Understand Before It’s Too Late
Almost every day, it seems, scientists express renewed surprise at how Nature responds to global warming.
Of course, this is only the best they can do. This surprise only appears because dysfunctionally normal people collectively pushed Nature in new directions. The human race has never been here before. Ever.
Gleaning clues from a geologic record covering millions of years does not provide a level of detail that predicts our future day-to-day experiences. The broad strokes painted by climate change science merely indicate correspondences in physical, chemical, and biological conditions summarized across epochs and ages. They can only guess at potential feedback loops and tipping points because human-Earth system complexity now enters an unknown relationship.
Scientists working for ExxonMobile decades ago correctly predicted that fossil fuel use would produce more warming at the poles than in temperate or equatorial zones.
The details of how that would work out day-to-day or even season-to-season were unknowable then. Now we know.
These specifics were hinted at in old myths and legends. A few individuals in each age have always prophesied that humanity would engineer the means of its end. But these individuals gained their insight from existing outside of mainstream human society, outside of what was dysfunctionally considered normal and so we're free to examine what everyone else took for granted.
We can now see firsthand how polar warming evolves in minute detail. We now witness the collapse of the Arctic food chain and the irrevocable damage to species diversity. We now experience effects from latitudinal weather shifts, polar vortex destruction, and jet stream instability in our daily lives. We now know how one tipping point triggers another in a cascade of catastrophes.
Already human seafood choices must accommodate scarcity and loss of species. This further complicates generations of over-harvesting fish stocks to meet the demands of growing populations with greater affluence. Advancing technology strains to meet the challenges of climate crisis threat multipliers.
Already communities around the world now experience whiplash weather extremes oscillating between drought and flood, heat and cold, sometimes within a few hours. Records for precipitation, temperature and storm damage now appear constantly surpassed. Climate, defined as a predictable weather pattern, no longer exists. Besides the human loss of life and property, global weather extremes threaten the entire global web of life.
Climate, defined as a predictable weather pattern, no longer exists. Besides the human loss of life and property, global weather extremes threaten the entire global web of life.
The first signs appeared with the closing of the Commons and the rise of the Industrial Age. The protests ranged from anarchist groups and arsonists in the name of General Ned Ludd, Captain Swing, and the Rebeccas to the writings of Max Stirner, Karl Marx, John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
While the detailed personal predictions eluded scientific elucidation, each of us now participates as an observer. The reality outstrips the images outlined in generalizations presented in charts and graphs. Few now escape the increasing smell of smoke in the air and the vision of flames on the horizon.
New details emerge. Clathrates, methane gas trapped in frozen water molecules, now destabilize into plumes boiling from the Siberian Sea, Arctic tundra lakes, and new thermokarst ponds. Methane gas pure enough to ignite with a spark now contributes to atmospheric greenhouse gases with a potency exceeding carbon dioxide. This new detail seems a runaway process beyond human intervention to stop, much less reverse.
Permafrost now thaws faster than previously imagined. Of course, this is so because people have never before experienced it. Neither did we expect that thawed permafrost would begin to compost so quickly, releasing more carbon into the atmosphere and generating enough heat to sustain itself through Arctic winters. Reaching a permafrost thawing temperature is a tipping point to a runaway process much like a thermonuclear detonation.
Another surprise came with discovering the huge amounts of nitrous oxide liberated from thawing permafrost. No one suspected this. Nitrous oxide proves a much more powerfully warming greenhouse gas than either carbon dioxide or methane. Nitrous oxide also eats away at the ozone layer. One tipping point cascades into another producing a runaway process as unstoppable as a triggered string of dominoes set upright next to each other.
One can, you know, well wonder how bad it may now be.
A few climate scientists risk acquiring the alarmist label by overcoming scientific reticence. Other scientists accept fossil fuel money and slant their results to support denial. Many scientists occupying a central position seem to avoid offering the data in a way that may increase widespread climate anxiety.
Increased heat at the poles melts ice. This was, of course, somewhat expected but no one knew what that would look like as it happened. Land ice that melts contributes to sea-level rise. Melting land ice also removes a lot of weight from the supporting landmass. As this land rebounds, rising, other connected landmasses not previously covered in ice sink, like the falling end of a teeter-totter.
All of this landmass movement triggers ocean bottom seismic events that release more methane gas from both underwater deposits and clathrates. Underwater earthquakes are now known to release enough methane to blow up fishing boats when ignited by an onboard spark. Burning methane produces carbon dioxide.
For the first time, we can observe how the Antarctic ice sheet, the Greenland ice sheet, and mountain glaciers melt in incrementally fine detail. The geologic record suggests how much sea rise we can expect but not how fast it can happen. The geologic record suggests how ocean currents will change but not how that will affect our normal daily lives. Earth never warmed so fast before.
A warmer planet means there is more energy in the atmosphere. This also produces more evaporation that puts more water vapor in the air. More water vapor in the air increases the rate of global heating. This is an exponentially accelerating positive feedback loop beyond our control. Nature bats last.
More water vapor in the air produces greater amounts of rainfall. More energy and water vapor in the air also produce more violent storms.
Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas all by itself.
More evaporation dries out plants and the land. This increases fire danger, threatens food production and human drinking water supplies. Warmer planetary temperatures increase the human need for drinking water as well as pose a health risk from an increased number of wet-bulb days, which I explain later.
More fires produce more greenhouse gases. More fires produce more dark ashes, some fall on ice, which hastens its melting. Some fall on land or water, which hastens their heating. When global heating produces more heating, that evidences a feedback loop.
When Earth system processes take off on their own, triggered by human causes, they are no longer under human control, and it is considered to be in a runaway condition. In this condition, the Earth system provides its feedback to reach other tipping points. Nature bats last.
Wet-bulb days occur when high temperatures combine with high humidity from more water vapor in the air.
Mammals; people, animals domesticated as pets or for food, and wild animals, all generate heat within their bodies. When we can’t lose that heat, such as during wet-bulb days, we cook ourselves from the inside, destroying our organs and dying in less than an hour.
When people individually lose the ability to shed enough body heat, when human biology is pushed too far, it suddenly tips into a new state. That state is death. All physical, chemical, and biological processes exist within tipping points. When pushed too far, they change into something different.
Whiplash weather extremes also impact plants, insects, reptiles, and amphibians. These species evolved in tune with their climates. Climates, now replaced by whiplash weather extremes, no longer exist. Farmers can’t predict if the next season will be hot or cold, dry or wet.
Seeds sprout, trees bloom, pollinating insects swarm, frogs awaken from hibernation, and turtles emerge from their burrows early only to succumb to a succeeding freeze. This multiplies the threats from land erosion, pesticide and herbicide usage, aquifer depletion, falling soil fertility, and monoculture. Food supplies from land and sea become increasingly uncertain.
“Understand you say? Understanding is in principle solely based on wishful thinking.” Daisuke Aramaki
Burning fossil fuels put enough carbon dioxide into the air to begin warming the planet. Planet warming reached tipping points that triggered Nature to put more carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor into the air to warm the planet on its own. This feedback produced runaway global warming beyond the ability of any known technology deployable at a scale sufficient to halt it.
Warming the planet multiplied existent threats to the human food supply from land and sea. The normal human response to intensifying food production and resource extraction requires burning more fossil fuels.
Increased levels of human waste increase the production of greenhouse gases while further threatening plant and animal habitats. These feedbacks and their tipping points go under-researched but not unnoticed by the planet.
In addition to increasing threats to the human food supply, global warming also decreases land available for human habitation. The inundation of coastal areas by rising sea levels and expansion of areas experiencing wet-bulb temperatures further decreases available human habitat.
Adaptation to accelerating habitat loss will require a great expenditure on fossil fuels and more intensive extractive practices. This suggests the possibility of reaching more unknown tipping points with greater unknown amplifying feedback.
Beyond the physical challenges lie the social challenges to the established political economies enabling all current normal human activity.
All nations today depend upon the most efficient possible optimized extraction and utilization of resources, including human labor, to remain a competitive power in today's world of shifting loyalties and temporary alliances. And not only nations but religions and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) as well also compete for global power.
The consequences to any nation, religion, or NGO to pull back are detrimental to their very existence. New energy sources add to old energy sources, not replace them. Old energy sources are only eliminated when they become uncompetitive. Weakness invites usurpation. Threat deterrence requires internecine strategies or mutually assured destruction. This is dysfunctionally normal.
So, you understand all of that. You understand how feedbacks amplify small changes into big changes. You understand how big changes lead to tipping points. You understand how tipping points cascade, feeding back upon the entire human-Earth system and producing unexpected results.
Then you may also understand that there is currently no financial or political incentive to change direction. There is no political-economic incentive to develop and deploy technology at a scale sufficient to halt global warming.