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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Last Great Global Warming Far Less than Today

Scientific American

Feature Articles | Energy & Sustainability
Cover Image: July 2011 Scientific American Magazine

The Last Great Global Warming

Surprising new evidence suggests the pace of Earth's most abrupt prehistoric warm-up paled in comparison with what we face today. The episode has lessons for our future

| June 29, 2011 |

Polar bears draw most visitors to Spitsbergen, the largest island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. For me, rocks were the allure. My colleagues and I, all geologists and climate scientists, flew to this remote Arctic island in the summer of 2007 to find definitive evidence of what was then considered the most abrupt global warming episode of all time. Getting to the rocky outcrops that might entomb these clues meant a rugged, two-hour hike from our old bunkhouse in the former coal-mining village of Longyearbyen, so we set out early after a night’s rest. As we trudged over slippery pockets of snow and stunted plants, I imagined a time when palm trees, ferns and alligators probably inhabited this area.

Back then, around 56 million years ago, I would have been drenched with sweat rather than fighting off a chill. Research had indicated that in the course of a few thousand years—a mere instant in geologic time—global temperatures rose five degrees Celsius, marking a planetary fever known to scientists as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM. Climate zones shifted toward the poles, on land and at sea, forcing plants and animals to migrate, adapt or die. Some of the deepest realms of the ocean became acidified and oxygen-starved, killing off many of the organisms living there. It took nearly 200,000 years for the earth’s natural buffers to bring the fever down.

Image: Illustration by Ron Miller

In Brief

  • Global temperature rose five degrees Celsius 56 million years ago in response to a massive injection of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
  • That intense gas release was only 10 percent of the rate at which heat-trapping greenhouse gases are building up in the atmosphere today.
  • The speed of today’s rise is more troubling than the absolute magnitude, because adjusting to rapid climate change is very difficult.

Global Warming and the Science of Extreme Weather

Scientific American

Features | Energy & Sustainability

Global Warming and the Science of Extreme Weather

How rising temperatures change weather and produce fiercer, more frequent storms. Second of a three-part series

| June 29, 2011

Editor's note: This article is the second of a three-part series by John Carey. Part 1, posted on June 28, is "Storm Warning: Extreme Weather Is a Product of Climate Change".

Extreme floods, prolonged droughts, searing heat waves, massive rainstorms and the like don't just seem like they've become the new normal in the last few years—they have become more common, according to data collected by reinsurance company Munich Re (see Part 1 of this series). But has this increase resulted from human-caused climate change or just from natural climatic variations? After all, recorded floods and droughts go back to the earliest days of mankind, before coal, oil and natural gas made the modern industrial world possible.

Until recently scientists had only been able to say that more extreme weather is "consistent" with climate change caused by greenhouse gases that humans are emitting into the atmosphere. Now, however, they can begin to say that the odds of having extreme weather have increased because of human-caused atmospheric changes—and that many individual events would not have happened in the same way without global warming. The reason: The signal of climate change is finally emerging from the "noise"—the huge amount of natural variability in weather.

Scientists compare the normal variation in weather with rolls of the dice. Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere loads the dice, increasing odds of such extreme weather events. It's not just that the weather dice are altered, however. As Steve Sherwood, co-director of the Climate Change Research Center at the University of New South Wales in Australia, puts it, "it is more like painting an extra spot on each face of one of the dice, so that it goes from 2 to 7 instead of 1 to 6. This increases the odds of rolling 11 or 12, but also makes it possible to roll 13."

Why? Basic physics is at work: The planet has already warmed roughly 1 degree Celsius since preindustrial times, thanks to CO2and other greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. And for every 1-degree C (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) rise in temperature, the amount of moisture that the atmosphere can contain rises by 7 percent, explains Peter Stott, head of climate monitoring and attribution at the U.K. Met Office's Hadley Center for Climate Change. "That's quite dramatic," he says. In some places, the increase has been much larger. Data gathered by Gene Takle, professor of meteorology at Iowa State University in Ames, show a 13 percent rise in summer moisture over the past 50 years in the state capital, Des Moines.

The physics of too much rain
The increased moisture in the atmosphere inevitably means more rain. That's obvious. But not just any kind of rain, the climate models predict. Because of the large-scale energy balance of the planet, "the upshot is that overall rainfall increases only 2 to 3 percent per degree of warming, whereas extreme rainfall increases 6 to 7 percent," Stott says. The reason again comes from physics. Rain happens when the atmosphere cools enough for water vapor to condense into liquid. "However, because of the increasing amount of greenhouse gases in the troposphere, the radiative cooling is less efficient, as less radiation can escape to space," Stott explains. "Therefore the global precipitation increases less, at about 2 to 3 percent per degree of warming." But because of the extra moisture, when precipitation does occur (in both rain and snow), it's more likely to be in bigger events.

Iowa is one of many places that fits the pattern. Takle documented a three- to seven-fold increase in high rainfall events in the state, including the 500-year Mississippi River flood in 1993, the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood as well as the 500-year event in 2010 in Ames, which inundated the Hilton Coliseum basketball court in eight feet (2.5 meters) of water . "We can't say with confidence that the 2010 Ames flood was caused by climate change, but we can say that the dice are loaded to bring more of these events," Takle says.

And more events seem to be in the news every month, from unprecedented floods in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to massive snowstorms that crippled the U.S. Northeast in early 2011, to the November 2010 to January 2011 torrents in Australia that flooded an area the size of Germany and France . This "disaster of biblical proportions," as local Australian officials called it, even caused global economic shock waves: The flooding of the country's enormously productive coal mines sent world coal prices soaring.

More stormy weather
More moisture and energy in the atmosphere, along with warmer ocean temperatures also mean more intense hurricanes, many scientists say. In fact, 2010 was the first year in decades in which two simultaneous category 4 hurricanes, Igor and Julia, formed in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, the changed conditions bring an increased likelihood of more powerful thunderstorms with violent updrafts, like a July 23, 2010, tempest in Vivian, S.D., that produced hailstones that punched softball-size holes through roofs—and created a behemoth ball of ice measured at a U.S. record 8 inches (20 centimeters) in diameter even after it had partially melted. "I've never seen a storm like that before—and hope I'll never go through anything like it," says Les Scott, the Vivian farmer and rancher who found the hailstone .

Warming the planet alters large-scale circulation patterns as well. Scientists know that the sun heats moist air at the equator, causing the air to rise. As it rises, the air cools and sheds most of its moisture as tropical rain. Once six to 10 miles (9.5 to 16 kilometers) aloft, the now dry air travels toward the poles, descending when it reaches the subtropics, normally at the latitude of the Baja California peninsula. This circulation pattern, known as a Hadley cell, contributes to desertification, trade winds and the jet stream.

On a warmer planet, however, the dry air will travel farther north and south from the equator before it descends, climate models predict, making areas like the U.S. Southwest and the Mediterranean even drier. Such an expanded Hadley cell would also divert storms farther north. Are the models right? Richard Seager of Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory has been looking for a climate change–induced drying trend in the Southwest, "and there seems to be some tentative evidence that it is beginning to happen," he says. "It gives us confidence in the models." In fact, other studies show that the Hadley cells have not only expanded, they've expanded more than the models predicted.

Such a change in atmospheric circulation could explain both the current 11-year drought in the Southwest and Minnesota's status as the number one U.S. state for tornadoes last year. On October 26, 2010, the Minneapolis area even experienced record low pressure in what Paul Douglas, founder and CEO of WeatherNation in Minnesota, dubbed a "landicane"—a hurricanelike storm that swept across the country. "I thought the windows of my home would blow in," Douglas recalls. "I've chased tornados and flown into hurricanes but never experienced anything like this before." Yet it makes sense in the context of climate change, he adds. "Every day, every week, another piece of the puzzle falls into place," he says. "More extreme weather seems to have become the rule, not just in the U.S. but in Europe and Asia."

The rise of climate attribution
Is humankind really responsible? That's where the burgeoning field of climate attribution, pioneered by Hadley's Peter Stott and other scientists, comes in. The idea is to look for trends in the temperature or precipitation data that provide evidence of overall changes in climate. When those trends exist, it then becomes possible to calculate how much climate change has contributed to extreme events. Or in more technical terms, the probability of a particular temperature or rainfall amount is shaped roughly like a bell curve. A change in climate shifts the whole curve. That, in turn, increases the likelihood of experiencing the more extreme weather at the tail end of the bell curve. Whereas day-to-day weather remains enormously variable, the underlying human-caused shift in climate increases the power and number of the events at the extreme. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Deke Arndt puts it more colorfully: "Weather throws the punches, but climate trains the boxer," he says. By charting the overall shift, then, it's possible to calculate the increased chances of extreme events due to global warming.

This idea was already in the air in 2003 when Stott traveled though the worst heat wave in recorded European history on a wedding anniversary trip to Italy and Switzerland. One of the striking consequences he noticed was that the Swiss mountains were missing their usual melodious tinkling of cowbells. "There was no water in the mountains, and the farmers had to take all their cows down in the valley," he says. He decided to see if he could pin part of the blame on climate change after he returned to his office in Exeter, England. "I didn't expect to get a positive result," he says

But he did. In fact, the signal of a warming climate was quite clear in Europe, even using data up to only 2000. In a landmark paper in Nature Stott and colleagues concluded that the chances of a heat wave like the 2003 event have more than doubled because of climate change. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Data collected since then show that the odds are at least four times higher compared with pre-industrial days. "We are very aware of the risks of misattribution," Stott says. "We don't want to point to specific events and say that they are part of climate change when they really are due to natural variability. But for some events, like the 2003 heat wave, we have the robust evidence to back it up."

Case in point: Hurricane Katrina
Another event with a clear global warming component, says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., was Hurricane Katrina. Trenberth calculated that the combination of overall planetary warming, elevated moisture in the atmosphere, and higher sea-surface temperatures meant that "4 to 6 percent of the precipitation—an extra inch [2.5 centimeters] of rain—in Katrina was due to global warming," he says. "That may not sound like much, but it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back or causes a levee to fail." It was also a very conservative estimate. "The extra heat produced as moisture condenses can invigorate a storm, and at a certain point, the storm just takes off," he says. "That would certainly apply to Nashville." So climate change's contribution to Katrina could have been twice as high as his calculations show, he says. Add in higher winds to the extra energy, and it is easy to see how storms can become more damaging.

This science of attribution is not without controversies. Another case in point: the 2010 Russian heat wave, which wiped out one quarter of the nation's wheat crop and darkened the skies of Moscow with smoke from fires. The actual meteorological cause is not in doubt. "There was a blocking of the atmospheric circulation," explains Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist at the NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, also in Boulder. "The jet stream shifted north, bringing a longer period of high pressure and stagnant weather conditions." But what caused the blocking? Hoerling looked for an underlying long-term temperature trend in western Russia that might have increased the odds of a heat wave, as Stott had done for the 2003 European event. He found nothing. "The best explanation is a rogue black swan—something that came out of the blue," he says.

Wrong, retorts NCAR's Trenberth. He sees a clear expansion of the hot, dry Mediterranean climate into western Russia that is consistent with climate change predictions—and that also intensified the Pakistan monsoon. "I completely repudiate Marty—and it doesn't help to have him saying you can't attribute the heat wave to climate change," he says. "What we can say is that, as with Katrina, this would not have happened the same way without global warming."

Yet even this dispute is smaller than it first appears. What is not in doubt is that the Russian heat wave is a portent—a glimpse of the future predicted by climate models. Even Hoerling sees it as a preview of coming natural disasters. By 2080, such events are expected to happen, on average, once every five years, he says: "It's a good wake-up call. This type of phenomenon will become radically more common."

Reporting for this story was funded by Pew Center on Global Climate Change


John Carey is a freelance science writer and editor. For two decades prior to 2010 he was a senior correspondent for Business Week magazine, covering a range of topics including energy and global warming and cholesterol-lowering drugs and the human genome. Previously, he was an editor at The Scientist and a reporter at Newsweek. His stories have won awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Wistar Institute and a number of other organizations. He was also a National Magazine Award finalist.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taking Long Walks Off A Very Short Pier


'Long Road Ahead' on This Overcrowded, Warming Planet

Severe weather events are wracking the planet, and experts warn of even greater consequences to come.

by Dahr Jamail

The rate of ice loss in two of Greenland's largest glaciers has increased so much in the last 10 years that the amount of melted water would be enough to completely fill Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes in North America.

West Texas is currently undergoing its worst drought since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, leaving wheat and cotton crops in the state in an extremely dire situation due to lack of soil moisture, as wildfires continue to burn.

Central China recently experienced its worst drought in more than 50 years. Regional authorities have declared more than 1,300 lakes "dead", meaning they are out of use for both irrigation and drinking water supply.

Floods have struck Eastern and Southern China, killing at least 52 and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands, followed by severe flooding that again hit Eastern China, displacing or otherwise affecting five million people.

Meanwhile in Europe, crops in the northwest are suffering the driest weather in decades.

Scientific research confirms that, so far, humankind has raised the Earth's temperature, and the aforementioned events are a sign of what is to come.

"If you had a satellite view of the planet in the summer, there is about 40 per cent less ice in the Arctic than when Apollo 8 [in 1968] first sent back those photos [of Earth]," Bill McKibben, world renowned environmentalist and fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences told Al Jazeera, "Oceans are 30 per cent more acidic than they were 40 years ago. The atmosphere is four per cent more wet than 40 years ago because warm air holds more water than cold air. That means more deluge and downpour in wet areas and more dryness in dry areas. So we're seeing more destructive mega floods and storms, increasing thunderstorms, and increasing lightning strikes."

So far human greenhouse gas emissions have raised the temperature of the planet by one degree Celsius.

"Climatologists tell us unless we get off gas, coal, and oil, that number will be four to five degrees before the end of this century," said McKibben, "If one degree is enough to melt the Arctic, we'd be best not to hit four degrees."

Climate change is bad for you

Brian Schwartz is a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"Increasing temperatures cause direct health effects related to heat; there will be more common events like the 30,000 to 50,000 persons who died in Europe in 2003 due to the heat wave there," Professor Schwartz told Al Jazeera, "Increasing temperatures also cause more air pollution, due to photochemical reactions that increase with higher temperatures. This will cause more morbidity and mortality from pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases."

Schwartz, who is also the co-director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Health, said that lack of clean water, a phenomenon that is also a product of climate change, will lead to increases in morbidity and mortality from a variety of water-borne diseases.

In addition, vector-borne diseases, diseases in which the pathogenic microorganism is transmitted from an infected individual to another individual by an arthropod or other agent, will change in their distribution as the climate changes.

"Populations will be on the move as food and water production is threatened; these so-called environmental refugees, that the world has already seen, suffer a variety of increased health risks," added Schwartz, "How climate change affects economies and sociopolitical systems will contribute to other physical and mental health stresses for populations."

Professor Cindy Parker co-directs the Program on Global Environmental Sustainability and Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and is the Associate Director of the Johns Hopkins Environment, Energy, Sustainability, and Health Institute.

Like Professor Schwartz, she also sees an increase in vector-borne diseases as climate change progresses.

"Infectious diseases carried by insects, like malaria, Lyme disease, Dengue fever, these are all expected to worsen," Parker told Al Jazeera, "These diseases will likely worsen, like malaria, at higher elevations in virgin populations who've not developed resistance to these diseases, so there will be greater effect on these populations."

She believes that diseases that have yet to arise will begin to develop as the planet continues warming. "The biggest threat is the disease we're not yet expecting, but that will develop and we'll be ill equipped to handle."

Parker fears other far-reaching health impacts resulting from our heating up of the planet.

"Everything that affects our environment affects our health," Parker said, "As fancy as our technology is, we still cannot live without clean water, air, and food, and we rely on our environment for these."

This fact is primarily why she believes that climate change is the most health-damaging problem humanity has ever faced.

Parker cited Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans in 2005, killing nearly 2,000 and pegged as the costliest natural disaster in US history, as a weather warning example.

"If you look at the health impacts on the Gulf of Mexico's population that was impacted by the storm, mental health illnesses are much worse than the rest of country, chronic illnesses are greater, mostly because trauma has great effects on our psyches and physical bodies," she explained, "But also because prior to Katrina there were seven hospitals in New Orleans, and now there are 2.5 hospitals operating. Those that were lost didn't come back. They are gone."

Hurricane Katrina also caused job loss, which led to loss of health insurance, which led to peoples' health indicators worsening.

"Homelessness is a big contributor, and these problems are still going on, people have not recovered," Parker continued, "And with extreme weather events around the world, there are these huge health effects which persist."

Parker is concerned about what the future has in store for us if climate change continues unabated, as it currently appears to be doing, given that most governments continue to fail to implement an actionable plan to avert it.

"People think technology is going to save us from climate change, but there is no technology on the horizon that will allow us to adapt ourselves out of this mess," Parker said, "We can physiologically adapt to higher temperatures, but all that adaptation is not going to save us unless we also get the climate stabilized."

"If this continues unabated this planet will not be habitable by the species that are on it, including humans," she concluded, "It will be a very different planet. One that is not very conducive to human life."

Global overpopulation

"The rule of thumb is that every degree increase in temperature decreases the wheat harvest by 10 per cent," said McKibben, speaking about the effect climate change has on global food production, "Food cost has increased between 70 and 80 per cent in the last year for basic grains. For millions around the world, they are already affected by not having enough."

Another important factor that contributes to climate change is global overpopulation. The UN has set October 31 of this year as the date the Earth's population is expected to surpass seven billion people.

The world's population is growing by roughly 80 million people per year, and at the current rates of birth and death, the world's population is on a trajectory to double in 49 years.

William Ryerson is the president of the Population Institute, a non-profit organization that works to educate policymakers and the public about population, and the need to achieve a world population that is in balance with a healthy global environment and resource base.

"The projected growth rate is 9.3 billion by 2050," Ryerson told Al Jazeera, "The additional 2.5 billion [onto our current 6.8 billion] is the climate equivalent to adding two USA's to the planet. Even though most of those people are in low greenhouse gas emitting countries, the sheer number of people adds to a huge impact on the environment."

Ryerson pointed out that countries like China and the US have higher consumption and emissions, and as their populations grow, their impacts are even greater than in less developed countries.

Overpopulation also strains already overstretched water resources.

"We have 225,000 people at the dinner table tonight who weren't there last night, so to maintain our current population we're already over-pumping underground aquifers," added Ryerson, "India is over-pumping, and we have over 100 million people in India dependent on over-pumping, so this can't be sustained. And climate change is making this all even more untenable, as the glaciers in the Himalayas that provide water for India and China are melting rapidly."

Unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA) recently revealed that greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year to the highest carbon output in history, despite the most serious economic recession in 80 years.

This means that the aim of holding global temperatures to safe levels are now all but out of reach. The goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius, which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" is now most likely just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, a chief economist of the IEA.

"Population is the multiplier of everything else," explained Ryerson, who believes climate change cannot adequately be addressed until the overpopulation problem is solved.

"Clearly the current number of people and per capita behavior is unsustainable and this is obvious in what has happened to the climate already," he said, "There are severe consequences already. And the cost of solving this problem of overpopulation is small compared to the cost of solving climate change as it progresses."

Long Road Ahead

McKibben is deeply concerned about what he sees when he looks into the future of what we should expect with climate change.

"We're going to keep seeing increased amounts of these extreme kinds of droughts, floods, and storms," he said, "Everything that happens that isn't volcanic or tectonic draws its power from the sun and we are getting more of everything by amping up the sun's power in the atmosphere by adding more CO2."

Ryerson sees a bleak future for water-starved countries like Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia has announced that the water they've been depending on, their underground aquifer for crops and drinking, will be gone by 2020," he explained, "They are dependent on imports, and can pay for it now, but in the future when oil declines, that country faces a serious issue of sustainability."

He is also concerned about increasing biodiversity loss.

"The key issue is the large populations of plants and animals that make the planet inhabitable," Ryerson explained, "We need oxygen to breathe and water to drink. A three billion year evolution of plants and animals have made the planet habitable, and we are systematically destroying this biodiversity by plowing, cutting, and burning areas."

Ryerson believes ongoing demand for products and the encroachment on wilderness areas this causes "will make life on the planet much more difficult. All of this together means the future of humanity, even with assumed innovation, has some very serious concerns. None of these problems are made easier by adding more people. The only way to achieve sustainability is to hold population growth, and have it decline."

McKibben says everybody should be adopting an emergency response geared towards ending our reliance on fossil fuels.

"This will only be done if we charge carbon for the damage it does in the atmosphere," he said, "The power of the fossil fuel companies is the power to keep us from doing that. As long as our governments won't stand up to that industry, I'm afraid we've got a long road ahead of us."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Arizona Burning: How the West Was Lost: The American West in Flames


Arizona is burning. Texas, too. New Mexico is next. If you need a grim reminder that an already arid West is burning up and blowing away, here it is. As I write this, more than 700 square miles of Arizona and more than 4,300 square miles of Texas have been swept by monster wildfires. Consider those massive columns of acrid smoke drifting eastward as a kind of smoke signal warning us that a globally warming world is not a matter of some future worst-case scenario. It’s happening right here, right now. An oasis of green in the desert southwest, the Apache National Forest covers the mountains due east of Phoenix and spills across the border with New Mexico. In late May and early June 2011, the island of forest became fuel for one of the largest fires in Arizona history, the Wallow Fire. This image, taken by the Landsat-7 satellite on June 7, shows the northern edge of the fire. (NASA via flickr)

Air tankers have been dropping fire retardant on what is being called the Wallow fire in Arizona and firefighting crews have been mobilized from across the West, but the fire remained “zero contained” for most of last week and only 18% so early in the new week, too big to touch with mere human tools like hoses, shovels, saws, and bulldozers. Walls of flame 100 feet high rolled over the land like a tsunami from Hades. The heat from such a fire is so intense and immense that it can create small tornadoes of red embers that cannot be knocked down and smothered by water or chemicals. These are not your grandfather’s forest fires.

Because the burn area in eastern Arizona is sparsely populated, damage to property so far has been minimal compared to, say, wildfire destruction in California, where the interface of civilization and wilderness is growing ever more crowded. However, the devastation to life in the fire zone, from microbiotic communities that hold soil and crucial nutrients in place to more popular species like deer, elk, bear, fish, and birds -- already hard-pressed to cope with the rapidity of climate change -- will be catastrophic.

The vastness of the American West holds rainforests, deserts, and everything in between, so weather patterns and moisture vary. Nonetheless, we have been experiencing a historic drought for about a decade in significant parts of the region. As topsoil dries out, microbial dynamics change and native plants either die or move uphill toward cooler temperatures and more moisture. Wildlife that depends on the seeds, nuts, leaves, shade, and shelter follows the plants -- if it can.

Plants and animals are usually able to adapt to slow and steady changes in their habitat, but rapid and uncertain seasonal transformations in weather patterns mean that the timing for such basic ecological processes as seed germination, pollination, migration, and hibernation is also disrupted. The challenge of adapting to such fundamental changes can be overwhelming.

And if evolving at warp speed (while Mother Nature experiences hot flashes) isn’t enough, plants, animals, and birds are struggling within previously reduced and fragmented habitats. In other words, wildlife already thrown off the mothership now finds the lifeboats, those remnants of their former habitats, on fire. Sometimes extinction happens with a whimper, sometimes with a crackle and a blast.

As for the humans in this drama, I can tell you from personal experience that thousands of people in Arizona and New Mexico are living in fear. A forest fire is a monster you can see. It looks over your shoulder 24 hours a day for days on end. You pack your most precious possessions, gather necessary documents, and point your car or truck toward the road for a quick get-away. If you have a trailer, you load and hitch it. If you have pets or large animals like a horse, cattle, or sheep, you think of how you’re going to get them to safety. If you have elderly neighbors or family in the area, you check on them.

And as you wait, watch, and worry, you choke on smoke, rub itching eyes, and sneeze fitfully. After a couple of days of that omnipresent smoke, almost everyone you meet has a headache. You know that when it is over, even if you’re among the lucky ones whose homes still stand, you will witness and share in the suffering of neighbors and mourn the loss of cherished places, of shaded streams and flowered meadows, grand vistas, and the lost aroma of the deep woods.

Cue the Inferno

These past few years, mega-fires in the West have become ever more routine. Though their estimates and measurements may vary, the experts who study these phenomena all agree that wildfires today are bigger, last longer, and are more frequent. A big fire used to burn perhaps 30 square miles. Today, wildfires regularly scorch 150-square-mile areas.

Global warming, global weirding, climate change -- whatever you prefer to call it -- is not just happening in some distant, melting Arctic land out of a storybook. It is not just burning up far-away Russia. It’s here now.

The seas have warmed, ice caps are melting, and the old reliable ocean currents and atmospheric jet streams are jumping their tracks. The harbingers of a warming planet and the abruptly shifting weather patterns that result vary across the American landscape. Along the vast Mississippi River drainage in the heartland of America, epic floods, like our wildfires in the West, are becoming more frequent. In the Gulf states, it’s monster hurricanes and in the Midwest, swarms of killer tornadoes signal that things have changed. In the East it’s those killer heat waves and record-breaking blizzards.

But in the West, we just burn.

Although Western politicians like to blame the dire situation on tree-hugging environmentalists who bring suit to keep loggers from thinning and harvesting the crowded forests, the big picture is far more complicated. According to Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University, a renowned forest ecologist, the problem has been building towards a catastrophe for decades.

Historically, Western forests were relatively thin, and grasses, light shrubs, and wildflowers thrived under their canopies. Fires would move through every few years, clearing the accumulated undergrowth and resetting the successional clock. Fire, that is, was an ecological process. Then, in the 1880s, cattle were brought in to graze the native grasses under the forest canopy. As the grass disappeared, fires were limited and smaller trees were able to mature until the land became overcrowded. Invasive species like highly flammable cheat grass also moved in, carried there and distributed in cow dung. Then, foresters began suppressing fires to protect the over-stocked timber that generated revenues and profits.

All this set the stage for catastrophe. Next, a decade of drought weakened millions of trees, making them susceptible to voracious beetles that gnaw them to death. Warmer air carries more moisture, so winters, while wetter than normal, are not as cold. Typical temperatures, in fact, have become mild enough that the beetles, once killed by wintry deep freezes, are now often able to survive until spring, which means that their range is expanding dramatically. Now, thanks to them, whole mountainsides across the west have turned from green to brown.

Finally, spring runoff that used to happen over three months now sometimes comes down torrentially in a single month, which means that the forests are dry longer. Even our lovely iconic stands of aspen trees are dying on parched south-facing slopes. Cue the inferno.

If you live in the West, you can’t help wonder what will burn next. Eastern Colorado, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas are, at present, deep in drought and likely candidates. Montana’s Lodgepole Pine forests are dying and ready to ignite. Colorado’s Grand Mesa is another drying forest area that could go up in flames anytime. Wally Covington estimates that a total of about half-a-million square miles of Western forests, an area three times the size of California, is now at risk of catastrophic fires. As ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger observed in 2008 when it was California’s turn to burn, the fire season is now 365 days long.

The Fire Next Time

That may explain why ”smoke season” began so early this year, overlapping the spring flood season. Texas and other Western states may be drying up and readying themselves to blow dust your way, but in Utah, where I live, it was an extremely wet winter. Watersheds here are at 200% to 700% of the normal snowpack (“normal” being an ever more problematic concept out here). Spring weather has become increasingly weird and unpredictable. Last year we had record-breaking heat and early monsoons in May. This year it was unusually cold and damp. The mountains held on to all that accumulating snow, which is now melting quickly and heading downhill all at once.

So although skiers are still riding the mountain slopes of northern Utah, river-rafting guides in the south, famous for their hunger for whitewater excitement, are cancelling trips on the Colorado and Green Rivers because they are flowing so hard and high that navigating them is too risky to try. In our more sedate settings, suburbs and such, sandbags are now ubiquitous. Basement pumps are humming across the state. Reservoirs were emptied ahead of the floods so that they could be refilled with excess runoff, but there is enough snowmelt in our mountains this year to fill them seven times over. Utah Governor Gary Herbert went on television to urge parents to keep children away from fast-moving streams that might sweep them away. Seven children have nonetheless drowned in the past two weeks.

The old gospel got it mostly right when God told Noah, “No more water, the fire next time.” In the West we know that it is not actually a question of either/or, because they go together. First, floods fuel growth, then growth fuels fires, then fires fuel floods. So all that unexpected, unpredicted moisture we got this winter will translate into a fresh layer of lush undergrowth in forests that until very recently were drying up, ravaged by beetles, and dying. You may visit us this summer and see all that new green vegetation as so much beautiful scenery, but we know it is also a ticking tinderbox. If Mother Nature flips her fickle toggle switch back to hot and dry, as she surely will, fire will follow.

When fire removes trees, brush, and grasses that absorb spring runoff and slow the flow, the next round of floods is accelerated. If the fire is intense enough to bake soils into a water-resistant crust, the next floods will start landslides and muddy rivers. The silt from all that erosion will clog reservoirs, reducing their capacity both to store water and to mitigate floods. That’s how a self-reinforcing feedback loop works. Back in the days when our weather was far more benign and predictable, this dynamic relationship between fire and flood was predictable and manageable. Today, it is not.

It may be hard to draw a direct line of cause and effect between global warming (or weirding) and a chain of tornadoes sawing through Joplin, while the record-breaking blizzards of 2011 may seem to contradict the very notion that the planet is getting hotter. But the droughts, pestilence, and fires we are experiencing in the West are logical and obvious signs that the planet is overheating. We would be wise and prudent to pay attention and act boldly.

Biological diversity, ecological services like pollination and water filtration, and the powerful global currents of wind and water are the operating systems of all life on Earth, including humans. For thousands of years, we have depended on benign and predictable weather patterns that generally vary modestly from year to year. The agricultural system that has fed us since the dawn of history was based on a climate and seasonal swings that were familiar and expectable.

Ask any farmer if he can grow grain without rain or plant seeds in a flooded field. Signs that life’s operating systems are swinging chaotically from one extreme to another should be a wake-up call to make real plans to kick our carbon-based energy addictions while conserving and restoring ecosystems under stress.

In the process, we’ll need a new vision of who we are and what we are about. For many generations we believed that developing westward, one frontier after the next, was the nation’s Manifest Destiny. We eliminated the Indians and the bison in our way, broke the prairies with our plows, dammed raging rivers, piped the captured water to make the desert bloom, and eventually filled the valleys with cities, suburbs, and roads.

The Wild West was tamed. In fact, we didn’t hesitate to overload its carrying capacity by over-allocating precious water for such dubious purposes as growing rice in Arizona or building spectacular fountains and golf courses in Las Vegas. We used the deserts near my Utah home as a dumping ground for toxic and radioactive wastes from far-away industrial operations. The sacrifice zones in the Great Basin Desert where we tested bombs and missiles helped our military project the power that underpinned an empire. The iconic landscapes of the West even inspired us to think that we were exceptional and brave in ways not common to humanity, and so were not subject to the limitations of other peoples -- or even of nature itself.

But whatever we preferred to think, the limits have always been there. Nature has only so much fresh water, fertile soil, timber, and oil. The atmosphere can only absorb so much carbon dioxide and stay benign and predictable. When you overload the carrying capacity of your environment, there is hell to pay, which means that monster fires are here to stay.

After the American West was conquered, tamed, used, and abused, the frontier of our civilizing ambitions moved abroad, was subsumed by a Cold War, was assigned to outer space, and now drives a Humvee through places like Iraq and Afghanistan. On an overheating planet, if the West is still our place of desire and exception, then fire is our modern manifest destiny -- and the West is ours to lose.

To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Ward discusses global “weirding,” click here, or download it to your iPod here.

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

Chip Ward

Chip Ward is a former grassroots organizer/activist who has led several successful campaigns to hold polluters accountable. He described his political adventures in Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. Today he works to protect the spectacular redrock wildlands of Utah. His essays can be found by clicking here.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Prescription for a Cooler Planet: $21 a Gallon for Gasoline


Triple the current cost to curtail emissions disaster, climatologist urges

by Margaret Munro

Canadians may abhor the rising price of gasoline, but Thomas Stocker suggests the planet might be better off if it soared to "three to four" times its current level.

Canadians, like Americans, could make a significant dent in their emissions by reducing per capita energy use, which is among the highest on the planet. There is great potential for reducing energy use in homes through better insulation, more efficient windows and appliances, but a big price hike at the gas pump, said Stocker, would make people and governments get much more serious about switching to more efficient ways of getting around. "This is scandalous, I know," said Stocker, adding sky-high gasoline could help slow the climate change which world leaders have declared one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Much higher pump prices would help people realize there are "much smarter ways to go from point A to point B" than climbing into "three tonnes of steel and rubber" that spew greenhouse gases, said Stocker, who is in British Columbia this week to discuss the insidious effect humans are having on the global atmosphere.

The Swiss climatologist is a key player with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

He and the IPCC say there is no question the climate is changing because of the huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases wafting into the atmosphere through the burning of oil, gas and other fossil fuels.

The atmosphere's carbon dioxide level is the highest it has been in 800,000 years, Stocker said -temperatures are climbing, sea levels are rising and heat waves are becoming more common and more dire in many countries.

Stocker stressed that decisions made today -how much and what type of energy is used in transportation, homes, buildings and factories -will help shape what the future brings since emissions released today will contribute to changes felt decades from now.

"It's not like we wait to 2049 and say, 'Oh, we'd like to have less climate change in 2050,' " he said in an interview before a public talk in Vancouver.

He compared the situation to slamming on the brakes to avoid a car crash. "You don't wait until you're half a metre from the wall."

And if society won't cut emissions, he asks, "Are we ready to pay the cost of adaptation?" he asks, citing the prospect of seeing some Pacific island states sink beneath rising oceans.

To avoid the worst impacts, scientists say warming must be kept to a 2 C increase in the average global temperature by 2100, which would mean about 6 C warming in Canada's North.

That, they say, can only be achieved by slashing emissions over the next 10 to 20 years.

Stocker said although there are still unknowns in our understanding of how climate works, the ominous projections are "not crystal ball readings," but rather are based on facts and scientific laws.

The details are spelled out in data, studies and computerized climate models that are under review by more than 1,000 researchers from around the world for the next round of IPCC reports due out in 2013 and 2014.

Stocker co-chairs the IPCC working group of 250 scientists exploring the scientific aspects of climate change. Other groups are looking at the impacts of climate change and ways of mitigating the damage.

The IPCC's last report in 2007 said "warming of the climate system is unequivocal" -a "fact" that Stocker said has not been challenged despite the IPCC recent troubles.

The panel, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, became embroiled in a furor over a glaring mistake -its last report incorrectly said the Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035.

There was also controversy in 2009 over leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. that indicated leading climate scientists, who work on the IPCC, had tried to stifle critics.

The IPCC has since committed to being more transparent and improving communications and has new protocols for addressing errors in its reports.

Stocker said the next round of reports will elaborate on everything from the role aerosols play in the climate system to the fate of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which could drown lowlying regions around the world if they melt.

There is speculation that climate change is already causing more extreme weather, but Stocker said there is still no proof the number of tornadoes -such as those that have been tearing across the U.S. this spring -is increasing. "But we can say with confidence that it fits the picture," he said.

Scientists have been calling for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for 20 years, but global emissions continue to rise along with use of fossil fuels such as the bitumen product rendered from Alberta's oilsands.

Stocker said he sees little chance of success in "quick-fix" geo-engineering schemes: putting solar reflectors in space or pumping sulphur into the atmosphere to "play volcano" and cool the planet.

He said the only real solution is to cut emissions, and it makes much more sense to start now than wait to 2020.

He said Canadians, like Americans, could make a significant dent in their emissions by reducing per capita energy use, which is among the highest on the planet. There is great potential for reducing energy use in homes through better insulation, more efficient windows and appliances, he said.

And a big price hike at the gas pump, said Stocker, would make people and governments get much more serious about switching to more efficient ways of getting around.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Going Backwards: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Hitting Record Highs


Despite 20 years of effort, greenhouse gas emissions are going up instead of down, hitting record highs as climate negotiators gather to debate a new global warming accord. AMSTERDAM – Despite 20 years of effort, greenhouse gas emissions are going up instead of down, hitting record highs as climate negotiators gather to debate a new global warming accord.

The new report by the International Energy Agency showing high emissions from fossil fuels is one of several pieces of bad news facing delegates from about 180 countries heading to Bonn, Germany, for two weeks of talks beginning Monday.

Another: The tsunami-triggered nuclear disaster in March apparently has sidelined Japan's aggressive policies to combat climate change.

"Japan's energy future is in limbo," says analyst Endre Tvinnereim of the consultancy firm Point Carbon. The fallout from the catastrophe has "put climate policy further down the priority list," and the short-term effect in Japan — one of the world's most carbon-efficient countries — will be more burning of fossil fuels, he said.

And despite the expansion of renewable energy around the world, the Paris-based IEA's report said energy-related carbon emissions last year topped 30 gigatons, 5 percent more than the previous record in 2008. With energy investments locked into coal- and oil-fueled infrastructure, that situation will change little over the next decade, it said.

Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist, says the energy trend should be "a wake-up call." The figures are "a serious setback" to hopes of limiting the rise in the Earth's average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.8 F) above preindustrial levels, he said.

Any rise beyond that, scientists believe, could lead to catastrophic climate shifts affecting water supplies and global agriculture, setting off more frequent and fierce storms and causing a rise in sea levels that would endanger coastlines.

The June 6-17 discussions in Bonn are to prepare for the annual year-end decision-making U.N. conference, which this year is in Durban, South Africa. Even more than previous conferences, Durban could be the forum for a major showdown between wealthy countries and the developing world.

Poor countries say the wealthy West, whose industries overloaded the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other climate-changing gases over the last 200 years, is not doing enough to cut future pollution.

A study released Sunday supports that view.

The report, based on an analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute commissioned and released by Oxfam, evaluated national pledges to cut carbon emissions submitted after the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. It found that developing countries account for 60 percent of the promised reductions.

The analysis is complicated because countries use different yardsticks and baseline years for measuring reductions.

But the study calculated that China, which has pledged to reduce emissions in relation to economic output by 40-45 percent, will cut its carbon output twice as much as the United States by 2020.

"It's time for governments from Europe and the U.S. to stand up to the fossil fuel lobbyists," said Tim Gore, a climate analyst for Oxfam, the international aid agency.

Another keynote battle in Bonn will be the fate of the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 accord whose provisions capping emissions by industrial countries expire in 2012.

Wealthy countries falling under the protocol's mandate are resisting demands to extend their commitments beyond 2012 and set new legally binding emissions targets unless powerful emerging economies like China, India and Brazil accept similar mandatory caps.

"The Kyoto Protocol uncertainty is casting even a bigger shadow over the negotiations than in years past, and is going to come to a head," said Jake Schmidt of the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

Negotiators also must prepare options for the Durban conference on how to raise $100 billion a year for the Green Climate Fund created last December to help countries cope with global warming. One source under discussion is a levy on international aviation and shipping, said Oxfam's Gore.

"South African negotiators are hoping a deal on sources for long-term finance will be Durban's legacy issue," he said.