1.5 degrees Celsius. That bumps up to a 28 percent probability if temps rise 2 degrees Celsius.
“Our work provides a new statistical and mathematical framework to calculate climate change and impact probabilities,” Jason Evans, one of the study’s co-authors, added in the statement.
A lack of summer sea ice is of great concern for Arctic wildlife, such as polar bears and seals, which rely on the sea ice for food and raising their young.
It’s also become a source of contention amongst politicians and climate activists. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the melting ice presented “new opportunities for trade,” as new naval passageways are opened.
In June, diplomats and climate experts gathered in Germany for U.N.-hosted talks on climate change amid growing public pressure for governments to act faster against global warming.
A study published in April showed that Earth’s glaciers are melting much faster than previously thought, losing 369 billion tons of snow and ice each year, more than half of that in North America.
Skeptics have largely dismissed fears over man’s impact on global warming, saying climate change has been going on since the beginning of time. They also claim the dangers of a warming planet are being wildly exaggerated and question the impact that fossil fuels have had on climate change.
The announcement that 11 billion tons dropped off the Greenland Ice Sheet in one day turned out to be a made-for-television example of the effects of climate change. Dramatic videos of water pouring off the glaciers went viral. But apart from the occasional spectacular image, it’s hard to focus the attention of the news media on the Greenland Ice Sheet. And that’s too bad.
Because it’s worse than you thought.
Consider: According to NASA’s National Snow & Ice Data Center, between June 11 and June 20 of this year, the Greenland Ice Sheet (or GIS) lost an estimated 80 billion tons of ice. That’s an average of 8 billion tons every 24 hours for 10 days, a record warming event. But there was hardly a whisper of news coverage, perhaps because there weren’t any exciting videos.
Maybe the old cliché is true after all: A picture is worth a thousand words. After all, the GIS has been melting for decades. The tough part is getting people to pay attention. In northeast Greenland the sheet is vanishing even faster than climate models predict. Recent research has shown that the most rapid melt is in southwest Greenland, where the glaciers by and large don’t terminate in the sea. This result, which took many climate scientists by surprise, tends to confirm rising temperatures rather than changing ocean currents as the cause.
Yes, it’s possible that Greenland’s ice sheet actually grew slightly in 2017. It’s also possible that snowfall in 2017 and 2018 roughly balanced the mass of ice loss. But before climate-change skeptics bombard me (@StepCarter) with snide told-ya-so’s, bear in mind these are only possibilities. Unfortunately, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite, our most sensitive measuring tool, stopped giving reliable data in 2016 and went dead during 2017. (Happily, a follow-on mission lifted into orbit in May of 2018).
Besides, recent ice growth, if any, seems to be an anomaly in a long-term melting trend. As the same Danish researchers who made the point about snowfall noted, “the neutral mass change in the last two years does not — and cannot — begin to compensate for these losses.”
Even prominent climate skeptics have begun to concede that the disappearance of the GIS is related to the globe’s changing climate. Alas, a sobering paper from the distinguished Yale economist William Nordhaus argues that we’re already too late. Absent forms of extreme restraint that will are politically impossible, writes Nordhaus, Greenland’s ice sheet is going to melt over the next few centuries, and rebuilding it will be the work of many generations.
What would be the result? A 2017 study found that the Greenland ice sheet, which as recently as 1993 contributed only 5% of the rise in sea levels, is now responsible for 25%. Melting of the GIS over the past 40 years has raised sea levels only about half an inch. According to recent modeling, however, the disintegration of Greenland’s ice is likely to raise sea levels along the East Coast of the U.S. by a minimum of 0.2 meters (about 8 inches) over the next century. 1 Unless you spend a lot of time in littoral areas, this may not sound like much, but bear in mind that those extra inches would be the starting level for future storm surges. (Yes, melting on the GIS may cause similar effects in coastal Europe.)
Don’t get me wrong: Climate change poses bigger threats than the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, dramatic as that event might prove. But it’s the GIS that’s in the news right now, and it’s the melting of the GIS that might well prove impossible to stop.
If all of this is inevitable, what to do? The buzz words are adaptation and mitigation.
Adaptation we might loosely call learning to live with what comes next. Successful adaptation could reduce the costs of coastal damage over the next century by a factor of seven. For example, people who live along the seacoast might pull up stakes. Although some activists write as though anything short of official mandate represents a policy failure, a degree of adaptation may already be occurring. According to “Climate Gentrification” theory, as people learn about the effects of climate change, those who can afford to move, will. In particular, they will begin to abandon the coast and move further inland. This may already be happening: A study of the Miami real estate market found that since 2000, properties at higher elevations have appreciated in value faster than similar properties at lower elevations. (The research is often misdescribed in the press as showing that coastal properties have lost value.)
Some forms of adaptation have positive results. For example — don’t laugh! — a recent article in Nature Sustainability notes that as Greenland’s glaciers retreat, the island could become an exporter of sand and gravel. (Apparently there’s a worldwide shortage.) In the U.S., many companies are likely to profit from the need to strengthen infrastructure.
Mitigation involves the effort to limit the effect of climate change, usually through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This is where draconian and politically unachievable regulatory proposals usually come in. The optimist in me is more interested in technological solutions. Climate change activists tend to deride geoengineering as “eclectic, messianic and mostly untested.” Given the urgency of the crisis, however, we should be testing as much as we can.
I hope the technology proves feasible. As I’ve noted before in this space, whenever engineering solutions are proposed as tools to mitigate the effects of climate change, critics rush to insist that technological fixes won’t work. Carbon capture is no different. And perhaps the prospect does indeed carry with it a whiff of the magic bullet. But we’ve managed to fire magic bullets from time to time. If we believe the threat of climate change is real — and what’s happening in Greenland is pretty good evidence — there’s certainly no justification for not trying.
Disintegration of Antarctic ice is expected to have little effecton sea levels along the East Coast – although of course its effects will be seen elsewhere.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.