It's hot out today. We are in the middle of yet another heatwave here in New England - our third of the summer so far. I think we might be setting records for the number of 90-degree or more heat. My favorite weather forecaster, Harvey Leonard, summed it up as basically, this summer has been hot. Massachusetts is making a run at the highest summer average temperature on record (1). I hope we don't get there.
The Heat is Rising
Of course, the weather can change at the drop of a hat. That is especially true in New England. However, there is no denying that the planet is getting hotter. According to global climate change data from NASA, the planet's average surface temperate has risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celcius) since the late 19th century. Most of the temperature increase has happened since the 1950s after the industrial revolution started spewing greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. The six warmest years on record have happened since 2014 (2).
When Al Gore presented his 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, it shocked the world and clarified the dangerous climate situation we are in. Even though some of his points were disproven or inaccurate, the overall theme was correct - human activity is quickly raising the temperature of the planet to non-sustainable levels, and bad things will come from that (3).
Damages from Climate Change
If climate change is not slowed, stopped, and reversed, there will be disastrous impacts to the planet's health. Polar ice and glaciers are melting, the seawater temperature is rising, the level of seawater is rising, storms are becoming increasingly destructive, the seawater is acidifying, and more (2). 100-year weather events like heat waves or flooding are becoming commonplace because the measurements are based on old weather data. Scientists suggest that we should no longer rely on old weather data because the planet has seen 500-year and 1000-year events happen recently. We need to adjust our building and planning accordingly to adapt to the new normal (4).
There is greater stress on everything because of climate change - everything natural that is. In a natural state, everything works together to achieve a balance. But when external, non-natural forces happen, like climate change, the natural balance gets disrupted, with potentially deadly results.
Impact on Wildlife
For example, animals such as polar bears exist in cold climates. But as temperatures rise and ice caps melt, their habitats disappear and they may become extinct. The same can happen for plants that have learned to grow in a natural environment, but suddenly, if there is too much heat or precipitation, they may not survive. Extinctions or loss of food can have unknown ramifications for the entire food chain (5).
Impact on Sealife
Sealife is impacted by rising water temperatures and increased ocean acidity. Fish that were previously found only down south where waters are warmer are now migrating further north. Warmer water temperatures are changing the migration patterns of sharks along the east coast, which could have negative effects on the marine life in that region (6).
Coral reefs are home to about 25 percent of marine life, but they are in danger because of climate change. When water temperatures become too hot, some reefs become susceptible to coral bleaching, which turns the reef white. This stresses the coral and could lead to coral dying. Ocean acidification can also stress coral. Healthy coral reefs are estimated to support 30 billion dollars of economic activity, so there is a huge potential economic cost to damaged reefs (7).
Impact on Agriculture
Agriculture is already being hit hard by climate change. Hotter weather puts more stress on plants. Changing precipitation patterns leads to more polar-opposite conditions of severe floods followed by severe droughts. Those conditions lead to increased crop failures and livestock deaths. The stress on agriculture leads to increased food prices. It's all tied together (8).
Impact on Glaciers and Polar Ice
Glaciers and polar ice are decreasing every year. According to climate.gov, 2018 marked the 30th year in a row of a loss of mass of mountain glaciers worldwide. Scientists track about 40 reference glaciers regularly to measure their mass. Perhaps you have seen the before and after pictures of glaciers back in the early 1900s compared to now. They are disturbing but crystal clear. Glaciers help provide reliable groundwater recharge sources. so with smaller or no glaciers, there is less reliable drinking water for the planet (9).
Polar ice is decreasing as well. Data shows that the measured amount of old arctic sea ice tied for the lowest percentage on record with 2007 and 2016. Old ice is white and reflects sunlight up to the atmosphere. But with less old ice, the darker colored ocean water absorbs more sunlight, which increases the seawater temperature, which leads to more old ice melting, and on and on. It is a vicious cycle (10).
Then There's Greenland
Glaciologists see Greenland as the canary in the mine that lets you know if there is a gas that will kill you. Some experts believe that the canary is dead and that Greenland's ice sheet is beyond the point of no return. If all of Greenland's ice sheet melts, the oceans will rise an average of 6 meters - everywhere (11)! Say goodbye to New York harbor, Miami Beach, New Orleans, and pretty much any city that is located next to an ocean anywhere on the planet. Admittedly, it will take decades for all of Greenland's ice sheet to melt, but that doesn't mitigate the disaster awaiting humankind if we allow that to come about. Photo courtesy of Unsplash, William Bossen.
What is Next?
The planet is in grave trouble due to climate change that we brought on ourselves. Scientists believe that we are almost at the point of no return. Just what does that mean? According to data, that means that it will be too late to prevent a major negative period of huge climate change that will completely disrupt life as we now know it (12). Maybe some of those climate-based disaster films will end up being close to what might happen if we don't act now.
Is it hopeless? No one can say either way with 100 percent accuracy. However, if Humanity can put aside our differences and make a global concerted effort to fix climate change, perhaps we still have a chance. What will it take? I think that the next generation of young people like Greta Thunburg need to take a bigger role globally. I think that people like Daniel Toben from Tik Tok, whose mission is to pick up trash everywhere, need to take a bigger role globally. I think we have to prioritize fixing the environment over everything else. If we don't have a habitable planet, nothing else really matters, does it?
Image Translation: There is no Plan(et) B. Do something, Now, not later.
In future blog posts, I will spend more time diving into climate change. I plan to explore initiatives like the Green New Deal and other global efforts to combat the threat of climate change.
(2) Global Temperature. https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/
(3) Inconvenient Truth. https://www.skepticalscience.com/print.php?r=83
(4) 500-year Floodplains. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/extreme-floods-may-be-the-new-normal/
(7) Coral. http://www.oceanicsociety.org/blog/2201/coral-reefs-and-climate-change-what-to-know-and-what-to-do?gclid=CjwKCAjwj975BRBUEiwA4whRB3f5uYfMTtZzDe8vHGjzPIf9jKp5iQXV95kBiWR0ouKW4g-Jnc0YCRoCincQAvD_BwE
(8) Agriculture. https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/climate-change-and-agriculture
(12) What's Next. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/11/earth-tipping-point/