This article aims to explain the importance of a habitable climate for humanity and how our activities (especially in the last decades) have altered the composition of the global atmosphere, breaking in this way the natural balance so necessary for keeping the environment healthy and alive.
Table of Contents:
1. Introduction (Read in Part I)
2. Linkage of Life: Atmosphere, Water, Land, Life (Read in Part I)
3. History of Civilization – From Prosperity to Defying Nature (Read in Part I)
4. Global Warming Effects – from 2ºC to 6ºC
4. Global Warming Effects – from 2ºC to 6ºC
Occasionally a particularly striking study makes headlines in the newspapers, but the vast majority of these forecasts are buried in obscure specialist journals, destined to be read only by other climatologists. Most of these journals are taken by Oxford University Radcliffe Science Library, where they sit – undisturbed for weeks or even years on their dimly lit shelves – just a mile or so down the road from my own house. I realised that it was almost as if I had a Delphic Oracle in my back garden or Nostradamus living next door – except that these scientific prophecies were already coming true.1 (Lynas, Mark – Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourt Estate, 2008, p. XV)
April 22- 24, 2014 – BREAKING NEWS :
- “Giant Antarctica Iceberg Puts NASA on Alert”2 (http://news.sky.com/story/1248474/giant-antarctica-iceberg-puts-nasa-on-alert)
- “Antarctic iceberg break-off captured in NASA images”3 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/antarctic-iceberg-break-off-captured-in-nasa-images-1.2641004 )
- “Iceberg is twice the size of Atlanta”4 (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/22/world/asia/antarctic-iceberg/)
- “Iceberg eight times the size of Manhattan breaks off from Antarctica”5 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/national/iceberg-eight-times-the-size-of-manhattan-breaks-off-from-antarctica/2014/04/23/87d55a64-cb1a-11e3-b81a-6fff56bc591e_video.html)
And it is not a first. Large chunks of Antarctica’s ice, which have been stable for tens of thousands of years, are gradually breaking off. In 2000, a piece the size of Connecticut broke off, containing 4,200 square miles of ice. In 2002, a piece of ice the size of Rhode Island broke off the Thwaites Glacier.6 (Kaku, Michio – Physics of the Future. How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 2011, p.97-98) All eyes are on the Poles, where the effects of global warming are most visible. Due to this, the ice cap has lost 40% of its thickness in the last 40 years. Scientists are very concerned when seeing the ice surface shrinking every year. In this rhythm, in might disappear in the next decades. In order to picture the consequences, I will use Greenland as an example. It contains 20% of the fresh water of the entire Planet. If Greenland melts, the sea level will rise by 7 meters. For every vertical meter that the ocean rises, the horizontal spread of the ocean is about 100 meters. More than this, by such an enormous amount of ice being melted, the flow of ocean and air currents around the planet will also be affected.
As the time has gone by, the scholars reached the conclusion that if humanity persists in ignoring its footprint on Earth, it will turn the environment into a very bad shape, destroying the equilibrium which is so essential for having a habitable planet. They constructed scenarios for the consequences of global warming by each additional degree and what might happen when the “taking no measures against” attitude is chosen. They do not agree on WHEN we will reach +3ºC or +6ºC, but they count that time in years and decades, for example, some militate for the fact that we will reach + 3ºC by 2050, others, by 2100. But no one is fighting anymore over the “IF”, but over the “HOW SOON” it will happen.
Let us remember the European summer of 2003. 7 (Baldwin, Alec – Six Degrees Could Change the World, based on a book by Mark Lynas, National Geographic Channels, 2009). In Switzerland, the temperature climbed above 30ºC (at the beginning of June), reaching 41.1ºC in the south of the country (at the beginning of August). Only Paris witnessed over 10.000 heatstroke victims and the whole Europe, between 22.000 and 35.000. The Rhine river in Germany ran at the record low level, some glaciers in the Alps lost 10% of their entire mass and the crops losses totalled around $12 billion. Analysis showed that, during the summer of 2003, temperature was 2.3ºC above the norm. This shows us that a phenomenon which few years ago we considered a natural disaster, might become a normal annual event. And this would be only the first phase.
Towards a +3ºC temperature, all eyes will be on the Amazon rainforest. Unlike others, this one is not used to and cannot adapt to occasional burn (which for some forests sometimes is needed for keeping it healthy). The trees of the Amazon forest are used to constant humidity, in order to run its ecosystem. If the global temperature rises over +2ºC , the collapse will begin and by 2100 (the most optimistic deadline), the interior bazin of Amazon rainforest will be transformed into a massive desert. The 2005 Amazon drought was only a teaser of what will happen.
In addition, the population will face a dramatic lack of fresh water and this process has already started. By now, across the Planet, one major river from ten no longer flows into the sea for several months of the year. In his book, Christian Parenti describes an isolated effect of lacking the water, example which could be perfectly applied at a larger scale: “In Telaga, water is political; to manage water is to manage society.[…] Two-thirds of Indians are farmers, most of whom depend on Himalayan glacial runoff or the monsoon rains. And the region’s hydrological system is sliding into crisis: monsoon variability is increasing; the rains are too late or too light, or they come heavily all at once. In the winter, some areas get no rain.”8 (Parenti, Christian – Tropics of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violance, Nation Books, 2012, p.138) The lack of water will determine the farmers to leave their lands and migrate towards the cities (as first step) and this will give birth to a new kind of urban growth, but this time will not be led by the urge to prosper, but by the urge to survive. The immediate consequence will be the diminishing of the resources. Let us make a use of a simple example in order to understand better the amount of water we need in order to produce food: for one kg of potatoes is needed a quantity of 100 litres of water, for 1 kg of rice – 4.000 litres of water and for 1 kg of beef we need 13.000 litres of water. Obviously, this will drive up market prices once the +2.5ºC threshold is crossed (as shown by the IPCC studies). In this way, starvation becomes a real possibility for the developing countries.
At +4ºC, deltaic cities from Mumbai to Shanghai are exposed to danger, as well as Alexandria, London, Boston, New York and Venice might be saved only by huge financial efforts put into construction of ever-higher defences against floods. The coastal cities, as New Orleans is today, will need to be surrounded by real fortifications in order to keep the water outside, once these will be below its level. Neither in central and northern Europe the situation will not show a positive picture, as heavy precipitation will increase significantly, while the south of the continent will witness massive drought and desertification. Because of the global warming, Siberia, Alaska and Southern Greenland will face an accelerate melting process which will lead at unexpected fires and insect attacks. As the earth heats up, tropical diseases are gradually migrating northward. The recent spread of the West Nile virus carried by mosquitoes may be a harbinger of things to come. UN officials are especially concerned about the spread of malaria northward. Usually, the eggs of many harmful insects die every winter when the soil freezes. But with the shortening of the winter season, it means the inexorable spread of dangerous insects northward. 9 (Kaku, Michio – Physics of the Future. How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 2011, p.108-110) A severe effect will be the loss of the forests from far to the north of the Arctic Circle, which will be totally wiped out.
But one of the most dangerous consequence is the melting of permafrost. The scientists approximated that an amount of 500 billion tonnes of carbon are locked up in permafrost frozen Arctic soils. ”Where the soils remain too wet for oxidising decomposition, anaerobic bacteria move in and produce vast quantities of methane – an even more dangerous greenhouse gas than CO2, due to its more powerful short-term effect on the climate. In other areas, carbon can dissolve directly into water and be released as CO2 from rivers, lakes and the Arctic Ocean.”10 (Lynas, Mark – Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourt Estate, 2008, p.202) But this is not only a simple scenario, but the pure and simple current fact – permafrost is already melting and scientist have already discovered that since 1999-2001 in Siberia and Abisko, Sweden.
With that amount of methane and carbon dioxide added at the already existing unbalanced composition of the atmosphere, we enter into an irreversible accelerated global warming process, where huge climate changes are imminent. At +5ºC the picture is more than grey: the rainforest is burned up, there are no ice sheets, severe extra heat in the atmosphere which leads to a sequence overwhelming evaporation and precipitation (e.g. the UK will face yearly severe winter flooding) and we will be posed to massive climate migration, where the population will transfer particularly to Canada and Siberia. But “where no refugee is available, and crops and supplies fail, civil war and a collapse into race or community conflicts seems – sadly – the most likely outcome”11 (Lynas, Mark – Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourt Estate, 2008, p.227).
Could it be something worse than that? At +6ºC it could. Scientists say that 18.000 years ago, during the deepest freeze of the last ice age, the global temperature was about -6ºC colder than today. This piece of information is meant to help us realize how fragile is every degree, when it comes to global temperature, and how dramatic are the effects of breaking this climatic equilibrium. We shall approach with precautions the analysis of the increasing or decreasing with each degree, because there is a massive difference between the local temperature fluctuations (where the human body can adapt from -6ºC to +6ºC), while the planet, at -6ºC is facing an ice age and at +6ºC the ocean’s temperature is rising so high, that frequent oceanic methane eruptions (from the subsea continental shelves) will take place near cities as London or Tokyo, creating disasters worse that Hiroshima and Katrina combined.
Possible Effects of Climate Change12 (Sources: Stern, 2007; IPCC, 2007. J.M. Harris, B. Roach – The Economics of Global Climate Change – GDAE 2009 http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/education_materials/modules/The_Economics_of_Global_Climate_Change.pdf, p.16)
Lynas, Mark – Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourt Estate, 2008, p.XV http://news.sky.com/story/1248474/giant-antarctica-iceberg-puts-nasa-on-alerthttp://www.cbc.ca/news/antarctic-iceberg-break-off-captured-in-nasa-images-1.2641004http://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/22/world/asia/antarctic-iceberg/http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/national/iceberg-eight-times-the-size-of-manhattan-breaks-off-from-antarctica/2014/04/23/87d55a64-cb1a-11e3-b81a-6fff56bc591e_video.htmlKaku
Michio – Physics of the Future. How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 2011, p.97-98
Baldwin, Alec – Six Degrees Could Change the World, based on a book by Mark Lynas, National Geographic Channels, 2009
Parenti, Christian – Tropics of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violance, Nation Books, 2012, p.138
Kaku, Michio – Physics of the Future. How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Penguin Books Ltd, England, 2011, p.108-110
Lynas, Mark – Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourt Estate, 2008, p.202
Lynas, Mark – Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet, Fourt Estate, 2008, p.227
Stern, 2007; IPCC, 2007. M. Harris, B. Roach – The Economics of Global Climate Change – GDAE 2009 http://www.ase.tufts.edu/gdae/education_materials/modules/The_Economics_of_Global_Climate_Change.pdf