Economics and politics - comment and analysis

The way the world will end? Superstorms, soaring temperatures, droughts, fires and the collision of political, economic and environmental disasters

  1. Hansen superstorms: the North Atlantic cool pool

It was James Hansen who, in 1981, published the first global temperature analysis at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen is best known to the general the public for his 1988 Congressional testimony on climate change. Today, Hansen is the director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University (see here). Hansen has warned for more than twenty or so years that the out-flush of cold water from glaciers in Greenland, Canada and Arctic melt into the North Atlantic can lead to superstorms – incredibly powerful storms that no one human ever experienced. According to Hansen, once an intense cold-hot dipole would be established in the Atlantic, storms could rage in North America and Europe for decades. As he says in the video ‘all hell would break loose’ (see below). This, once again, was considered to be the stuff of science fiction not long ago. If it was taken serious, it was considered something that only could happen in a far away future. We now see the beginning of Hansen’s superstorms.

You can read the Hansen et al. paper on ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms here. You can watch Hansen’s explanation of the phenomenon in this video, which is extremely good. In this video, Jason Box, one of the world’s very best glaciologists, gives a short appraisal of Hansen’s recent work on superstorms.

Climate scientists agree that humanity is creating sea level rise, but they tend to assume that large increases will take several centuries. The new paper argues that it could happen far more rapidly and that it would be followed by increases that are so precipitous that they would force humanity to beat a hasty retreat from the coasts. As Hansen says in the video, “That would mean loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s large cities and all their history.”

How will these superstorms generate? Over the coming decades, increasing temperatures will lead to exponentially ramping rates of ice melt and sea level rise. Hansen and his co-authors produce evidence that those many thousands of cubic kilometers of fresh water ramming out into the North Atlantic will fundamentally alter the weather on this planet. This may already be happening. A large cool pool in the North Atlantic is forming. It is mainly due to the increasingly rapid rate of Greenland melt (see here). It is, as Scribbler says, ironic that overall global heating produces a severe weather hazard in the form of a large area of cool ocean surface water (see here). This polar amplification sets off a number of feedback loops in which ice in Greenland and West Antarctica begins to melt at an ever increasing rate. The ‘ironic’ atmospheric relationship to large slabs of ice sliding off the great ice sheets and into the ocean then starts to come into play (see here, here and here).

The thin veils of cold fresh water from these massive volumes of melting ice begin to lock more and more heat into the local ocean system. As a result, over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers, the fresh water starts cutting off the ocean’s ability to ventilate heat into the air. Both the ocean surface and the local atmosphere cools. More heat is being pushed down into deeper water, where it can melt sea facing glaciers even more rapidly and destabilise carbon and methane stores on the sea bed even faster (see here). This is already happening. NASA produced a map showing that large areas of the Greenland Ice Sheet are melting are melting heavily from below, while the surface ice also continues to melt at an accelerating rate. The process also develops anoxic dead zones in the ocean depths and expands these dead zones to the ocean surface. This condition is called a stratified ocean state (see here).

All of this is already completely disastrous, but sadly, there is more. Robert Scri0bbler reproduces a picture (made on April 8, 2016 by Earth Nullschool) (see here). The picture shows a large swath of Gulf Stream waters ranging from 5-8 C above average temperatures coming into collision with waters in a North Atlantic cool pool ranging from 1-10 C below average. It is this thermal gradient – the increasing difference in temperature – between these two ocean zones that Hansen et al. identify as having a high potential for generating superstorms. It spells, without any exaggeration, the end of weather as we know it. What is happening is that a cooler North Atlantic collides with expanding heat from various regions. The Gulf Stream is warming up already. The tropics also become warmer. All of this increases the thermal gradient between lower latitudes and the cool pool in the North Atlantic. These extreme differences in temperatures, strong winds and atmospheric vortexes – strong south to north and north to south air flows that link the tropics to the pole – and an ever-growing abundance of moisture bleeding off the record warm waters that come into increasing collision with the expanding pool of cold to the north create all right conditions for superstorms to occur (see here).

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Picture 1: April 8, 2016 ocean surface temperature anomaly reanalysis. The hot waters of the Gulf Stream collide with the cool pool in the North Atlantic. (Source: Earth Nullschool).

You can watch what is going on here in these images from Earth Nullschool.

Hansen et al. found evidence that such conditions may well have existed during the last warm period around 115.000 – 120.000 years ago. Back then, a huge flush of icebergs running out from a melting Greenland appears to have produced incredibly powerful storms in the North Atlantic. According to Hansen, these storms were powerful enough to take out 2.000 ton boulders out of the sea bed and hurl them 100 feet above sea level before depositing them on Bermuda and the Bahamas (see here). This sounds indeed radically insane. Here is a picture of such a boulder. Other experts think a tsunami might have been responsible. Hansen et al. do not address the question of how civilisation is supposed to survive such immense violence. The trivial answer is that it is absolutely not possible.

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Picture 2: Boulder in Bermuda (Source: Google Images).  

Even more radically insane – but extremely likely correct – according to paleo-climatologists, 120.000 years ago the rate of warming on Earth was slower than today. Therefore ice melt was also slower. Hence, atmospheric changes were milder than those that we are evolving into if we continue to blow CO2 into the atmosphere as if there will be no tomorrow. If we do not change, there will be no tomorrow. Scribbler writes about new forms of severe weather, hellacious mergings of devastating hurricanes with absolutely extraordinary consequences. And as Scribbler also mentions, while Hansen’s most important contribution to science lies in explaining the link between rapid sea level rise and powerful superstorms, the trouble would set off even consequences that are not touched on in his work: the destruction of ocean life and the Earth system liberating more carbon and methane stores from the Earth system itself (see here).

All of this sounds indeed incredible, but this is what solid, state-of-the-art, research by some of the world’s best climate change scientists tells us we can expect. Researchers can be wrong, of course. It is then up to others to show the mistakes and improve. This happens all the time. It is this process which makes science solid. Remarkably, the world’s very best glaciologists – Box, Rahmstorf, Wadhams – agree. Hansen et al. can be wrong on some of the details, but it is impossible that the whole work is incorrect. The paper can only be wrong if many thousands of other papers are also incorrect and, furthermore, if basic principles of physics, chemistry and atmospheric science are wrong. This is not the case, although deniers invent new physics and chemistry all the time. The problem is we never get to see it. These people do not even want to win a series of Nobel prizes (see below).

  1. The situation in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) is critical

Record-shattering temperatures this summer have scorched countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia and beyond (see here). UN officials and climate scientists predict that the region’s mushrooming populations will face extreme water scarcity, temperatures almost too hot for human survival by 2090 if not before and other consequences of global warming. No one knows how this will work out. The UN criticises the MENA countries for their lack of action. It may be true, but it is also deeply hypocritical. Are we preparing for it? There is endless talk. No one does anything. The gravest dangers that humanity ever faced remained un-discussed.

What will happen if temperatures continue to soar in the MENA? We will see conflicts and refugee crises that are far greater than those we fail to deal with today. Parts of the United Arab Emirates and Iran experienced a heat index — a measurement that factors in humidity as well as temperature — that soared to 60 degrees C in July. Jiddah, in Saudi Arabia, recorded an all-time high temperature of nearly 52 degrees C. On July 22, the mercury climbed to 53.8 degrees C in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. A day earlier, it reached 54 degrees C in Mitribah, Kuwait. If confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, the two temperatures would be the hottest ever recorded in the Eastern Hemisphere (see here).

Bassem Antoine, an Iraqi economist, estimates the loss of Iraq’s GDP – ca. $230 billion annually – at 10 to 20 percent because of the heat. Farmers across the country are struggling with wilting crops and productivity decreases overall. Tens of thousands of Iraqis displaced by battles between government forces and IS face the heat in tents and makeshift shelters. Humanitarian organizations are unable to reach all of them because of budget constraints, restrictions and risks. In Baghdad, temperature reached 42.7 degrees C or higher nearly every day since June 19. The government declared multiple mandatory official holidays. Many civil servants turn up to work anyway because of the air conditioning that is available at government offices. Most Iraqi homes and businesses suffer daily power cuts for 12 hours or more, and most Iraqis — unlike their rich neighbours in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia — are too poor to afford 24-hour air conditioning (see here).

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Figure 1: In the Middle East and North Africa, the average temperature in winter will rise by around 2.5 degrees C (left) by the middle of the century, and in summer by around five degrees Celsius (right) if global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase according to the business-as-usual scenario. The cross-hatching indicates that the 26 climate models used are largely in agreement, and the dotting indicates an almost complete match. (Source: Phys.org).

A study published by the journal Nature Climate Change last year predicted that heat waves in parts of the Persian Gulf could threaten human survival by 2090.Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia recently predicted a similarly grim fate for the Middle East and North Africa, a vast area currently home to about half a billion people (see here). The United Nations predicts that the combined population of 22 Arab countries will grow from about 400 million to nearly 600 million by 2050. That would place tremendous stress on countries where climate scientists predict significantly lower rainfall and saltier groundwater from rising sea levels. Already, most countries in the region face acute water crises because of dry climates and surging consumption. According to the UN, more than 60 million people worldwide, two-thirds of whom are in eastern and southern Africa, already face chronic food shortages due to ongoing droughts. To repeat: how will this ever work out?

  1. Soaring global temperatures, floods, droughts, fires and lost habitats

In this latest climate dispatch, Dahr Jamail reports that July was the warmest month ever in Anchorage. The town of Deadhorse, which sits on the Arctic Ocean, hit a stunning 29.4 degrees C. This is in Alaska. Even Alaskan highways are in danger, because, as the permafrost underneath the roads melts, the asphalt caves in (see here). In Siberia, on the Yamal peninsula on which I commented before with regards to the methane spikes (see here), thawing permafrost caused an anthrax outbreak (see here). Two thousand reindeer have been affected thus far and the Russian government has airlifted several families out of the area. The cause of the outbreak is the thawing of a reindeer carcass that had been infected with anthrax. Once the stuff of science fiction, climate scientists fear that this is just the beginning. There is no way of knowing what other kinds of deadly bacteria remain frozen in the permafrost. We will find out, probably to our peril, as the melting increases (see here).

As Jamail writes, last year set a series of climate records: 2015 was the year of the hottest global temperature ever recorded and the single largest increase of atmospheric CO2 (see here). But 2016 is well on pace to break both these records. According to NASA, the year has ‘blown away’ previous temperature highs. NASA reported that July 2016 was the single hottest month ever in recorded history. The previous hottest month ever recorded was July 2015. 2016 is on track to become the hottest year ever recorded. The previous one was 2015, and, before that, 2014. Every single one of the last 14 months set a new record for the hottest global monthly temperature for that month. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000 (see here and here for the latest NASA statistics). Even the military are in trouble. According to a report of the Union of Concerned Scientists, tidal floods and storms will increase by a staggering 2.600% (no typo) annually along the Eastern seaboard where US military bases are located. If sea level rises according to current predictions, by the year 2100, almost 300 American cities will lose at least half of their homes.

There is just too much to report. Paraguay finds itself in the midst of an enduring ecological crisis – the country is running out of water. Increasingly warm seas fuel an unprecedented increase in jellyfish (see here). Their numbers are high enough to sabotage utility girds by swarms of millions of jellyfish. In Nova Scotia, decreases between 85 to 99% of kelp (seaweed) have been measured (see here). They are being decimated by warmer waters, a rise of .06 degrees a year over the last 35 years. The kelp forests are important habitats and their breakdown has a cascading effect through the marine environment by contributing to a depletion of food sources for fish. The whole food chain is affected. Seagulls have been seen turning towards cannibalism in order to sustain themselves. The Nova Scotia research comes on the heels of another recent study that found that kelp forests off Western Australia were becoming extinct following a marine heat wave (see here).

In Portugal temperatures have been around 40 degrees C or even higher for weeks, instead of being around 30 degrees C. Many fires in Portugal have been lit, but there is no question that high temperatures exacerbate the problem. Jamail reports that, in drought-plagued California, at least 3.750 fires erupted across the state since January. Jamail also writes that, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, 35 major wildfires have burned over 500.000 acres across the US West thus far (see here). July saw a widespread heat wave across the vast majority of the US, with some areas reaching 46 degrees C. On July 22, nearly 124 million people were under an Excessive Heat Warning, Excessive Heat Watch or Heat Advisory (see here). So, people put on their air conditioners, which means that more CO2 is being spewed into the atmosphere. The fossil fuel companies are having a field day.

Let’s not forget, concludes Jamail, and this is indeed the crucial bottom line, that in 2009, nations agreed to try to 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels. Today, the Earth is already extremely close to reaching the 1.5C upper limit of planetary warming, only eight months after that target was set in Paris at COP21 in December 2015. There is no doubt that we are on track for much higher increases which will make much of the world uninhabitable.

  1. Climate justice – fighting the ‘accumulation of dispossession.’ Is this how the world will end?

Parenti argued in Tropic of Chaos. Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence that several decades of neoliberal pathologies have “distorted the state’s relationship to society – removing and undermining the state’s collectivist, regulatory and redistributive functions, while overdeveloping its repressive and military capacities.” This is nothing new, but it does indeed, as he argues, inhibit society’s ability to avoid violent dislocations as climate change becomes a dystopian reality. His concept of ‘catastrophic convergence’ in order to talk about the collision of political, economic and environmental disasters that compound and amplify each other is interesting. This is what we are seeing. The ‘impeding dislocations’ of climate change intersect with already existing crises of poverty and neoliberal violence all over the world. The militarized response to the threat of terrorism and the militarisation of the Mediterranean with regards of the refugee problem of today leaves no doubt that increasing militarisation will be used in order to respond to the impeding crises that the multiple threats of climate change are creating. Based on what we did so far, what will be the likely answer of the West to a MENA region which becomes increasingly uninhabitable, while European and American cities are running under water, infrastructure is taken apart and global food prices spike?

Those who think that all of this is unlikely to ever happen because such scenarios will only play out in the longer term and only if we do not act in the meantime do not realise that these scenarios are panning out already (see here). So far, the most of northern Europe may still have slow rising average temperatures, but in the Middle East, north Africa and most of south-east Asia, 500 million people are being affected by droughts and soaring hot days and nights. China, India and the US have seen some of their longest heat waves and worst floods in decades. Nearly 100 million people will need food aid in the coming months because of disrupted rainfall patterns. Politicians do not act, not efficiently anyway, and many experts lose themselves in details. The big questions need to be addressed. How is human civilisation going to survive? Those who do not see the extreme urgency of this question are deluding themselves and are not doing a proper job.

  1. A ‘sewage flow of lies and deceit’

This is my least favourite subject: climate change deniers. Climate change scientists have been slandered, attacked and vilified by deniers and politicians for decades. Hansen has been called a crackpot. Box got so tired of it that he left for Denmark. Mann, who produced the climate hockey stick, was taken to court by deniers (see here). Wadhams speaks of “a sewage flow of lies and deceit” (see here), ‘climate persecution’ and the influence of big oil (see here). There is no honesty here. All of this has been addressed many thousands of times. There is no CO2 controversy. If the deniers would have a point – which they do not – they should be able to satisfactorily answer some crucial questions:

  1. Where is the new chemistry that proves that carbon dioxide and methane and other greenhouse gases do not absorb radiation?
  2. Specifically, what is wrong with the following figure?

Mauna_Loa_CO2_monthly_mean_concentration.svgFigure 2: Mauna Loa monthly mean CO2 concentration 1958-2015.

  1. If greenhouse gases are not responsible for the increase in global average temperatures, then what is?
  2. If you dispute that there is global warming, how do you explain that literally every scientist and meteorological institute, every weather institute on this planet collects data that prove such increase, year after year, month after month?
  3. Specifically, what is wrong with Mann’s hockey stick that all the deniers of this world have criticised for years?

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Figure 3: The original northern hemisphere hockey stick graph of Mann, Bradley & Hughes 1999, smoothed curve shown in blue, uncertainty range in light blue, overlaid with green dots showing the 30-year global average of the PAGES 2k Consortium 2013 reconstruction and red curve showing measured global mean temperature, according to HadCRUT4 data from 1850 to 2013. Other reconstructions have also proven the basic correctness of the hockey stick. No one ever produced any proof that the hockey stick is not correct.

  1. Where are your peer-reviewed articles?

The matter would not be so very serious if these people would not play with the fate of mankind. To repeat myself: this is not a scientific discussion (see here). Realclimate.org, which is extremely serious, has many entries on deniers, their falsifications and the fossil fuel interests that they promote. The deniers continue to argue against facts and reality, while in the meantime people die because of climate change, species disappear, habitats are lost and the gravest of dangers are on their way. No one has the right to lie to everybody and act against the interests of the human race.

According to the latest Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century” (see here).

The rest is a sewage flow of lies and deceit with no consideration for anyone, for human and all other life.