Saturday, September 2, 2017

Is it Apocalypse Now?

As I watched the news reports about the floods in Mumbai and Texas this week, my over-riding emotion was anger.

Thirty years ago, I began my degree in  Environmental Biology at Queen's University in Belfast.

Thirty years ago scientists were predicting that an increase in green house gases such as carbon dioxide and methane would lead to an average global temperature rise. They dubbed the phenomena "Global warming" which in hindsight was a mistake because... well scientists are not necessarily politicians. They work with the facts and disregard the "spin." As snow storms became more erratic and increasingly severe in places, the term "global warming" by people who didn't understand or who couldn't face the facts. Let's agree that the term "Global warming" is misleading to the non-scientific population - we'll call it "climate change."

I remember preparing a presentation for my studies back in the 1980's. I practised my speech in front of my parents, giving projected outcomes of the effect of a rise in greenhouse gases upon the planet in the years to come (the years which have now arrived.)

Back in the 1980's, I stood in our kitchen and tried to fluidly remember the key points without looking at the prompt cards in my hands - some of which I can still remember to this day:

  • Melting ice-caps would contribute to higher oceans posing a flooding danger for low lying coastal regions.
  • Increased global temperatures would lead to more water vapour in the atmosphere creating more violent storms (including snow storms) and hurricanes and in some regions more rainfall and flooding.
  • Higher temperatures would bring drought to other regions prone to low rainfall, devastating arable land and creating more areas of desert.
  • Droughts would give rise to an increase in forest fires.
  • Due to increased heat, infectious disease and vectors which spread disease would increase.
  • Melting ice in Greenland could flood the Atlantic with cold water that could "switch off" the Gulf stream that flows towards Ireland and plunge that region into an ice-age.
My Mum believed me. She's always been an eco warrior and employed environmentally friendly practices even before it was "mainstream," if you could call it that now - reuse, recycle etc.

My Dad, not as scientifically minded as My Mum and me, took it all with a grain of salt believing it would never happen, that humanity would pull some marvellous trick out of a giant hat somewhere and save the day, or that we'd all be long gone before it mattered. On that last point, he was sadly correct as far as he was concerned, but his attitude was my first taste of the "climate denier" - these poor people can't face the truth, they don't want to accept the collective responsibility that we the human race have to take. And yes, we are ALL responsible for this, even the goody-two-shoes non-air-travelling, vegan cyclists who've had their tubes tied so as to not inflict the planet with even more children. Okay, well maybe not them! It's kind of hard to improve upon that.

But the fact remains - the situation I described to my parents thirty odd years ago is now happening in vivid technicolour! Let's see what the climate deniers can deny now...

Glacier Calving in Spitzbergen

Melting Ice Caps - That's happening now. Here's what the World Wildlife Fund says,
"Because of ongoing and potential loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change, polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008."
That was nine years ago - and it's only getting worse. According to the Washington Post,
"...the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified the rapid decline of sea ice as “the primary threat to polar bears” and said “the single most important achievement for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming” driven by the human emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."
But it goes far beyond saving polar bears.

Evidence of retreating ice I've seen myself when visiting the Fox Glacier in New Zealand.

Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Then there's the more violent storms and hurricanes. These are happening everywhere, not just in the USA. In Mumbai, there has been a huge loss of life due to the floods there. Even in Ireland recently thunder and lightening storms caused severe flooding across swaths of the country.

Drought, I've experienced living in California, but this isn't the only place that has suffered drought in the last three years - South Africa, Southern Europe, Brazil, Korea. And don't be one of those eejits that say, "Oh but the rain came and the drought is over!"

Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. The rains came, bringing flooding and landslides, and stripping the top layers of soil. Yes, California had a "super bloom" of wildflowers but this pendulum swing is not over yet...

On every continent, there have been massive forest fires.

After the fire, Ebbetts Pass, California


And even though fire is a natural cyclical phenomenon in some places, it's on a scale that is now so huge and out of whack, that entire towns are being consumed when the flames get out of control. Knysna, in South Africa, Provence, France, and even Ireland this summer, all burned, along with the usual Californian and Australian fires.


Disease seemed like a strange one considering how far we've come with disease control, but warmer temperatures allows microorganisms to proliferate. Mosquitoes with disease like malaria and zika flourish in new regions as they warm up. Ebola tends to break out after droughts and downpours and climate change is really giving that old pendulum a push.

The one the terrifies me the most is the the ice sheets melting result in the "switching off" of the Gulf stream. Hurricane Harvey moved really slowly and eventually stalled out over Texas. Some theories suggest that climate change has affected the intensity and flow of the jet streams so that Harvey was not blown through the area faster, its "stickiness" contributing to the high levels of rainfall.

Jet streams, gluf streams - our planet is all interconnected and while 30 years ago we didn't know exactly how global warming would manifest itself or even how to market it with a name that couldn't be disputed, sadly, the scientists back then were pretty on target.

Very few devastating things happen all of a sudden. Even for someone hit by a bus, one can trace back a series of events that led to that moment (e.g. distracted, stepping of the pavement without looking, then BANG!)  More often there's a slow wind up, clues ignored, warnings unheeded then the shit hits the tornado!

Bloomberg "Just to be clear, climate change itself is no longer up for debate—both in the scientific community and among national governments (with few notable exceptions). Understanding it is relatively simple. Global average temperatures are rising. There’s at least 4 percent more water vapor in the air than 70 years ago. Ice sheets are melting. Seas are swelling. These phenomena are the direct effects of warming, and humans are causing it."
As for me, I'm just saying, "Told ya!"

On a "brighter" note, if a couple of the aforementioned "notable exceptions" continue to butt heads and fart about with red buttons, we'll be all up in smoke and global warming won't matter to us!

Byddi Lee

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