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Climate Armageddon Revisited

Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flig | CC BY 2.0

It was only five years ago that Scientific American published this article: Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok, d/d May 25, 2012. The subheading to that article read: “Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate ‘flip’ could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years.” Well now….

That 2012 article also explained how the eminent British scientist James Lovelock (98) switched allegiance from his original theory of Gaia, which states that Gaia (Earth) will always compensate for changes in climate by natural occurrence, a self-correcting mechanism, not too hot, not too cold, not to worry. That was back in the 1970s.

Contrariwise, thirty-plus years later in 2006 Lovelock rejected his own theory, ominously stating: “I have to tell you, as members of the Earth’s family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilization, are in grave danger.” (Published in The Independent in 2006), Ibid.

Thus, Lovelock rejected his own Gaia hypothesis of a self-regulating planet and embraced the “flip” school of thought, which refers to dynamic systems or mathematics that describe things that tend to change suddenly, difficult to predict as to timing. Ergo, this refers to the fearsome tipping point, when the climate system suddenly turns wacky like a wild beast poked with a stick (Broecker), self-reinforcing its destructive path, hands-free, no stopping its ruinous behavior! This may already be happening on a scale that is downright scary in fact singularly scary because it’s so soon. This is not normal. The planet is on Speed!

Massive hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria) and torrential flooding (Houston, Sierra Leone, Bihar-India, Assam-India, Nepal, Mumbai, Southern Asian Noah’s Ark territory) are only telltale signs, minor events in a bigger picture, like canaries in the proverbial mineshaft, warning of a much larger canvas painted with darkened hues, threatening like the distant rumbling of an upcoming mega storm.

In that regard, it’s unmitigated insanity to ignore the bellwethers of Armageddon when big time trouble brews, like now. Ominous changes in the planet’s ecosystem are so blatant that anybody ignoring these warning signals should be slapped on the back of the head: Wake up and pay attention!

After all, Greenland’s entire surface turned to slush for the first time in scientific history, raising the question of whether a tipping point is at hand, in turn, raising sea level by a lot. According to the climate models of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), Greenland’s entire ice sheet was not expected to turn 100% slushy for decades to come. Surprise, surprise, it’s here now!

Another big surprise that hits right between the eyes is the colossal humongous loss of Arctic and Antarctic ice, astoundingly ahead of the scientific model indicators by decades upon decades. Precariously, according to knowledgeable scientists, West Antarctica is already at a tipping point. “That’s bad news” is the understatement of the century.

Along the way, the world watched with great fascination as three gigantic Antarctic ice sheets the size of states splintered apart over the past decade, gone in record time: (1) Larsen A disintegrated in January 1995, (2) Larsen B, which was perfectly stable for all of 10,000 years, until global warming hit over the past 200 years, partially collapsed in 2002, and (3) a large portion of Larsen C broke away in 2017.

Scientific expeditions discovered the culprit as ocean warming stealthily beneath those icy behemoths. Once again, global warming doing its dirty work, and once again, surprise, surprise as tick-tock, tick-tock nature’s timing mechanism accelerates beyond the boundaries of natural variability whilst the ecosystem chokes on exhaust fumes!

It’s worth noting that ice shelves typically lose mass by iceberg calving and by melting at upper and lower surfaces but not via large scale sudden breakoffs and disintegration like Larsen A, B, and C, highly irregular behavior and unusual by past standards. This is likely one more signal of impending trouble spelled with a capital T.

All of this anomalous climate activity is getting a little too familiar for comfort, in part, because it has a nasty doom and gloom ambience. Not only is Antarctica splintering ice shelves the size of states, thereby exposing large-scale (big time) glacial runoff immediately behind the ice shelves, which served as backstops, but also in addition to Antarctica’s horror story at the bottom of the world, the Arctic, at the top of the world, is an ecological basket case.

According to the U.S. Naval Research Lab, multi-year ice has disappeared, thus losing the entire infrastructure of the North Pole. The cause: Too much anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. In turn, as a consequence, according to scientists with the International Arctic Research Centre/University of Alaska, the East Siberian Arctic Shelf’s extraordinarily shallow waters (50m) have reached a thawing point for subsea permafrost, thereby exposing gigatons of ancient methane to too much heat, which, in turn, could evolve into nasty ole runaway global warming, in short, the worse of the worst case situation for all of humanity, as agricultural fields fry to a crisp.

Even worse yet, Russian scientists that annually travel to the Arctic have discovered increasingly wider extensive water columns of methane (CH4) bubbling up to surface. They believe there may be hundreds, maybe thousands, bubbling water columns up to one-kilometre (1,000 metres) diameter whereas those columns at the same exact locations only a few years ago were 100 metres in diameter but expanding fast! IPCC models for potential global warming do not include mention of this can of worms.

Speaking of risks of future global warming not included in IPCC models, scientists in Alaska discovered massive carbon emissions seeping out of land permafrost, essentially emitting as much carbon in two years as US commercial sources emit per annum. This has the signature of a tipping point that self-reinforces emission of carbon into the atmosphere. After all, Alaskan temps have been really hot. And, deadly methane-laden permafrost melts in heat.

Further, speaking of high heat levels found at high latitudes, Russian scientists report massive numbers (7,000 counted but likely thousands more) of pingos as well as melting permafrost spreading all across Siberia. Perniciously, this is likely more self-reinforcing carbon emission spewing into the atmosphere, no further human influence required.

As such and horrifyingly, the discombobulated ecosystem may be in the process, heaven forbid, of overtaking human influenced carbon emissions/global warming. No more anthropogenic or human influence required to overheat the planet; it may be starting to heat up on its own volition. That’s what Venus (865°F) did. All of its carbon is now in its atmosphere whereas most of our carbon is still underground, under ice. What to do?

Of course, everybody talks about geo-engineering and how engineers can shoot particles like sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation back into outer space (which may damage ozone as an unintended consequence) or maybe remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it or maybe put mineral dust like olivine into the ocean to combat global warming, blah, blah, blah. This will save humanity from its own vices, but oh contraire, nobody knows if geo-engineering works at scale. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Transdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Engineering, and several prominent scientists claim it is not a solution for several reasons, including “unintended consequences” that are worse than the initial fix.

It’s entirely possible that humanity is in the lurch by already passing the 11th-hour and now forced to adapt to higher temps, fierce storms, severe droughts, serious crop failure, destructive weather patterns, bouts of human starvation, Biblical flooding, and restless angry masses of eco migrants roaming the countryside, or in short, the dystopian films Blade Runner (1982) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) combined and including pissed-off people bearing arms, open carry, in a throwback to Revolutionary American times (1775-1783). Based upon recent political/societal behavior, there are plenty of people looking forward to this.

On the other hand, what if the world comes together with a Marshall Plan effort, all hands on deck, to convert fossil fuels to renewables ASAP? What would that do? According to Kevin Anderson of Tyndall Centre for Climate Change/UK, in order to stay below the guardrail 2°C, lesser-developed nations must go to zero CO2 emissions by 2050 but wealthy nations must go to zero CO2 emissions by 2035.

On the other-other hand, according to Michael Oppenheimer (Princeton), an author of the IPCC 4th assessment, the odds of staying under 2° C are maybe 10%, and the last time the world was 2° C warmer, sea levels were 18-30 feet higher.

But then again, according to Wally Broecker (Columbia, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), who coined the term “Global Warming” in 1975; when he was in grad school in the 1950s fossil fuels accounted for 85% of energy sourcing. Today, it’s basically the same with fossil fuels at 81%. Go figure.

Withal, nobody knows for certain what will happen, in part, because we’ve never been here before. All the same, abrupt climate change continues to negatively outpace expectations of scientists, leading to serious concerns that their worse case scenarios are too soft, too conservative.

What then should be done remains the most compelling question of the 21st century.

According to several top-flight scientists, like James Hansen, the Paris Agreement of 2016 signed by almost 200 nations is too flimsy and misguided to solve the problem.

“If you talk to glaciologists privately they will tell you they are very concerned we are locking in much more significant sea level rises than the ice sheet models are telling us,” James Hansen-Columbia University. (Source: Oliver Milman, James Hansen, Father of Climate Change Awareness, Calls Paris Talks “A Fraud,” The Guardian, Dec. 12, 2015)

Postscript: “If it turns out that global warming and ocean acidification are consequences of capitalism’s carbon-based energy system, the entire world could end up dead from the external costs of capitalism,” Paul Craig Roberts, American economist

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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