Year 4, Month 4, Day 30: Sink or Swim

The Japan Times introduces us to a polar explorer and total mensch:

RESOLUTE, NUNAVUT – Spending six months of every year in the Arctic, adventurer Tetsuhide Yamazaki sees the impact of global warming firsthand through the region’s thinning sea ice, the expanse of which has roughly halved in the last three decades.

The ice is “very thin this year,” Yamazaki, 45, said after confirming a thickness of 118 cm with a drill during his recent exploration of an area at the North Pole. Sea ice in the area is usually almost 2 meters thick, according to Yamazaki, who senses the ice grows thinner every year.

Born in October 1967 in Hyogo Prefecture and raised in a coastal town in Fukui Prefecture, Yamazaki decided to become an explorer when he was in high school in Kyoto after reading a book by well-known adventurer Naomi Uemura, who climbed Mount McKinley solo in 1970. The explorer was lost on the mountain in February 1984.

After graduating, Yamazaki worked in Tokyo to save funds for his first trip at age 19 — rafting the Amazon. But it ended in failure after his boat capsized. The following year, Yamazaki successfully rafted some 5,000 km down the river in over a span of 44 days.

This February, he camped on an ice floe in the Arctic at a latitude of 74 degrees north. The temperature was minus 41 degrees, and the inside of his tent was covered with frost that formed from moisture released from his body. The dogs drawing his sled were around the tent.

There’s a hero for you. April 18:

While a scientist can observe its impact very clearly in the Arctic, global climate change is no longer something only specialists can detect, but a phenomenon which affects us all, regardless of where we live. The interconnected web of Earthly life is far more sensitive to environmental factors than most of us can imagine, and climatic disruption is making itself felt in ways that will only become more severe as the greenhouse effect intensifies.

When flowers open a fortnight early, the insects that fertilize them may still be in their larval stages. When plants fail to spread their seeds, animals that depend on them for nourishment may have to seek food elsewhere. When agriculture reels under the impact of extreme weather or devastating drought, food prices go up.

For years we have thought of climate change as something that belongs to future times and distant places. Dr. Tetsuhide Yamazaki’s observations confirm: the consequences of industrial civilization’s fossil-fuel consumption belong to us all. There is no time left to waste, and no place left to hide.

Warren Senders


Year 4, Month 3, Day 24: Happy Birthday, Everybody.

The University World News (an international online bulletin for higher education) sounds the tocsin:

An international team of researchers has issued a stark warning about the perils the world faces in the near future because of mounting evidence confirming the carbon dioxide effects of a 5º C increase in the temperature of the Arctic Ocean.

Rapid melting of ice in Greenland and the Arctic Ocean last year showed catastrophic acceleration in 2012, qualifying the effects in the Arctic as “dangerous climate change” under the UN Climate Convention.

The researchers, from Australia, Norway, Spain and Sweden, conducted a series of eight cruises between July 2007 and July 2012 to assess the annual metabolic balance of Arctic plankton communities. This determines their role as carbon dioxide (CO2) sinks or sources and was resolved for the first time.

The five-year-long research revealed that the two-week spring algal bloom occurring each April, as the Arctic emerges from its winter darkness and the sea-ice starts to thin, is so productive it can fuel the food web for the entire year and remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere annually.

But experiments involving temperature manipulations conducted in the Svalbard Islands, about 650 kilometres north of mainland Europe, indicated that the plankton community switches from acting as a sink to becoming a source of atmospheric CO2 as seawater temperatures exceed 5º C.

When people call me an “alarmist,” my response is, “the situation is fuckin’ alarming.” If you’re not an alarmist, you’re a fucking idiot. There. I said it. March 12:

When we look at the predictions of climate scientists about the impact of climate change, it’s vitally important to take those forecasts with a great many grains of salt. Remember that these authorities, for all their scientific credentials and expertise, are wrong more often than not.

They were wrong about the rate of planetary warming, about the extent of ice melt, about species extinction and the loss of biodiversity. They were wrong about the likely dates of glacier loss, about the probability of droughts, about the interaction of the various climate forcers.

So if the world’s most-informed climatologists get it wrong so often, why should we be concerned about climate change? The answer is a simple one: because scientific writing is required to avoid extreme language (a phrase like “statistically significant” is a scientist’s way of shouting), so climatologists’ public statements have consistently underestimated climate change’s speed and severity. The fact that predictions have regularly fallen short of reality isn’t a failure of science, but a wake-up call to the governments of the world: there is no time to waste.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 6, Day 14: Sixteen Tundras?

The New York Times notes that things are changing in the soon-to-be-not-so-very-much Frozen North:

Even as insect infestations and other factors accompanying warming have led to the “browning” of some stretches of boreal forest between temperate regions and the Arctic tundra, the tundra appears to be greening in a big way, various studies have shown. The newest such work, focused on scrubby windswept regions along Russia’s northwest Arctic coast, has found a particularly noteworthy shift is under way.

In this part of the Arctic, which could be a bellwether for changes to come elsewhere with greenhouse-driven warming, what might be called pop-up forests are forming. Low tundra shrubs, many of which are willow and alder species, have rapidly grown into small trees over the last 50 years, according to the study, led by scientists from the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Oxford and the Arctic Center of the University of Lapland. The researchers foresee a substantial additional local warming influence from this change in landscapes, with the darker foliage absorbing sunlight that would otherwise be reflected back to space. But the fast-motion shift to forests will likely absorb carbon dioxide, as well.

A particularly interesting aspect of this work, to my eye, is how it reveals the potential for fast-motion responses of ecosystems to environmental change in the far north. In work I covered in 2007, botanists found that Arctic plant species were extremely responsive to fairly rapid climate shifts in the past.

Short-term thinking will whack us seriously. We get too soon old and too late smart. Sent June 4:

If you’ve got a short attention span, climate change seems to be offering all kinds of unexpected bonuses in the natural world. When Arctic bushes turn into trees far faster than scientists expected, that’s a pleasing turn of affairs at first glance — after all, trees are good. Everyone likes trees.

It’s only when your perception goes beyond a five-to-ten year span that things take an ominous turn. If climate change keeps accelerating, many plant and animal species will die out, unable to keep up with the rapid environmental transformations. While humans are famously adaptable and have shown themselves capable of survival in very extreme circumstances, we have never in recorded history experienced anything like the chaos climatologists are now nervously anticipating.

But this is only worrying if you think in decades, centuries, and millennia. Our politicians, who do their thinking in two-year election cycles, aren’t worried. They should be.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 6, Day 10: You Thought Y2K Was Gonna Be Bad? Try CO24C.

Yay, us:

The world’s air has reached what scientists call a troubling new milestone for carbon dioxide, the main global warming pollutant.

Monitoring stations across the Arctic this spring are measuring more than 400 parts per million of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere. The number isn’t quite a surprise, because it’s been rising at an accelerating pace. Years ago, it passed the 350 ppm mark that many scientists say is the highest safe level for carbon dioxide. It now stands globally at 395.

So far, only the Arctic has reached that 400 level, but the rest of the world will follow soon.

Upfucked ungood. Sorry, kids. Good luck with your lives; you’re gonna need it. Sent May 31:

As kids, we clustered around the driver’s seat when the odometer on our family car turned over; Dad would decelerate a bit and we’d call off fractions of a mile. All those zeros were tangible proof of how far we’d traveled. Sometimes we’d celebrate (ice-cream!).

Now we get to watch as another and considerably more ominous number scrolls by. When CO2 is measured at 400 parts per million in the atmosphere over the Arctic, though, it’s nothing to celebrate. Scientists agree that the survival of our civilization hinges on keeping concentrations of this greenhouse gas below 350 ppm, a landmark we crossed decades ago.

While we always came home at the end of a family drive, it now looks as though industrial humans may have driven too far. The Earth we grew up on is irreversibly behind us, thanks to the past century’s profligate consumption of fossil fuels. No cheering this time.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 5, Day 23: Dark As A Dungeon

Hillary Clinton and Ken Salazar are going to the meeting of the Arctic Council, and are expected to contribute toward an agreement on the mitigation of “black carbon,” which is contributing significantly to Arctic ice melt, reports the Washington Post.

Much of the policy debate over global warming has focused on the role of carbon dioxide emissions, which are caused by fossil-fuel burning and remain trapped in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. But, with its initiatives to curb greenhouse gas emissions stalled in Congress, the Obama administration has been compelled to explore alternative ways to slow Arctic warming that do not require United Nations-brokered treaties or complex cap-and-trade scenarios.

At this week’s meetings in Greenland, attended by diplomats of the Arctic Council, Clinton will be joined by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Aides said they plan to highlight the role played by “black carbon” — essentially soot from inefficient combustion, such as natural gas flaring, wood stoves and the controlled burning of agricultural waste.

Such pollutants play an outsize role in Arctic warming, scientists say, essentially causing ice to melt faster than can be explained by rising temperatures alone. But instead of an international treaty, Arctic Council nations will be encouraged to adopt measures unilaterally to control emissions of soot as well other “short-term drivers” of Arctic warming, administration officials said.

Sent May 12:

The rapid losses of Arctic ice provide a sobering confirmation of the reality of global climate change, and reinforce the crucial fact that the time for meaningful human intervention is rapidly dwindling. The presence of Secretaries Clinton and Salazar at the Arctic Council meeting is a positive sign of engagement from our government; while “black carbon” is only one piece of the puzzle, it’s something that doesn’t require the acquiescence of the Republican-run House of Representatives. The GOP’s decades of anti-science advocacy, coupled with the profound innumeracy and scientific ignorance of many media figures, has created a political culture in which acknowledging reality is fatal to Republicans’ electoral opportunities. Eventually, of course, the greenhouse effect and the laws of physics will win; they always do. We are fortunate that at least a few members of our government recognize the danger and are prepared to act before it’s too late.

Warren Senders

Year 2, Month 5, Day 13: Uh-oh.

The Barents Observer (Norway) writes about a new report issued by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) that predictably shows us in much worse trouble than we’d thought. Not that this is actually a surprise or anything:

According to the study, multiyear sea ice, mountain glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland Ice Sheet, which were once considered fixtures in the Arctic, shrank faster in the past decade than in the previous one. Their meltwaters contributed more than 40% of the global sea level rise, which averaged at 3 mm per year, between 2003 and 2008.

Sea ice cover has reached record lows every year in the past decade and is “now about one third smaller than the average summer sea-ice cover from 1979 to 2000.” According to the report, the decreased sea ice cover offers opportunities for increased shipping traffic and industrial activity. However, “threats from icebergs may increase due to increased iceberg production.”

My kid is growing up into this world.

Sent May 4:

Given that the IPCC has always tended to err on the conservative side, it’s not surprising that the recently released AMAP study is projecting sea-level rises that drastically exceed the earlier predictions. In fact, it is increasingly recognized that the effects of runaway climate change are happening both faster and more severely than any climatologists had expected. The introduction of methane clathrates into the picture is particularly alarming, as this gas has the potential to trigger greenhouse effects of devastating intensity; the IPCC’s analysis did not take this factor into account, which is one reason their estimates were significantly lower.

Looking at the likely effects of a climate catastrophe on worldwide political and economic stability, one wonders: how much longer can the world’s developed countries and multinational corporations continue to opt for a “business as usual” model? Industrialization’s virtues won’t matter much if humanity’s only available home is rendered uninhabitable.

Warren Senders

Month 5, Day 14: Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back In The Water

Two articles in the NYT. One is a generic piece on the Kerry/Lieberman Climate/Energy Bill (sigh). The other notes that BP doesn’t want to know how much oil they’re releasing. Of course there are people who are making estimates that are closer to reality than the figures the Oil Flacks are giving out, but they’re all Dirty F**king Hippies, so the hell with them.

The oil corporations are demonstrating that given a loose regulatory environment, they will behave like rabid skunks on speed. I fear for us all; I cannot really begin to imagine what it will take to rein them in at this point. Jail time in a maximum security prison for all their chief executives would help.

We discover with depressing regularity that corporations are adept at minimizing, denying or shirking their responsibilities. B.P.’s unwillingness to engage scientific specialists in measuring the size of its oily underwater volcano is an indication that their PR department is making policy decisions — always a bad strategy. Drill, baby, drill; spill, baby, spill; spin, baby, spin! Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a climate and energy bill that does nothing to stop offshore drilling in the Arctic, where Shell Oil is getting ready to begin “exploratory drilling” within two months. Needless to say, weather and oceanic conditions in the Arctic are considerably harsher than in the Gulf of Mexico. Can anyone say, “disaster waiting to happen”? How many Deepwater Horizons is it going to take before we come to our collective senses? The catastrophe in the Gulf is a wake-up call: we must eliminate fossil fuels from our energy diet.

Warren Senders