MAR 11, 2019
A stand of ponderosa pines two years after a wildfire. Credit: Lyn Alweis/Denver Post via Getty Images
Climate change in the American West may be crossing an ominous threshold, making parts of the region inhospitable for some native pine and fir forests to regrow after wildfires, new research suggests.
As temperatures rise, the hotter, drier air and drier soil conditions are increasingly unsuitable for young Douglas firs and ponderosa pines to take root and thrive in some of the region’s low-elevation forests, scientists write in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Wildfires in these areas could lead to abrupt ecosystem changes, from forest to non-forest, that would otherwise take decades to centuries, the study says.
“Once a certain threshold was crossed, then the probability of tree establishment decreased rapidly,” said Kimberley Davis, a researcher at the University of Montana and lead author of the study. “The climate conditions are just a lot less suitable for regeneration.”
The two iconic species are important to both the region’s forest ecology and its economy, particularly its timber industry.
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Davis and her colleagues looked at growth rings of nearly 3,000 young trees in 33 fire-damaged areas of California, Colorado, the Northern Rockies and the southwestern United States to see when the forests recovered after fires over the past 30 years. Analyzing climate data over the same period, they found certain thresholds involving summer humidity for ponderosa pine, surface temperature for Douglas fir, and soil moisture for both species, beyond which there was a sharp decline in forest regrowth.
The warmer, drier air isn’t harming mature trees, but it is preventing future generations from growing, Davis said.
“There could be a lot of areas where there is currently forest but if we have a fire we might not see regeneration,” she said.
Davis and her colleagues found that most of the sites they looked at had crossed the temperature and humidity threshold at some point in the last 20 years.
They targeted the driest and warmest sites in the region to see if climate change was already beginning to affect forests. The researchers now plan to assess the extent to which regeneration is affected in relatively cooler, wetter sites in the region.
Several factors influence a forest’s regrowth after a wildfire, such as the severity of the fire, regional drought and how the trees produce seeds. The researchers noted that as the region sees fewer years with climate conditions suitable for seedlings to grow, the nature of the trees’ seed production, with heavy crops of cones only every few years, will further limit new growth.
Last year, wildfires burned more than 8.7 million acres nationwide, 32 percent higher than the 10-year average according to an annual report by the National Interagency Coordination Center released last week. More than 1.8 million of those acres were in California, the highest in recorded state history, according to state fire officials.
The inability of forests to bounce back from such fires is cause for concern, said Joe Fargione, science director for the Nature Conservancy’s North America region.
“The thresholds identified here show how much is at stake—losing forests because trees can’t grow back—if we don’t accelerate the switch to clean energy and invest more in natural climate solutions,” Fargione said. “This study will help land managers identify forests at the greatest risk of not regenerating post-fire.”
Fargione said such high-risk forests can be targeted for selective thinning to reduce the risk of forest fires and for restoration efforts to improve the success of forest regeneration.
Protecting forests is important for slowing climate change because of their ability to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store the carbon in their trunks, branches and roots.
A study Fargione and others published last fall found better forest, farm and land management practices offer natural climate solutions that could mitigate 21 percent of the United States’ annual greenhouse gas emissions.
“It really highlights the fact that we need to begin a national and international conversation about how we can enhance the resiliency of our global forests,” Anthony Swift, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project, said of the current study.
Swift said intensive logging, road building and cutting trees to make room for transmission lines weakens the ability of forests to deal with added stressors like climate change.
“We don’t need to stop all activity in global forests, but it does raise the need to reconsider how and where we extract timber and engage in other industrial activities in forests,” he said.
A report last month by NRDC looked at how clear cutting boreal forests in Canada by some U.S. toilet paper manufacturers imperils forests and could hasten climate change.The report called for alternatives, like using recycled paper, that don’t lead to the fragmentation and clear cutting of intact forests. Leaving forests more intact could also help protect Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests in the American West, Swift said.
“Whether we are looking at wildfires or industrial activities, concerns that in a changing climate regeneration is going to be more difficult to achieve is an issue that we all need to be looking at more carefully because of the roll our forests have to play for the global climate,” he said.
The extreme wildfires sweeping across parts of North America, Europe and Siberia this year are not only wreaking local damage and sending choking smoke downwind. They are also affecting the climate itself in important ways that will long outlast their flames.
Wildfires emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that will continue to warm the planet well into the future. They damage forests that would otherwise remove CO2 from the air. And they inject soot and other aerosols into the atmosphere, with complex effects on warming and cooling.
To be sure, the leading cause of global warming remains overwhelmingly the burning of fossil fuels. That warming lengthens the fire season, drying and heating the forests. In turn, blazes like those scorching areas across the Northern Hemisphere this summer have a feedback effect—a vicious cycle when the results of warming produce yet more warming.
Although the exact quantities are difficult to calculate, scientists estimatethat wildfires emitted about 8 billion tons of CO2 per year for the past 20 years. In 2017, total global CO2 emissions reached 32.5 billion tons, according to the International Energy Agency.
When they calculate total global CO2 output, scientists don’t include all wildfire emissions as net emissions, though, because some of the CO2 is offset by renewed forest growth in the burned areas. As a result, they estimate that wildfires make up 5 to 10 percent of annual global CO2 emissions each year.
There have always been big wildfires, since long before humans began profoundly altering the climate by burning fossil fuels. Those historical emissions are part of the planet’s natural carbon cycle. But human activities, including firefighting practices, are resulting in bigger, more intense fires, and their emissions could become a bigger contributor to global warming.
Extreme fires can release huge amounts of CO2 in a very short time. California fire experts estimate that the blazes that devastated Northern California’s wine country in October 2017 emitted as much CO2 in one week as all of California’s cars and trucks do over the course of a year. This year’s fires have also been extreme; two of the state’s largest fires on record are burning right now, including the Mendocino fire complex, which exceeded 400,000 acres this week.
According to NOAA scientist Pieter Tans, head of the carbon cycle greenhouse gases group with the Greenhouse Gas Reference Network, a very large, very hot fire destroying 500,000 acres could emit the same total amount to CO2 as six large coal-fired power plants in one year.
That suggests that California’s wildfires in recent years may be releasing enough CO2 to endanger the state’s progress toward meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets.
While fires have been worsening in some regions, globally the total burned area and emissions from wildfires have actually decreased over the past 20 years, said Guido van der Werf, a Dutch researcher who analyzes trends for the Global Fire Emissions Database. The global decline is because burned savannas and rainforests in the tropics are being converted to agricultural lands, which are less fire-prone.
In regions of the world drying out with global warming, like the U.S. West and the Mediterranean, however, extreme fire seasons have increased in recent years.
“If we start to see a higher level of fire activity than in the past because of global warming, they become part of a climate feedback loop,” van der Werf said. That means warming causes more fires, which causes more warming.
In addition to their CO2 emissions, wildfires can affect the climate in other important ways.
Fires don’t just burn up trees and shrubs and emit smoke. They leave behind long-lasting changes on the ground, and those changes also have effects on the climate.
Over the course of several decades after a big fire, emissions from decomposing dead wood often surpass by far the direct emissions from the fire itself. But at the same time, new growth in burned areas starts to once again take CO2 from the atmosphere and store it.
Fires also change the reflectivity of the land, called albedo. As burned forest areas start to regrow, lighter-colored patches of grasses and shrubs come in first, which, because they reflect more solar radiation, can have a cooling effect until the vegetation thickens and darkens again.
Scott Denning, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, says site-specific studies show that the cooling effect in northern forests can last for decades. In a tropical rainforest, on the other hand, the dark canopy can regrow within a few years.
When new trees grow fast, they can start stashing away significant amounts of carbon quickly. But some recent research suggests that global warming is preventing forest regrowth after forest fires, including along the Front Range of Colorado and in the forests of the Sierra Nevada. If that emerges as a widespread trend in the coming decades, it means less forests available to take CO2 out of the atmosphere. Forests are estimated to absorb up to 30 percent of human greenhouse gas emissions.
Scientists can’t say for certain whether the global level of fire activity in recent years is warming or cooling the atmosphere overall. Part of the reason that they don’t have a definitive answer is because, along with CO2, wildfires also produce many other volatile organic particles called aerosols, including substances like black carbon and gases that form ozone.
One recent study suggests that wildfires emit three times more fine particle pollution than estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. This pollution creates health problems, and scientists are also working to better understand its impact on the climate.
Some of those aerosols can make the atmosphere more reflective. They block sunlight, which cools the atmosphere, similar to the effect attributed to emissions from volcanic eruptions. In general, the climate effect of aerosols is short-lived, lasting from a few months to a couple of years.
But black carbon, an aerosol and short-lived climate pollutant, can actually absorb heat while floating around in the air, and that heats the atmosphere. Recent research shows that the heat-trapping potency—though it is short-lived—is much higher than previously thought, roughly two-thirds that of carbon dioxide, according to Alfred Wiedensohler, with the Leibniz Institute for Tropospheric Research.
Megafires may intensify these emissions and send them higher into the atmosphere. A study published this week found that wildfires in Canada in 2017 resulted in extreme levels of aerosols over Europe, higher than those measured after the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption.
An increase in megafires, driven at least partly by global warming, could change the wildfire carbon cycle, said Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service.
“In general, if we’re seeing an increase in megafires, with direct injections (of pollutants) into the upper atmosphere, the effects can linger for weeks or months, and that could have more of a climate-cooling effect,” he said.
More pieces to the wildfire-climate puzzle will fall into place after scientists evaluate data gathered by a C-130 airplane that’s making daily cruises near Western U.S. wildfires to take detailed measurements of wildfire emissions. The mission is sponsored by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Science Foundation.
With the explosion of wildfires in the region the past few decades, the data will help evaluate impacts to human health and the environment, including nutrient cycling, cloud formation and global warming, said University of Wyoming atmospheric scientist Shane Michael Murphy, one of the project researchers.
Eventually, the skies will clear once again, but all that smoke doesn’t just magically disappear. The CO2 will heat the atmosphere for centuries; the methane for a few decades. Some of the aerosols and other particles are heavy enough to drift earthward, and others will wash to the ground with the first good rains of autumn or winter, but not before spreading out over the Northern Hemisphere’s oceans and continents.
Those tiny remnants of burned plants can also affect the climate when they land on mountain glaciers and especially on the snow and ice in the Arctic. In some years, scientists have traced soot from wildfires in Canada to Greenland, where they darken the ice and snow and speed up melting. Wildfire pollution was a significant factor in the record surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet in 2012, said climate scientist Jason Box.
The overall effect of wildfire fallout on Arctic melting is difficult to quantify, partly because of sparse sampling across the remote area, and partly because of the great annual variations in wildfire emissions. But a growing body of research suggests that wildfire soot will contribute to accelerating the Arctic meltdown in the decades ahead.
With wildfires burning farther north, emissions from wildfires in Greenland or Sweden could add significantly to the load of snow-darkening pollution in the Arctic because the sources are so close to the ice sheets. A 2016 study in Alaska estimated that risk of tundra fires will increase fourfold in the coming decades.
Once the spark is lit, humans can’t do much to change wildfires’ greenhouse gas emissions. But it’s still important to include them in the calculations for reaching the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the Paris climate agreement. With time running out to try and cap global warming at well-below 1.5 degrees Celsius, every ton of CO2 counts, and knowing how extreme wildfire seasons affect greenhouse gas emissions lets the world know how much it will have to cut emissions elsewhere.
Understanding how emissions form during wildfires could also help in the design of mitigation strategies to reduce their impact, said Christine Wiedinmyer, associate science director of the Cooperative Institute for Research In Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado.
For example, a recent CIRES research project suggests that hotter, uncontrolled fires produce more harmful substances. Introducing controlled fires that generally are not as hot could help reduce emissions.
The current increase in extreme fires in some regions is part of a global ecosystem shift driven by human-caused global warming, Denning said. He warned that societies need to adopt strong policies to prevent huge regions of carbon-storing forests from being replaced by lower-carbon grasslands and shrubs.
Based on the best estimates of CO2 emissions from wildfires, Denning said they are dwarfed by emissions from the burning of coal, oil, and gas, and that’s where the focus should be on reducing emissions.
“Without very strong climate policy, industrial emissions are likely to triple in this century. Against that backdrop, the climate effects of increased wildfires are smaller than the error bars in the climate effects of all that coal, oil, and gas,” he said.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says that the physical and financial impacts of global warming are accelerating.
Record greenhouse gas levels are driving temperatures to “increasingly dangerous levels”, it says.
Their report comes in the same week as the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported a surge in CO2 in 2018.
However, new data from the UK suggests Britain is bucking the trend with emissions down by 3%.
This year’s State of the Climate report from the WMO is the 25th annual record of the climate.
When it first came out in 1993, carbon dioxide levels were at 357 parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere. These have now risen to 405.5ppm and are expected to increase further.
This is having a significant impact on temperatures, with 2018 the fourth warmest year on record, almost 1C above what they were in the period between 1850-1900.
The years between 2015 and 2018 were the four warmest on that record, the study says.
“This report makes it very clear that the impacts of climate change are accelerating,” said Prof Samantha Hepburn who is director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resource Law at Deakin University in Australia.
“We know that if the current trajectory for greenhouse gas concentrations continues, temperatures may increase by 3 – 5 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels by the end of the century and we have already reached 1 degree.”
While some of these figures were published in a preliminary release of the study from last November, the full version has data on many key climate indicators, that the WMO says break new ground.
One example is ocean heat content. More than 90% of the energy trapped by greenhouse gases goes into the seas and according to the WMO, 2018 saw new records set for the amount of ocean heat content found in the upper 700 metres of the seas, and also for the upper 2,000 metres.
Sea levels also continued to increase with global mean sea level rising 3.7mm higher in 2018 than the previous year.
“This report highlights the increase in the rate of sea-level rise, and this is a real concern for those living in low-lying coastal areas, for both developing and developing countries,” said Dr Sally Brown, a research fellow at the University of Southampton.
“We know that sea-level rise is a global problem that will not go away, and efforts need to be made to help those who are really vulnerable to adapt to sea-level rise or move to safer areas.”
The head of the WMO say that the signals of warming continue to be seen in events since the turn of the year.
“Extreme weather has continued in the early 2019, most recently with Tropical Cyclone Idai, which caused devastating floods and tragic loss of life in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. It may turn out to be one of the deadliest weather-related disasters to hit the southern hemisphere,” said WMO Secretary General Petteri Taalas.
“Idai made landfall over the city of Beira: a rapidly growing, low-lying city on a coastline vulnerable to storm surges and already facing the consequences of sea level rise. Idai’s victims personify why we need the global agenda on sustainable development, climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction,” said Mr Taalas.
The report has been launched at a news conference in New York attended by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
“There is no longer any time for delay,” he wrote in a foreword to the new study.
However earlier this week the International Energy Agency published worrying data, indicating that in 2018 carbon emissions were up 1.7%, as a result of the fastest growth in energy use in the last six years.
The UK government has also released emissions data about greenhouse gas emissions over the past year. The figures show that emissions across the UK have fallen by 3% over the last year, the equivalent the government says, of taking 5 million cars off the road.
Factors driving UK emissions down include the fact that coal was the source of just 5% of electricity in 2018.
The government now says that carbon emissions are at their lowest level since before the turn of the 20th century, when Queen Victoria was on the throne.
Climate change activism is increasingly the domain of the young, such as 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the unlikely face of the school strike for climate movement, which has seen many thousands of children walk out of school to demand that their parents’ generation takes responsibility for leaving them a planet to live on. In comparison, the existing political establishment looks more and more like an impediment to change. The consequences of global warming have moved from the merely theoretical and predicted to observable reality over the past few years, but this has not been matched by an uptick in urgency. The need to keep the wheels of capitalism well-oiled takes precedence even against a backdrop of fires, floods and hurricanes.
Today’s children, as they become more politically aware, will be much more radical than their parents, simply because there will be no other choice for them. This emergent radicalism is already taking people by surprise. The Green New Deal (GND), a term presently most associated with 29-year-old US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has provoked a wildly unhinged backlash from the “pro free market” wing, who argue that it’s a Trojan horse, nothing more than an attempt to piggyback Marxism onto the back of climate legislation.
The criticism feels ridiculous. Partly because the GND is far from truly radical and already represents a compromise solution, but mainly because the radical economics isn’t a hidden clause, but a headline feature. Climate change is the result of our current economic and industrial system. GND-style proposals marry sweeping environmental policy changes with broader socialist reforms because the level of disruption required to keep us at a temperature anywhere below “absolutely catastrophic” is fundamentally, on a deep structural level, incompatible with the status quo.
Right now we can, with a massive investment of effort by 2030, just about keep the warming level below 1.5C. This is “bad, but manageable” territory. Failing to put that effort in sees the world crossing more severe temperature barriers that would lead to outcomes like ecosystem collapse, ocean acidification, mass desertification, and coastal cities being flooded into inhabitability.
We will simply have to throw the kitchen sink at this. Policy tweaks such as a carbon tax won’t do it. We need to fundamentally re-evaluate our relationship to ownership, work and capital. The impact of a dramatic reconfiguration of the industrial economy require similarly large changes to the welfare state. Basic incomes, large-scale public works programmes, everything has to be on the table to ensure that the oncoming system shocks do not leave vast swathes of the global population starving and destitute. Perhaps even more fundamentally, we cannot continue to treat the welfare system as a tool for disciplining the supposedly idle underclasses. Our system must be reformed with a more humane view of worklessness, poverty and migration than we have now.
Unfortunately for our children, the people they have to convince of all this are the people who have done very well out of this system, and are powerfully incentivised to deny that it is all that bad. Already, Joke Schauvliege, a Belgian environment minister, has been forced to resign after falsely claiming that she had been told by Belgian state security services that “ghosts” behind the scenes were behind demonstrations in Belgium.
This conspiracism of the elite, these claims that genuine mass movement can’t possibly really exist and must be in some way being guided by agents provocateurs, is just one of the ways in which those currently running things have resorted to a kind of political gaslighting in an attempt to maintain their grip on power.
Gaslighting is a term I don’t use lightly, because it describes a genuine form of emotional abuse, where an abuser will deny reality in an attempt to get their victim to literally doubt their own sanity, and this should not be diluted by overuse. Yet I struggle to think of another word that adequately sums up the way in which “sensible” adults are doubling down on their tactic of manufacturing a political reality which bears no relationship to the world we see around us. It’s the Marxism of Groucho rather than Karl: “Who are you going to believe? The serious political professionals or your own lying eyes?”
US Senator Dianne Feinstein’s meeting with schoolchildren petitioning her to take action over the issue went viral because of the way she condescended to them for, basically, asking her to leave them a planet behind to live on. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” she said, “I know what I’m doing.” The obvious response is, of course, that messing something up for 30 years is quite long enough, thanks. Long tenure without results is not the same thing as expertise.
This is a tough and bitter pill to swallow for the political professionals whose feet are firmly under the table. It is increasingly obvious that all their tactics have done almost nothing except run down the clock, but still they insist that it’s the young who just don’t get it and that things aren’t that simple. They’re the living embodiment of the famous New Yorker cartoon, with a suited man sat in a post-apocalyptic landscape telling his young audience “Yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”
Many of today’s climate strikers won’t even be 30 by the time the 1.5C deadline comes around in 2030. They are asking us to consider a simple question: is their future worth more than preserving our reputations? What will our response to them be?
• Phil McDuff writes on economics and social policy
The warming of planet Earth continues apace, and the ramifications become ever more stunning with each passing month. While no single meteorological event or phenomenon can be attributed solely to human-caused climate disruption, this is now nearly always the leading cause of the event, or at the very least a major contributing factor.
On that note, it is worth remembering that the single worst mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the “Great Dying” that happened 252 million years ago and took out as much as 96 percent of all marine species and two-thirds of terrestrial life, occurred due to rapid planetary warming.
Another feedback loop has been discovered in the Arctic, this time in Greenland, where it was recently reported that melting glaciers are yet another source of methane.
It was also recently revealed that Greenland saw an “unprecedented” loss of ice over the last two decades. Another study by a US research team had shown that the decade of 2004-13 experienced more sustained and intense melting there than during any other 10-year period in the 350-year record. This means that Greenland is contributing more to sea level rise than previously understood, adding more than at any other time that record keeping has existed. Melt water runoff there has increased 50 percent since the industrial revolution began.
Dear readers, take a deep breath, and keep reading. We must be aware of the reality of this crisis, if we are to behave accordingly.
A scientist returning to the Puerto Rican rainforest recently found that 98 percent of all the ground insects had disappeared since he was there 35 years ago. The scientist, Brad Lister, told The Guardian: “We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on the planet. It is just horrifying to watch us decimate the natural world like this.”
His findings come on the heels of other disturbing studies that have revealed crashing insect populations in other places around the world. Lister has warned of an “ecological Armageddon” from these crashes.
Meanwhile, increasing temperatures alone are already threatening to decimate US crop yields. Farmer’s livelihoods are at risk as warmer temperatures, drought and floods combine to disrupt agricultural productivity. In addition to farmers struggling to make a living, food prices will, of course, escalate.
Another climate change impact with obvious consequences for humans is increasing heat waves. A study published late last year showed that more people globally are vulnerable to heat exposure, which means they will be at greater risk of heat stress, heart and kidney disease, and other heat-related issues that can kill. The study estimated that between 2030-50, climate change could also kill an additional quarter million people each year “due to malnutrition, diarrhea, malaria and heat stress.”
Another study showed that almost one-third of all of the bird species in Wales are now “declining significantly,” with some already having disappeared entirely.
A recent report about the state of the Arctic showed that the number of Arctic reindeer has crashed by 58 percent in the last two decades alone, largely due to climate change.
Two scientists warned recently that the planet’s extinction toll may be far worse than previously understood. Climate change, overpopulation of humans, exploitation of resources and habitat destruction are combining to cause cascades of extinctions. The scientists warned that today’s rates, which are already 1,000 times the normal background extinction rate, could be a staggering 10 times worse.
In the US, another wave of US citizens have become climate change refugees. In the wake of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina last fall, many people of the New Bern community in the eastern part of the state have had their homes and lives destroyed. Already a largely old, poor and disabled community, these people cannot afford to stay where they are, and those who try to stay are beset with the psychological tolls and environmental toxins that are ravaging the area.
Even the corporate media are now reporting on “climate grief” — what happens to us when the experiences of extreme weather events and dire climate reports, such as this one, continue to intensify. Alongside them, the mental health impacts of depression and resignation about a grim future on the planet are striking more people than ever before. Even just last year, the American Psychological Association published a report on this subject, openly discussing trauma from living through extreme weather events, but also noting how “gradual, long-term changes in climate can also surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.”
In addition to the aforementioned dramatic news of the melting ice sheets and glaciers of Greenland and Antarctica, another study has revealed that glaciers in the Arctic are melting so dramatically they are pouring 14,000 tons of water every second into the ocean.
This means they are contributing more to sea level rise than even current melting in Antarctica, and that the Arctic region has thus contributed nearly one full inch to sea levels since just 1971.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2018 Arctic Report Card survey showed that sea ice had reached its second-lowest extent ever recorded as the Arctic experienced its second-warmest year on record. The report warns that this leaves the wildlife and communities across that region under great pressure as climate and ecosystems are undergoing dramatic changes.
Meanwhile, the melting of ice around the world continues apace.
In the Himalayas, a photo essay by the Nepali Times shows and describes the dramatic changes there, where the world’s highest glaciers are melting and receding at a shocking pace.
In Canada, a recent report warned that a stunning 80 percent of mountain glaciers in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon will disappear within just 50 years from now.
Meanwhile, in the realm of the privileged, Miami’s affluent, many of whom are referring to themselves as “climate refugees,” are also abandoning their high-dollar oceanfront residences and moving to higher ground because of impending sea level rise. This is causing gentrification and suffering of the less privileged who happen to already be living in the areas where the rich are moving and driving up the costs of living for everyone.
Last November, the extremely well researched and comprehensive National Climate Assessment warned that, among many other things, increasingly warmer temperatures across the US threaten national water security. The report warned of physical alterations in the nation’s water supplies, including rising seas driving saltwater further inland underground, which threatens major water sources for cities such as Miami. Mountainous regions are seeing more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow, endangering water supplies that rely heavily on snowpack. Meanwhile, in lakes, rivers and estuaries, warmer temperatures mean an increase in algal blooms like those which occurred in Florida last summer and fall, causing massive fish kills and disruption to life and tourism.
Before the heat wave that is now scorching Australia, flash flooding in Sydney caused chaos and two deaths when the heaviest November rainfall in decades struck the city.
Also on the sea level rise front, Venice made the news again recently with a tax on day tourists in hopes of raising money to address the crisis, while local residents and businesses deal with the chaos of a city struggling to survive against sea rise and constant flooding.
On the other end of the water spectrum, a recent study showed that “anthropogenic climate forcing has doubled the joint probability of years that are both warm and dry in the same location” since 1931, posing a very serious threat to agriculture on a planetary scale. The study also found that the frequency of simultaneous hot/dry conditions will keep increasing, and will reach about 20 percent over the next 30 years without dramatic reductions of fossil fuel emissions.
Farmers in the US Midwest are already sounding the alarm about the “radical” changes they describe as far as the dramatic impacts of drought and higher temperatures on their farms. They are already spending more money and time than ever in trying to figure out how to grow crops amidst ever-changing harsher conditions.
Worryingly, several studies already exist that show the dramatic decline in nutrients of food due primarily to increasingly warm temperatures, some by as much as up to 30 percent.
Meanwhile, the oceans continue to warm apace.
Off the coast of Northwestern Alaska, the cod population is now at the lowest level it has ever been, and state officials have declared disasters after multiple salmon fisheries have failed. Meanwhile, further to the north, salmon runs are dramatically increasing due to warmer temperatures, reflecting the disruptive, chaotic and unpredictable nature of our warming planet.
On that note, oceans are continuing to heat far faster than previously expected, and 2018 set yet another heat record for the warming oceans, a trend which further threatens marine life.
The Guardian recently reported how several studies have shown how the US is woefully prepared for extreme weather events to come, including the dramatic increase of wildfires that have been predicted as climate disruption continues to advance. Last year, the wildfires in Californiaalone destroyed thousands of structures and left 85 people dead.
Meanwhile, in January, wildfires scorched many parts of Australia, as large swaths of that country continued to bake under record-breaking high temperatures.
Temperature records around the world continue to soar, as do projections. In the UK, a recent report by the Met Office warned that summers there could be more than 5 degrees Celsius (5°C) warmer by 2070.
Very disturbing news came from a Japanese satellite that has spotted signs of methane gas bubbling up from beneath lakes that are forming in the tundra as Arctic permafrost continues to thaw. It is important to remember that methane is a far, far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
Another troubling bit of news on this topic came in the form of a studyindicating that the upper reaches of the Himalayas, the highest mountain range on Earth, are already likely to be warmer than previously understood.
The Trump administration’s climate change denialism has, as usual, been off the charts since the last dispatch.
Their response to the National Climate Assessment, an intensely comprehensive study detailing the impacts of climate change across the US, including impacts that will cost the US hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars of damage in the coming decades, was to dismiss the findings of the federal report.
Then, in the wake of that move and unable to bury its own National Climate Assessment, since it was a government generated report, the Trump administration and its denialist colleagues launched a full-scale assault against the science in the report.
After releasing the report on Black Friday afternoon in an attempt to bury it, Trump simply said of the catastrophic findings, “I don’t believe it.” Following that, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler and then-head of the Department of Interior Ryan Zinke, carried forward the assault on the report, along with other climate change denialists, calling the report“alarmist” and extreme.
Furthermore, Wheeler went on to say that the Trump administration may even intervene in the next climate study.
Meanwhile, back in reality, a poll released in late November showed that nearly two-thirds of Republicans and the majority of all Americans acknowledge that climate change is real. I understand that reporting this is akin to congratulating people for acknowledging the reality of gravity, but it has, indeed, come to this in the United States.
Another poll also showed that seven in 10 Americans believe climate change is happening, a 10-point increase over four years ago.
This is good, as the impacts of climate change are only going to intensify, and then some, given the International Energy Agency’s recent announcement that carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s richer countries were set to increase through the end of 2018, a trend that broke a five-year decline.
More bad news came from another report in early December 2018 which showed that global carbon emissions, not just in richer countries, were on track to jump to an all-time high through 2018, increasing by 2.7 percent.
Meanwhile, at the time of this writing, atmospheric CO2 had already set three daily records for January, with an all-time high of 413.86 parts per million (ppm) on January 22.
The year 2018 saw three daily records set for the entire year, 2017 and 2016 saw two daily records each, and 2015 saw one.
Writing these climate dispatches has become increasingly difficult over the last five years. Each new report of the melting of glaciers and ice fields that is accelerating yet again, each new source of methane that is now speeding the warming of the already overburdened atmosphere, each new bird species listed as “declining significantly,” each new atmospheric CO2 level reached, and every round of temperature records across the planet leads to yet more grief, anguish, rage, anxiety, sadness — and finally, acceptance.
Yet, doing this research and collating it into this report each month is akin to watching, very closely, the slow-motion death of someone I love dearly.
At the same time, this work has brought some of the most magnificent people I’ve ever known into my life. Hence, the tragic drama of this Great New Era of Loss we have entered with Earth would not be complete without, of course, love.
One of these people in my life is author, teacher, healer and elder of Cherokee descent, Stan Rushworth. His writing and wisdom touched me so deeply at the exact moment in my life when I needed it more than I even knew. His presence in my life enabled me to conclude my recently published book properly.
Stan and I talk pretty regularly. He wrote me shortly after finishing my book, before it was published, as I had asked for his feedback.
Like me, Stan is burdened by the gravity of loss upon us now, and by us, I mean the big Us … all life on Earth. But here is what he wrote me, in part, as a response to this seemingly bottomless and unfathomable loss (Stan doesn’t use capital letters):
i read the other day that elephants are now being born without developing tusks, in areas where poachers have been killing them for the ivory. years ago in northern california, i heard a story about a place where lots of rattlesnakes lived, and the people there went on a series of extermination hunts, killing all they could find. the next generation of rattlers there carried no rattles, a quick adaptation to madness made by nature, by snake. it makes me wonder if earth has something in mind for her survival, or if human aberration has the power to change even nature’s mind. so many creatures and beings are now dying needlessly, that i wonder what’s going through her. i looked at big seas rolling in today, a storm coming, and though the surface was smooth and glassy, the waves huge, the roar was strong and carried far inland. i can open the door and listen from here.
why so many people have chosen to forget so much is completely beyond me.
with love and thanks,
Stan reminds me to see the beauty and the mystery, even in the loss. And in so doing, to also remember to go touch the Earth, in homage and respect, while so much continues to live today.
It is clear that runaway climate disruption is upon us, and I wonder if humans’ ability to adapt to this increasingly harsh new world will be as dramatic as that of the elephants and the rattlesnakes when faced with their annihilation.
More than a year after President Donald Trump nixed climate change from his administration’s list of national security threats, the Pentagon has released an alarming report detailing how dozens of U.S. military bases are already threatened by rising seas, drought and wildfire.
“The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations,” states the 22-page document, which was published Thursday.
The congressionally mandated analysis looked at a total of 79 military installations around the country. The Defense Department found that 53 sites are currently vulnerable to repeat flooding. Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, for example, has experienced 14 inches of sea level rise since 1930. Additionally, more than half of the 79 bases are at risk from drought, while nearly half are vulnerable to wildfire.
These climate impacts are expected to pose a risk to several other installations over the next two decades, and the report notes that “projected changes will likely be more pronounced at the mid-century mark” if climate adaptation measures are not taken.
While the report is a clear recognition of the immediate threat that climate change poses to the nation’s military infrastructure, it makes no mention of the greenhouse gas emissions driving the crisis. It also doesn’t mention some of the most recent climate-related devastation to military bases, including the estimated $3.6 billion in damages that Camp Lejeune in North Carolina suffered during Hurricane Florence last year.
The Pentagon’s assessment comes just over a year after Trump eliminated any reference to climate change from the White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy report, breaking with two decades of military planning.
Even then, there was dissonance between the Defense Department and the White House.
A week earlier, Trump had signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which devoted about 870 words to the “vulnerabilities to military installations” over the next two decades and warned that rising temperatures, droughts and famines might lead to more failed states ― which are “breeding grounds of extremist and terrorist organizations.” “Climate change is a national security issue,” the legislation said, quoting then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and four other former top military commanders. And it said that the Air Force’s $1 billion radar installation on a Marshall Islands atoll “is projected to be underwater within two decades.”
Yet a month later, in January 2018, the Pentagon followed Trump’s lead and scrubbed its National Defense Strategy of all references to climate change.
In Thursday’s report, the Defense Department describes climate change as “a global issue” and says it is “continuing to work with partner nations to understand and plan for future potential mission impacts.”
The department said in a statement to HuffPost that the report delivers a “high-level assessment of the vulnerability of DOD installations.”
“DOD must be able to adapt current and future operations to address the impacts of a wide variety of threats and conditions, to include those from weather, climate and natural events,” Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said by email. “DOD will focus on ensuring it remains ready and able to adapt to a wide variety of threats ― regardless of the source ― to fulfill our mission to deter war and ensure our nation’s security.”
The department did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about any White House role in the report.
Oddly, the new analysis omits the Marine Corps. It also doesn’t identify the top 10 military bases within each service branch that are most vulnerable to climate impacts, a requirement of the defense bill that Trump signed into law in December 2017.
“They don’t have the prioritization of impact. That’s confusing,” said John Conger, a former principal deputy under secretary of defense in the Obama administration and current director of the research group Center for Climate and Security.
Conger said he expects that Congress will tell the Pentagon to go back and fulfill its request.
Climate change was first publicly recognized as a major concern for the Pentagon in May 1990, when the U.S. Naval War College issued a 73-page report, titled “Global Climate Change Implications for the United States,” which found that “Naval operations in the coming half century may be drastically affected by the impact of global climate change.”
The issue gained prominence under President George W. Bush, despite that administration’s embrace of climate change denialism. In October 2003, the National Defense University published a report stating that “global warming could have a chilling effect on the military.”
Today, the military still walks a fine line when discussing climate issues, particularly given that many congressional Republicans reject the realities of human-driven warming. Officials at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the world’s largest naval station, have admitted to avoiding language such as “sea level rise” when requesting maintenance funds to raise docks, according to journalist Jeff Goodell’s recent book The Water Will Come.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the new report “inadequate” and criticized the Trump-era Defense Department for “treating climate change as a back burner issue.”
“President Trump’s climate change denial must not adversely impact the security environment where our troops live, work, and serve,” Reed said in a Friday statement. “Whether the Trump Administration wants to admit it or not, climate change is already costing the Department significant amounts of taxpayer resources and impacting military readiness.”
Toward the front end of the recent spasm of several wildfires (one of them record-breaking) to rake drought-prone California, my friend Michael Dales who lives in Berkeley shared this with me:
“Smoke from the fire burning up in Butte County is so thick here in the Bay Area that lungs ache, eyes burn, and the TV news warns against being outside. Because of the winds (and of course, because we’ve had no rain), at one point the Camp/Butte fire was consuming the equivalent of 1 football field of acreage every second. Again, a football field size area every second.”
And it’s not just wildfires that are setting records. Every year now we are seeing records being set for high temperatures, record-breaking droughts, Arctic sea ice melting and more species going extinct every day.
All one needs to do to see these dramatic changes stemming from runaway climate change is look out the window. When we sit still, and really pay attention to the shifts in nature right in front of our eyes, they cannot be missed.
Below is a selection of observations from some of Truthout’s readers from around the world.
Mark Oates, who lives on a farm in New South Wales, Australia, shared the following with me in September, while his country was being wracked by ongoing drought.
“My 17-year-old daughter has been reading the Deep Adaptation document and sent it to her economics teacher. It is interesting and at times difficult to talk with her about our predicament. She is certainly reconsidering if she would want to bring a child into this world. All I can say is that it is her decision and we don’t know what the future will look like other than it will be much more difficult than what it is now. Now that her eyes are open, she is keen to help other[s] see….”
Shortly after that, Mark sent another email that is worth noting:
“A lovely old guy, probably in his eighties or nineties, I ran into in the take away shop a few weeks ago was saying that he can’t wait for the weather to get back to the way it used to be. He said he could always count on getting snowed in a couple of times a year with 3-4 [feet] of snow. “It just rejuvenates the land,” he said. He said he hasn’t seen snow since the mid ’80s….”
“Tasmania is not so much wilderness as wild. It is wilder in some places than others; for example, the highlands in the northwest of the state. There are forests there that have survived since the late ice age, and that’s because the island climate has protected them from the occasional heat waves brought down from the north, across the desert inland of Australia. Global warming is bringing hotter weather on the average, though. More heat waves and also more thunderstorms. The thunderstorms are more likely to bring dry lightning, and two years ago, the fires in the northwest ravaged some of the ancient pencil-pine forest, 11,000 years old. It will not grow back.
“The fire service is more concerned about fences and sheds, even on abandoned properties. That’s where most of the bushfire was fought, in the southern summer of 2016. There were no resources left to save bits of the beautiful heirloom forest in the wild, in the wilderness.
“More lightning, less rain: that does the farmers and graziers no good here, and far less on the mainland of Australia. The eastern half of Australia, away from the coastline, has been in drought for over five years.
“In Tasmania, the rains are coming less frequently, but the warming of the ocean means that we may get far heavier rain when it does arrive. This happened last May. Hobart was flooded. The streams that make the town livable were vomiting debris into the city, tearing out roads and paths, overflowing into streets and buildings. Torrents of water ran down hillsides and through houses. At our house, we were lucky. The water flowed down the steps from the road and probably undermined the concrete stairs to the house, but they didn’t collapse. Several of the neighbours had their ground floors soaked and their belongings ruined, not to mention the many who are not our neighbours.
“The fact is, collectively, we were lucky. Most city folks have building insurance that covers the damage, so their losses, in dollar terms, are limited. But we have lost our climate, and we will be losing more of it, and a fair proportion of Hobartians know this and do not try to deny it. But we will not fare well if the sea level rises by more than a metre. Of course, we’ll be better off than Miami, or even Melbourne, on Australia’s south-eastern coast, but if the Antarctic glaciers fall away, then downtown Hobart will disappear, along with New York City and Bangladesh. We live on a hillside 80 metres above sea level, so our shelter would remain in the worst of circumstances, but that’s ignoring the social collapse that would ride along with a climate disaster like major ice-cap melting in Antarctica and Greenland.
“Until then, we are lucky. But our luck may last a bit longer than the Bangladeshis’ luck, but in the end, we will also be living by our wits in a land of surprises.”
That same month from Geneva, Switzerland, independent journalist and Truthout contributor Robert James Parsons wrote the following from the city where he lives:
“In 2003, Europe lived through the worst heat wave on record. It started with a very early spring (mid-February). By late July, the temperature in Switzerland was up around +/- 40°C (+/-104°F), breaking a record.
“This year, the temperatures were only slightly above long-term averages, with cool periods and rain every few weeks.
“Then, in the beginning of July it started to get warm, and it got hot very fast. In four weeks, enough heat had accumulated to push the temperatures above 40°C for a good week. In 2003, it had taken over four months for this much heat to accumulate, with no cool periods and almost no rain. This time, it took about four weeks, starting from below normal temperatures.
“This means that the earth was not abnormally warm this year when the heat wave started, hence, it was still absorbing heat. Yet four weeks later, it was throwing heat back up at us because it had reached saturation point. This is testimony to the intensity of the summer heat.”
That same spring, Joseph Peterson, Truthout’s community liaison shared this:
“I am sad to have read the details from your piece, ‘Thanks to Climate Disruption, Earth Is Already Losing Critical Biosphere Components,’ but I know the truth in it all too well following my recent travels to Spain and then Florida immediately after. In Barcelona and Valencia, all anyone said to me was that ‘… it isn’t normally like this this time of year,’ in reference to the cold and rainy weather I experienced for most of the two weeks I was there. It was also unseasonably cold the entire time I was down at the Gulf Coast of Florida. By mid-March it is usually in the 50s [to] 60s [Fahrenheit], but it stayed in the 40s the entire time. People in Europe seemed more aware of the problems of climate change, but they too have many political hurdles to jump in order to improve their own carbon footprint, which is certainly less than ours in the States.”
Some of these people, including two of the aforementioned, have shared their observations of changes occurring over decades. Given the mobility of much of industrialized societies, it is an anomaly to find people who’ve lived in the same place for longer than a decade, so their perspectives are very much worth noting.
Robert James Parsons from Geneva, in May 2017, shared this:
“Here, today, it was well over 80 degrees, Fahrenheit, with a strong, steady northerly wind. I have been running, to work out, on the lake embankment for the past twenty-nine years that I’ve lived here. It has an almost perfect north-south alignment. Today, the wind was definitely out of the north, but warm, warm, warm. I have never known such a warm northerly wind, much less at this time of year, so early in the summer (a time that used to be late spring). I keep mentioning the premature spring — four to six weeks ahead of schedule, depending on the species of vegetation — and getting the usual consumer response, ‘Yes, hasn’t it been beautiful?’ Nobody seems to have the slightest idea what such a shift means.”
My friend Michael, whose comments about the current wildfires in California are above, shared this observation about the drought in his state, as well as overpopulation:
“I was raised in San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s and 1980s before leaving for college. Fifteen years ago, I returned to the East Bay city where I grew up. Through the years I have been amazed by the changes I have witnessed. The quiet residential streets where we played as kids are now often clogged with traffic. Today, a child riding a bicycle or skateboard runs the risk of being mowed down by a speeding Prius with a Hillary [Clinton] sticker. That’s because the Bay Area’s population is growing exponentially. In addition to the expanding populace, the most notable difference has been the changing weather patterns, particularly the distinct lack of rain. The media calls it a five-year-long drought, but in a very visceral sense, it doesn’t seem like the drought we had in the 1970s. This feels like the new normal, or perhaps I should say abnormal. If you grew up here and know the area in your bones, you can feel that the environmental systems that supported us are breaking down. As the rain stops falling and the reservoirs dry up where will this growing population get its water?”
He wrote that in the spring of 2017, before the record-breaking wildfire season scorched his state that year, only to be surpassed by the Camp Fire this year, which now holds the record for lives lost and property destruction.
In the fall of 2016, Tom Shetterly wrote from San Lorenzo Nuovo, Italy.
“About 15 years ago we started an olive orchard in Central Italy, and as the trees have matured and the climate has warmed, I have noticed several changes which I am confident are due to climate change.
“In the late ’90s Italy was in a drought pattern that lasted for another 5-6 years. The winter temperatures were, on average, about 1 degree (Celsius) warmer, and the summer was usually quite hot with no more of the summer rains that Central Italy used to get. In 2006, we had an infestation of a leaf-eating beetle that — if left unattended — would strip the leaves from the top branches (new growth) from all the trees. My caretaker and friend, Roberto, had never seen this before in his 60 years of living in that area. In 2008, we saw a new insect — an egg-laying moth — that would drill its proboscis into the new fruit, lay an egg, and the egg (worm) would eat its way to the seed of the fruit and go dormant for a while. Later in the season, usually around mid-August, the worm would eat its way to the surface, and the result was a complete destruction of the fruit.
“The EU has been looking for a way to kill these moths but has nothing yet, and every year — because there have not been any hard freezes in the area for years — the moths get a little more intense. Their season is a little longer so we can see moths in May and they last until November. Two years ago, we experienced a bark blight — fungal in nature — which produced large welts or sores on the bark. This spread like wildfire throughout the orchard. Last winter we used a dormant spray, which had little or no effect, and it is just a matter of time before all the trees are covered with this scaly blight. It doesn’t seem to affect the fruit per say, but in time I am afraid it will kill all the trees.
“The boot of Italy has also developed serious issues with their trees, and it seems to be spreading all over the Mediterranean. It is a bacterial infection that dries out the leaves — as if it is stealing all the moisture from the tree — and the fruit either dies or never matures. The end result has been to cut down 1,000+ year-old trees to prevent the spread of whatever this is. Locals have tried injecting antibiotics into the soil, and continual spraying with copper sulfate, but nothing has worked. There are 600,000 trees in this part of Italy and they are a principal component of the local economy. If all these ancient trees die, it will be the end of the olive oil economy in Southern Italy, and if it spreads to the rest of the Mediterranean, it could mean the end of the olive oil business altogether.
“My opinion, and the opinion of farmers who have worked the land for generations, is that climate change is the culprit causing these dramatic and disturbing infestations. Without cold enough winters to freeze the larvae, it appears that these problems will persist with greater damage as time goes on. Stock up on olive oil. It may not be so abundant in the future. I talk to my trees, and their response now is frightening.”
At this point it is clear that, no matter where you live in the world, all that is needed to understand how far along we are regarding human-caused climate disruption is to look closely into the natural world where you live.
Only a relatively short time frame is necessary for comparison to how dramatic changes are upon us compared to nature’s normal cycles.
This awareness is accompanied by alarm, but also reminds us to cherish and work to protect what is here today, while we still can.
This year saw a number of notable wildfires, storms, and droughts ravage many regions around the world. As the year draws to an end and we look to 2019 for some relief, the National Climate Assessment, released in November and prepared across 13 federal agencies, isn’t reassuring: More frequent and intense events are on the horizon as the climate continues to warm. The report warns of further loss of life, substantial economic impact, and a transformation of current ecosystems so significant that “future generations can expect to experience and interact with the natural environment in ways that are different from today.” These photos illustrate this year’s most devastating natural disasters.
Drought, kindling-like dry vegetation, and strong winds intensified wildfires this year to catastrophic levels, helping them burn hotter and spread faster. As global temperatures continue to rise for the foreseeable future and communities continue to be built and expand into fire-prone areas, wildfires will persist as a menacing force with devastating consequences.
In Greece, a series of wildfires called the Attica fires spread across resort communities such as Mati, and began on July 23 during a particularly lengthy heat wave in Europe. These fires were the second-deadliest series in the 21st century with over 90 dead. Although many factors contributed to the high death toll, the prolonged hot and dry conditions coupled with winds in excess of 45 mph fed and fanned the fast-moving blaze.
California also had a particularly disastrous year that included both the most destructive (Camp fire) and the largest complex fires (Mendocino Complex fire) on record for the state. The Mendocino Complex fire torched over 400,000 acres of land in July and killed a firefighter. The Camp fire, which was first reported on Nov. 8, in Paradise, California, claimed the lives of 88 people and destroyed more than 250,000 acres. Other notable fires in California were the Woolsey fire, which began in November and burned all the way from Thousand Oaks to the coastline in Malibu, and the Carr fire in July, which claimed the lives of both firefighters and civilians.
The overall rise and often extreme temperatures, coupled with little to no precipitation, led to lengthy heat waves in regions worldwide and put some cities in a drought. The Australian state of New South Wales was plunged into total despair “with close to 100% of the state in one of the three drought categories,” according to the Department of Primary Industries, which monitors drought. The state’s second-driest fall on record was followed by a very dry winter, leading to large-scale crop failure and dried-up dams. Grim images of skin-and-bones livestock began to emerge as farmers struggled to feed their animals and find them adequate water.
Northern and Southern European countries alike were gripped by a deadly heat wave caused in part by a stalled jet stream beginning in May. The prolonged extreme temperatures caused a widespread browning of fields and vegetation, which could be seen from space. Other effects included a number of wildfires, the melting of the southern peak of Kebnekaise in Sweden, causing it to lose its title as the highest peak in the country, and a critical reduction of the Rhine’s river levels, resulting in the death of thousands of fish.
In Afghanistan, another very dry winter has led to the worst drought in decades with millions of people in some parts of the country lacking access to food and water. The situation is so dire it rivals the ongoing conflict between the government and the Taliban. The United Nations announced the allocation of $34.5 million in emergency aid in October.
Hurricanes, or typhoons, as they’re called for storms over the western Pacific ocean, are fueled first and foremost by warm ocean waters. As the oceans gradually heat by around 0.2 degrees per decade, we should experience larger and more frequent storms during future hurricane seasons.
Two major storms to hit the United States this year were hurricanes Florence and Michael. Both storms reached a Category 4 while over the warm ocean waters, and each caused destruction in their own way. Florence, the first major hurricane of the season, weakened before making landfall as a Category 1 on Sept. 15, but moved so slowly and dumped a devastating amount of rain (20 to 30 inches) that it caused catastrophic flooding in North Carolina and 53 deaths. Hurricane Michael, the third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the US, hit Mexico Beach, Florida, as a Category 4 on Oct. 4. Its wind speeds (up to 155 mph) caused more damage than its rainfall. At least 36 people died as a result of Michael.
Super Typhoon Mangkhut was a Category 5 as it made landfall in the northern Philippines and made its way toward South China. In anticipation of this incredibly strong storm, the Hong Kong Observatory labeled it a Signal 10 (the strongest in its range). The typhoon caused an incredible amount of damage with heavy rain, strong storm surge, wind damage with speeds of 109 mph and deadly landslides, and caused at least 88 deaths.
There is a 90 percent chance that El Niño will form and continue through the Northern Hemisphere winter of 2018-19 and a 60 percent chance that it will continue into the spring of 2019, according to the Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
El Niño is a part of a routine climate pattern that occurs when sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean rise to above-normal levels for an extended period of time. It can last anywhere from 4 to 16 months and it typically has a warming influence on the global temperature.
The opposite of El Niño, La Niña, is when sea-surface temperatures in the central Pacific drop to lower-than-normal levels.
These warm and cool phases are part of a recurring climate pattern that occurs across this section of the Pacific, known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
This is a Monday, Dec. 8, 2014 file photo of birds as they fly past at sun set as smoke emits from a chimney at a factory in Ahmadabad, India. Temperatures have risen almost 1 degree C (1.8 F) since humans started burning fossil fuels — the biggest source of greenhouse gases — on an industrial scale in the 19th century. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
The strong El Niño of late 2015 to early 2016 helped boost global temperatures to their warmest on record in 2016, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson.
“However, if there was no El Niño during that period, I still suspect that 2016 would have still ranked as the second warmest year on record globally due to the steady increase in greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which trap heat closer to the surface,” Anderson said.
So far, 2018 is on pace to likely be the third warmest year on record, behind 2016 and 2017.
“What’s interesting is that 2018 started out under La Niña conditions, which usually has a cooling influence on global temperatures, but it was not nearly enough to cancel out the warming from the release of man-made greenhouse gases,” Anderson said.
However, since late April 2018, sea-surface temperatures across much of the east-central tropical Pacific returned to neutral levels following the La Niña of 2017-18, meaning neither La Niña or El Niño present.
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“Looking back at the data, years with moderate to strong El Niño’s continue to trend warmer. If this upcoming El Niño reaches at least moderate strength and persists at least 9 months, then I think that 2019 can end up in the top two warmest on record globally,” Anderson said.
The global temperature impacts of El Niño are sometimes delayed. Therefore, 2020 may end up warmer than 2019 even though this upcoming El Niño may be well over by that time.
Global ocean water temperatures in October 2018 ranked as the second warmest on record for October. Oceans can store a lot of heat, thus the world’s oceans may remain near or at record warmth through 2019, which will further add to the warming influence of the global air temperature.
It is certainly possible that 2019 may be the warmest year on record, Anderson said.
“I am not ready to say it will be the warmest on record yet. Though I am fairly confident that it will at least rank in the top three regardless of the strength of the El Niño,” Anderson said. “Ask me again in March.”
In this May 23, 2016, file photo, a man bath his son on a hot afternoon in a slum in Mumbai, India. For the third straight year, Earth set a record for the hottest year, NOAA and NASA announced. NASA says 2016 was warmer than 2015 – by a lot. It’s mostly global warming with a little assist from the now-gone El Nino. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool, File)
The impacts of El Niño have been more severe in recent years due to global warming, and these impacts may be worse as temperatures continue to rise, according to a recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, published on Aug. 22.
Emerging research suggests that the typical atmospheric responses to La Niña and El Niño are changing and that the expected weather in the United States may not follow the traditional ENSO pattern.
The AccuWeather Long-Range Team closely follows the on-going research linking climate change to the long-term trends in ENSO patterns, according to AccuWeather Long-Range Meteorologist Max Vido.
“When creating our seasonal forecasts for the U.S., we take into account the long-term climate trends when predicting temperature and precipitation anomalies compared to the 30-year normal (1981-2010),” Vido said.
The team has become increasingly vigilant of how the global weather pattern during more recent El Niño and La Niña events can differ from the traditional expected patterns.
“So, instead of assuming a certain ENSO phase will lead to a particular seasonal weather pattern to areas of the U.S., we acknowledge how the once traditional impacts could be different. This is all factored into our seasonal forecasts,” Vido said.
(Data source: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS). Credit: NASA/GISS)
As of November 2018, El Niño has not officially begun and questions remain about the strength and longevity of this El Niño.
The years 2014, 2015 2016 and 2017 all rank in the top four warmest years on record globally, ocean and land combined, with data going back to 1880, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“It’s not hard to see that with the potential added boost from another El Niño that 2019, or even 2020, is a pretty good bet to take out some of those years from the top four list,” Anderson said.
Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998, which was a strong El Niño year, according to Anderson.
Research shows that the warming climate will have a profound affect on extreme weather events, such as heat waves, wildfires, droughts, flooding and violent storms.
The U.S. government released a report in November 2018 that highlights these impacts. The report examines the effects that climate change will have on health, local communities, the economy and infrastructure.