Readers of this article will likely live to see climate change so disruptive and damaging that it will alter the Western world’s standard of living. In fact, radical climate change is already upon us and it will only get worse, decade-by-decade, because world governments refuse to address the issue in a meaningful and corrective manner. Climate talks among nations (19 meetings, so far) are merely gabfests where a bunch of dignitaries meet to pontificate but never achieve. The impending dangers of climate change are mostly hidden from public view. This may explain why the problem is underappreciated and underreported. From the Arctic to Antarctica, climate abnormalities are lurking on the surface and in the water.
For example, one serious problem is at the ocean’s base of the food chain in the ocean. This is the result of acidification because of the ocean absorbing excessive quantities of carbon dioxide (30 percent of CO2 emissions) caused by burning fossil fuels, as well as excessive amounts of heat (90 percent of the planet’s heat). In consequence, marine phytoplankton, of which there are 5,000 species, are negatively affected, threatening the base of the food chain. Phytoplankton is also responsible for half of the Earth’s oxygen; every other breath you take comes from these mysterious organisms.
Examples of acidification at work include elevated levels of domoic acid, the agent of Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, that have been reported in the coastal waters of Southern California, and along the U.S. West Coast scientists are witnessing, in real time, the devastating impact of acidification in oyster fisheries. According to Jane Luchenco, former director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “You can actually see this happening…. It’s not something a long way into the future. It is a very big problem.”
In the Southern Ocean, scientists—using electron microscopes—have measured severe shell dissolution of Pteropods, which are at the base of the food chain and a food source for everything from krill to large whales. And off the Northern Coast of California, scientists are finding water that’s acidic enough to start dissolving seashells. “If the current carbon dioxide emission trends continue…the ocean will continue to undergo acidification, to an extent and at rates that have not occurred for tens of millions of years…nearly all marine life forms that build calcium carbonate shells and skeletons studied by scientists thus far have shown deterioration due to increasing carbon dioxide levels in seawater,” wrote Dr. Richard Feely and Dr. Christopher Sabine in “Oceanographers, Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy” (Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, April 2006).
According to an article in National Geographic, “Ocean Acidification,” in 2008 a group of more than 150 leading researchers issued a declaration stating that they were deeply concerned by recent, rapid changes in ocean chemistry, which could within decades severely affect marine organisms, food webs, biodiversity, and fisheries. Alas, this is already happening.
Moreover, coral reefs around the world are under attack. Again, the problem is excessive levels of CO2. When atmospheric CO2 levels increase and are absorbed into the ocean, carbonate ions become scarcer in the water. Studies reveal that coral skeleton growth has been shown to decline linearly as the carbonate concentration declines because of excessive CO2 levels. Coral reefs are crucial to marine life. Up to nine million marine species live on or around coral reefs. Worldwide, 20 percent of coral reefs are already gone and another 50 percent are on the verge of total collapse. According to Dr. Alex Rogers, the Scientific Director of the International Program on the State of the Ocean in a One World (UK) Video from August 2011: “I think if we continue on the current trajectory, we are looking at a mass extinction of marine species even if only coral reef systems go down, which it looks like they will certainly by the end of the century.”
Along these lines, scientists are only too aware of how damaging excessive amounts of fossil fuel emissions are to the ocean and they have repeatedly expressed alarm. According to the International Program on the State of the Ocean, “The next mass extinction may have already begun.”
Methane & Altered Jet Streams
Methane, which has been trapped in hydrates and permafrost for millennia, is only now starting to escape into the atmosphere in enormous quantities because of the dramatic climatic changes in the Arctic, which is warming 2-3 times faster than elsewhere on the planet. This poses a serious threat of runaway global warming, leading to a sweltering planetary environment.
Additionally, the climate change abnormalities in the Arctic are altering the jet streams, which, in turn, negatively impacts weather patterns all across the Northern Hemisphere. This is happening in real time right now.
“Could the World be in Imminent Danger and Nobody is Telling?,” an assessment by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG), reports: “Uniquely and fearlessly AMEG has studied key non-linear trends in the Earth-human System and reached the stunning conclusion that the planet stands at the edge of abrupt and catastrophic climate change as a result of an unprecedented rate of change in the Arctic.” Furthermore, according to AMEG, here’s the risk: “An extremely high international security risk of acute climate disruption followed by runaway global warming.”
Methane (CH4) is over 20 times more powerful, over a 100-year period, per molecule, than is carbon dioxide (CO2). Or, put another way, methane is more effectual than carbon dioxide at absorbing infrared radiation emitted from the earth’s surface and preventing it from escaping into space. Methane, during its first few years upon entering the atmosphere, is 100 times as powerful as an equal weight of CO2.
As it happens, it appears excessive levels of methane are just now starting to seriously impact the Earth’s atmosphere. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, as of February 2013, methane levels in the atmosphere are measured at 1,874 ppb (parts per billion). This level, in an historical context, is more than twice as high as any time since 400,000 years before the industrial revolution. In the past, methane has ranged between 300-400 ppb during glacial periods and 600-700 ppb during warm interglacial periods.
“There are three huge reservoirs of Arctic methane till recently safely controlled by the Arctic freezing cold environment. They are now all releasing additional methane to the atmosphere as the Arctic rapidly warms” (“Arctic Methane,” Arctic Methane Emergency Group).
As of a couple of years ago, the Russian research vessel Academician Lavrentiev, surveying 10,000 square miles of sea off the coast of Eastern Siberia, made a discovery of “fountains” of methane one-half mile across erupting from Arctic sea ice, coming to surface like a boiling pot of water on a stovetop. The research team located more than 100 fountains and they believe there could be thousands. These are methane fields on a scale never before witnessed by scientists.
In stark contrast to these warnings by scientists, the climate deniers have been crowing recently about a revival of the Arctic sea ice in 2013, but their calculations only measure the “extent” of sea ice, but sea ice “extent” is a two dimensional measurement. Whereas three dimensions, including thickness, gives volume (the Arctic has already lost 40 percent of its volume) and on this basis sea ice has been decreasing by the year, every year for 30 years. The final numbers for 2012-13 are not yet known for certain,and may have gone up for one year, as occasionally happens in any given year.
There is, however, evidence of continued ice loss during the most recent season, according to Mass Balance Buoy readings conducted by the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. Additionally, the warming at the Arctic indicates a critical climatic problem, i.e., the disruption of the jet streams. Dr. Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University has presented research to the scientific community that demonstrates that Arctic sea ice loss and warming impacts upper-level atmospheric circulation “slowing its winds and increasing its tendency to make contorted high-amplitude loops. Such high-amplitude loops increase the probability of persistent, longer-duration, weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, potentially leading to extreme weather due to longer-duration cold spells, snow events, heat waves, flooding events, and drought conditions.” Isn’t this exactly what has been happening?
The results of this phenomenon of the warming Arctic disrupting the jet streams, which are found at the top of the troposphere at 35,000-40,000 feet (7-9 miles high), have shown up in abnormal weather patterns all across the hemisphere. For example:
- a slow-moving jet stream was behind a blocking weather pattern in the U.S. in 2012, causing the worst drought in 50 years
- Syria’s embedded drought from 2006-11 is the most severe set of crop failures ever in the Fertile Crescent
- India had 2 major droughts in 4 years with rainfall levels 70 percent below normal in the Punjab breadbasket
- in 2010 then-Prime Minister Putin halted grain shipments by Russia because of drought conditions (the worst in 40 years)
- China’s 4-year drought is affecting 400 million people and China has the most severe drought conditions in the world (the worst in 200 years)
- Major floods caused by embedded jet streams, including Colorado in 2013 (once in 100-year flooding), Eastern Europe in 2013 (worst in 500 years); UK in 2012 (wettest since 1766).
These extreme weather conditions were usually classified as once in 100-year events, but are now happening yearly. The world food supply is also threatened by extreme drought and flooding and, according to the Council on Foreign Relations “when you see rapidly rising food prices, of course, it leads to instability. We’ve seen [this] in the last five years across many countries, and you see rising food prices translate almost directly into street protests” (Isobel Coleman/Interview, “U.S. Drought and Rising Global Food Prices,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 2, 2012).
“Nations reliant on food imports, including Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan are especially vulnerable to unrest, according to a report by the National Intelligence Council…. More than 60 food riots erupted worldwide from 2007 to 2009” (Tony C. Dreibus & Elizabeth Campbell, “Global Food Reserves Falling as Drought Wilts Crops,” Bloomberg News, August 9, 2012).
Water Supplies Threatened
The sudden appearance of Ötzi the Iceman frozen in the Alps (1991) may have been an early harbinger of the threat to water supplies around the world because glaciers are one of the world’s largest and most dependable water sources for billions of people. In the high altitudes of South America, 1,600 years of ice formation melted in 25 years according to a recent scientific expedition, which found extraordinarily large portions of the Quelccaya Ice Cap melting away in just 25 years (Quelccaya is the world’s largest tropical ice sheet). Meredith A. Kelly, glacial geomorphologist (Dartmouth College), calculates the current melting at Quelccaya at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record books since the end of the last ice age.
“Throughout the Andes, glaciers are now melting so rapidly that scientists have grown deeply concerned about water supplies for the people living there,” wrote Justin Gillis “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melted in 25 Years” (the New York Times/International Herald Tribune, April 4, 2013).
According to a study by the European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation (ETC/ ACM), from 2000 to 2010, alpine glaciers, on average, each lost more than 32.5 feet of thickness. Samuel Nussbaumer of World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich, says the rate of shrinkage is increasing by the year, and he claims rising temperatures are the main explanation. “These ice giants could disappear literally in the space of a human lifetime, or even less,” according to Sergio Savoia of the WWF’s Alpine office.
The Alpine glaciers serve as Europe’s water tower, similar to how the Tibetan Plateau, the “Third Pole,” serves as the water tower for India and China and neighboring countries. And Chinese scientists report significant measured glacial melting over the past 30 years. The glaciers also feed the big, commercial rivers like the Yangtze, Rhone, Po, and the Danube. And India and China are both dependent upon the glaciers for crop irrigation for billions of people.
The inevitability of an era of radical climate change altering every aspect of life is nearly baked into the cake. Here’s why: coal. Between China and India alone there are 1,200 new coal burning plants on the drawing boards, which is the easiest, cheapest way to produce electricity and power industrial plants, even though non-polluting renewables are equally up to the task, but more costly.
Already China consumes as much coal as the U.S., the European Union, and Japan combined. According to David Mohler, Duke Power’s chief technology officer: “China is preparing, by 2025, for 350 million people to live in cities that don’t exist now…. They have to build the equivalent of the U.S. electrical system—that is, almost as much added capacity as the entire U.S. grid—by 2025. It took us 120 years” (James Fallows, “Dirty Coal, Clean Future,” the Atlantic, December 2010).
The only practicable solution to this festering problem of radical climate change is to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible by switching to renewable energy sources. However, it is extremely unlikely this will happen soon enough. Both of the major U.S. political parties are gloating over upcoming “American Energy Independence” as the result of the use of hydraulic fracking recovery techniques for oil and gas whereby they utilize extreme high pressure to forcibly inject a concoction of fluids containing toxic carcinogenic chemicals underground. Yes, they forcibly inject toxic carcinogenic chemicals underground.
Robert Hunziker (MA in economic history at DePaul University, Chicago) is a former hedge fund manager and now a professional independent negotiator for worldwide commodity actual transactions and a freelance writer for progressive publications as well as business journals. He can be contacted at: [email protected]