Change… or Rate of Change

This past weekend, I was talking to a National Park Service biologist about various environmental and ecological matters, and he was telling me that Zion National Park, until the last snowstorm, was the driest in either in recent recorded history or in more distant history as revealed by tree ring data. Even after six inches of snow, it’s still incredibly dry. In addition, the yearly average temperatures at Zion were something like seven degrees above average for the entire past year, a differential that was unprecedented. While I can’t recall all the species, he also listed a number of them that had literally vanished from Zion seemingly because of higher ambient temperatures over the last decade, again numbers that were unprecedented.

For the last two weeks, high temperatures here in Cedar City have been in the low sixties [Fahrenheit]. Most winters, in February, we’re lucky to get into the high thirties for a day or two. So far this winter, the high temperatures are running 25-35 degrees above normal for a longer period than ever recorded in the 160 years for which there are records.

In northern Utah, they’ve had to cancel ice-fishing, because the ice is too thin to support even single individuals in most places. Utah lakes, once too cold to allow wide-spread algae blooms, are now subject to toxic algae.

Yet parts of the east and especially the southeast, are seeing, intermittently, colder bouts than usual. Yet both patterns are the very predictable results of global warming, because the arctic is considerably warmer every year than previously, which weakens the winds that, in the past, kept colder air farther north.

In Europe, something like thirty percent of ski areas that used to exist thirty years no longer do because they’re too warm for natural snow or even to retain sufficient artificial snow.

Yet, as one skeptical geologist I know has said, “These temperatures aren’t anything new. The planet’s been warmer than this a number of times before.”

And he’s right about that. What he doesn’t want to look at is that only a handful of times has the climate changed as swiftly as it is now – and all of those times resulted in massive extinctions. The January 11th issue of New Scientist offered an article dealing with the extraordinary heat in Australia along with projections about how current trends will make large sections of the earth virtually too hot for unprotected humans to survive there in little more than a generation.

Yet the debate over what is causing global warming goes on. And it’s a meaningless debate, because, regardless of cause, the earth is warming all too fast. The real question isn’t just causal, but what we can and should do to deal with it. Already, we’re losing chunks of seacoasts all over the world to rising sea levels, and with over 40% percent of the world’s population within sixty miles of the ocean [and in the Asian-Pacific region 73% of the people live less than 30 miles from the ocean], just dealing with protecting all that real estate – or moving buildings and people – represents a huge resource commitment.

One way or another… our children and grandchildren will pay for it.

7 thoughts on “Change… or Rate of Change”

  1. Hanneke says:

    One more depressing statistic I heard this week, is that there are now 40% less animals in the wild than 40 years ago. We are already in the proces of a human-made grand extinction event.

    On the positive side, the whole world except for those who believe the fossil fuel industry’s lies, is now aware of the need to do something about climate change; though it’s too little and too late to avoid some of the results we might still avoid the worst.
    One option I recently read about that might buy us some time regarding the bigger sea level rises, maybe enough time for CO2 diminishment to kick in and stop further rising, would be to develop seafloor ridges to support the ends of the large Antarctic ice shelves. Considering Dutch expertise in water management, dredging and dam building it seems like something that should be technically feasible, even though it means scaling up from a country to a continent. That would slow their melting considerably, without the risk of adverse (side)effects elsewhere, or if the engineering project is stopped after a while, as is the case with almost all the other geo-engineering suggestions. The only suggestions for mitigation, like taking carbon out of the atmosphere, without negative side-effects that i’ve heard of would be to use carbon-absorbing concrete for all building projects, and to bury carbon in the soil (instead of burning off crop wastes). Both are too small to make a big difference.
    Leaving most of the remaining fossil fuel carbon in the soil in the first place is of course the best option to prevent further harm.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    I think that even _if_ anthropogenic causes dominate, a limited period of “drill baby drill” can enable an economy robust enough to invest in advanced and alternative technologies better than a bunch of crazies wanting to return to a no longer feasible low tech pastoral lifestyle…especially since cattle methane emissions are themselves nontrivial.

    I also think that with pending battery breakthroughs, electric vehicles may soon be able to compete on all of initial cost, lifecycle cost, performance, capacity, and range, and without imposed market adjustments like carbon taxes. When that happens, I’ll buy one (the quiet would be wonderful), but not until.

    There are many things happening without a lot of attention; different cement production technologies (cement production is a significant emitter), for example; so I see no reason to expect people to make massive lifestyle changes in large numbers, nor to massively expand government or regulation to force the issue (powers once assumed, are never returned to private entities, even if they morph into something else).

  3. Joe says:

    Going to Mars will teach some of us to stop whining about our “lifestyle” and evil governments, and finally fit into our natural limits. Hopefully the resulting culture will return to planet Earth, before it is destroyed by the “let’s wait” denialists.

  4. Jeroen says:

    Let us not forget that in the last 2 centuries the world population has grown from less than 1 billion to 7.5 billion. This many people are bound to use more resources, no matter the way they live.

    Getting the world population to a sustainable level in a humane way is a really sensitive subject which nobody wants to add to the climate discussions.

    1. Frank says:

      Jeroen:

      I believe you’ve made the most important point, and I agree that the issue seems to be ignored due to the sensitivity.

  5. M. Kilian says:

    It is worrisome that those of us who have little say in how those governing their country acts can at best hope to adapt to whatever will come, as prevention and regression of the issues are beyond the individual’s means.

  6. Wayne Kernochan says:

    Thank you as always for talking about what is to me extremely important — ongoing developments related to climate change. I would note that if your geologist friend has an open mind, he would benefit by reading “The Ends of the World” by Peter Brannen, which lays out new geology understandings of past mass extinctions and their horrifying implications for today’s atmospheric-carbon rise.

    I don’t know of any good summaries of likely effects on us of “business as usual” climate change, but the closest I can find is “Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet” by Mark Lynas. It’s 10 years out of date, but predictions have gotten worse instead of better since then.

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