An Inconvenient Truth – Part One

Some seven years ago I referred to the words of the renowned Kenyan paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey, a man who has devoted his life to the study of ancient fossils. Leakey had this to say about the environmental crisis facing the world at that time:

“If you look at the fossil record, the thing that strikes you is that extinction is the most common phenomena. Extinction is always driven by environmental change, and environmental change is always driven by climate change.”

He said that the key challenge of our times was not whether the cheetah or the elephant would survive, but whether the human race itself would survive. He based his remarks on a report issued in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This report indicated that the previous year (2006) had seen the warmest spring in the United States since record keeping began in 1895. It went on to warn that our planet was approaching a critical tipping point because of climate change and other factors.

The report noted that the average U.S. temperature between March and May of 2006 was 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the long term average for the whole of the twentieth century.

What this meant, the report added, was that if these trends continued, then by the year 2070, the average temperature on the earth would be higher than it had been at any time since the human species evolved.

Now that seven years have elapsed since that report was published, it is important to know whether these trends have in fact continued. A detailed report issued recently by the World Meteorological Organization provides us with an answer.

The WMO (World Meteorological Organization) is the official voice of the United Nations on matters relating to Weather, Climate and Water, and its annual report highlights topics like temperatures, oceans, ice and snow cover, as well as what it calls “high-impact” events.

The WMO provisional report, published on November 14, 2016, begins with the following stark assessment:

“It is very likely that 2016 will be the hottest year on record, with global temperatures even higher than the record-breaking temperatures in 2015. Preliminary data shows that 2016’s global temperatures are approximately 1.2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels…”

As the report goes on to explain:

“Global temperatures for January to September 2016 have been about 0.88° Celsius (1.58°F) above the average (14°C) for the 1961-1990 reference period, which is used by WMO as a baseline.

“Temperatures spiked in the early months of the year because of the powerful El Niño event of 2015-16. Preliminary data for October indicate that they are at a sufficiently high level for 2016 to remain on track for the title of hottest year on record. This would mean that 16 of the 17 hottest years on record have been this century (1998 was the other one)”.

This spike in global temperatures around the world is graphically displayed in shades of red in the following diagram issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

What this diagram shows, and what the WMO report goes on to describe, is that over the course of the last year, climate changes around the planet have reached alarming levels in the oceans, the polar regions, and in the atmosphere itself.

The key changes in climate can be summarised as follows:

• 2016 was the warmest year on record – 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period
• Average global surface temperatures of the sea reached record heights in 2016
• Average global sea levels rose to new heights in 2016
• Average global sea ice shrunk more than four million square kilometres below average in 2016
• Average global ocean heat was the second highest on record leading to extensive coral bleaching in tropical waters
• Average annual global carbon dioxide concentrations reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time

Commenting on this report, Secretary-General of the WMO Petteri Taalas warned that the above changes were leading to significant increases in events like “once in generation” heat-waves and floods, as well as more damaging storm surges associated with tropical cyclones.

In particular, the report highlighted the following “high-impact” weather-related events that occurred during 2016:

• The most significant of these, in terms of casualties, was Hurricane “Matthew”, which struck the island of Haiti in October, 2016. In addition, it went on to cause significant damage in Cuba and the Bahamas, as well as major flooding in South Carolina.
• Typhoon “Lionrock” caused destructive flooding and heavy casualties in North Korea.
• Of the 78 tropical cyclones that occurred in 2016, cyclone “Winston” proved to be the most severe ever to hit the island of Fiji.
• Summer floods in the Yangtze basin in China killed 310 people and caused damage in excess of US$14 billion.
• Flooding and landslides in Sri Lanka left over 200 people dead or missing, and displaced several hundred thousand more.
• Above average seasonal rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa led to significant flooding in the Niger river basin.

The report went on to highlight numerous areas around the planet that experienced major heat-waves during 2016. In particular, it mentioned:

• The year began with an extreme heat-wave in Southern Africa, which added to the ongoing drought in the region. Many stations set all-time records, including 42.7ºC at Pretoria and 38.9ºC at Johannesburg.
• Other areas that set all-time records in 2016 were 44.6ºC  in Thailand, 51.0ºC in India, 54.0ºC in Kuwait, 53.9ºC in Basra in Iraq, and 53.0ºC at Delhoran in Iran.

The most damaging wildfire in Canadian history occurred in May 2016, in the city of Fort McMurray in Alberta. The fire ultimately burned an area of about 590,000 hectares. It led to the mandatory evacuation of over 100,000 residents of the city and surrounding areas.

This fire also destroyed 2,400 buildings valued at US$3 billion in insured losses, as well as several billion more in associated losses, making it the third-largest recorded environmental disaster requiring evacuation.

It is clear from the foregoing that the fear expressed by Richard Leakey about the danger to humanity posed by climate change has increased over the past seven years, and that the world is now stumbling towards a disaster that threatens to decimate the population of the planet.

Already, the global population has reached seven and a half billion people. These are people who need to be fed, housed, educated and employed if peaceful progress is to continue, and our thin veneer of civilisation is to be maintained. But all of this is dependent on the weather.

Yet the world continues to get hotter year by year. And more and more countries are being assailed by more and more extreme climatic events, as can be seen from a brief summary of what has already occurred in the first four months of 2017.

The intense phenomenon in the central Pacific Ocean known as El Niño, that led to the five-year drought that ravaged the entire state of California, has dissipated, only to be replaced by a series of onshore storms that have flooded coastal communities throughout North and South America.

And the fire in Fort McMurray in May 2016 that led to the mandatory evacuation of 100,000 citizens, proved to be a mere forerunner to the calamitous events in February 2017, which led to the overnight evacuation of almost 200,000 people in northern California.

Oroville Dam before the storms of 2017













These events centred around Oroville Dam, located 75 miles north of the state capital of Sacramento. This dam is the tallest dam in the United States, rising 770 feet high. Prior to the onslaught of winter storms in 2017, the dam had been reduced to a trickle of water that could no longer supply the needs of the surrounding areas.

What happened was that over a period of several weeks, a series of winter storms caused the Oroville Dam to overflow for the first time in its fifty year history. In fact, on February 12, 2017, the reservoir was calculated to be at 151 percent capacity.

Fearful that that the dam’s emergency spillway could fail, and cause an onrush of water that would engulf entire communities situated below the dam, Governor Jerry Brown ordered the immediate evacuation of 188,000 residents in all of the nearby towns.

The fear was that the 30-foot-high concrete barrier at the top of the spillway would collapse, causing billions of gallons of water to swamp the Feather River below, flooding dozens of towns between Oroville and Sacramento and causing unparalleled property damage.

Oroville Dam after the storms

Mercifully, the torrential rains eased and the concrete barrier held, allowing residents to return to their homes that they had been forced to abandon in haste forty-eight hours earlier. The great California drought was finally broken, but at the risk of an even greater environmental disaster.

Meanwhile, wave after wave of storms have continued to lash the entire west coast of North America as far north as Alaska. While in Vancouver, Canada, the city had fifty-one days of rain during one two-month period, and spring flowers only blossomed in the middle of April, the latest in recent history.

And in Washington State, the city of Seattle received more rain in four months than their average precipitation for an entire year. And still the rain keeps coming, and shows little sign of stopping, as a seemingly never ending series of cold fronts continue to drench the region.

Snow levels near Truckee, Nevada

Further south, the precipitation at higher elevations has come in the form of record levels of snow. The Sierra Nevada mountains in California have experienced more snow over the last winter that in the four previous years combined, and snowdrifts have been found to exceed 22 feet in depth.

And although this might seem to offer a welcome relief from previous years of scorching drought, if the summer should happen to bring with it a sudden thaw, then vast areas might be devastated by the ensuing floods. But these conditions have not been limited to North America alone.

In South America, similar falls of torrential rain have led to widespread flooding and damage due to landslides, as entire hillsides have collapsed under the weight of the moisture, threatening the lives of those citizens living in low-lying areas.

Recent flooding in Peru

For example in Peru in early March, overflowing rivers driven by relentless El Niño rains drowned 67 people, damaged 115,000 homes, collapsed 117 bridges and paralyzed countless roadways, to say nothing of the thousands more who were displaced from their inundated homes.

Even in the capital city of Lima, located in a desert region where it almost never rains, Police had to rescue hundreds of residents from flooded areas of the city, while in nearby Huachipa more than 65,000 people were unable to go to work or return to their homes.

In the neighbouring country of Columbia, an avalanche of mud and water from three overflowing rivers swept through the town of Mocoa while people slept, killing more than 190 residents and injuring many hundreds of others.

Extreme flooding continues to occur in other parts of the eastern United States and Canada, as well as parts of Europe, Israel, Africa, India, Australia and New Zealand. And then there is the phenomenon of global warming, which continues to gather pace with every succeeding year.

In April 2017, scientists conducting an aircraft survey of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia returned with sobering news. They reported that warm waters had severely bleached large swathes of coral reefs for the second year in a row.

In 2016, two-thirds of the coral in the northern sector of the reef died as a result of unusually warm waters. As Terry Hughes, Director of the ARC Centre at James Cook University in Queensland reported at the time: “I showed the results of aerial surveys to my students, and then we wept”.

Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef

It now appears that about 1,500 kilometres of the reef have experienced severe bleaching over the last two years. In fact temperatures in the waters surrounding the reef have been so abnormally high, that if they continue scientists fear that the survival of the entire reef may be threatened.

Then on the other side of the world, scientists have discovered two more examples of changes that can be directly linked to climate change. The first was discovered in the Petermann Glacier in Northwest Greenland, and the second in the massive Kaskawulsh Glacier in the Yukon in Canada.

In the course of a series of low level flights over Greenland as part of a research campaign conducted by NASA, scientists were disturbed to find a newly-formed crack in the Petermann Glacier. This new crack indicated the potential for a large iceberg to break off the glacier.

And although large icebergs had broken off this glacier previously in 2010 and again in 2012, researcher Joe MacGregor said that another rift occurring so soon after two other major calving events “would be extremely unusual if not unprecedented”.

Another discovery that happened by chance, occurred when a group of scientists returned to the Slims river region in the Kluane National Park in the Yukon, to study changes in the flow of the river. What they found turned out to be unparalleled in the history of glacier research.

As Dan Shugar, a geoscientist at the University of Washington in Tacoma, reported in a study published in the journal Nature Geoscience: “This was the first event we could find where river piracy occurred right under our noses and due to contemporary climate change.”

What Shugar and his colleagues found was that a river that they had observed during their previous visit to the region, had mysteriously gone missing. As Jim Best, professor of geology and geography at the University of Illinois reported:

“Where there had been blue, shimmering shallow water, it was now exposed sediment, and it had dried out. The afternoon wind in that area was picking up that sediment and dust and was creating a huge dust storm.”  

To their amazement the group discovered that the melt-water of a glacier that had previously flowed into the Slims river, had now carved a new 30-metre canyon through the glacier towards a lower elevation. And in the process of doing this, it had completely changed the flow of the river.

So whereas the melt-water from the glacier had previously flowed north into the Slims river and then the Bering Sea, a series of collapsed ice blocks had changed its path so that it now flowed south down the Kaskawulsh Valley toward the Gulf of Alaska and the Pacific Ocean.

Although this phenomenon of stream capture, or “river piracy”, is usually caused by a dramatic tectonic event such as an earthquake, landslide or glacial dam collapse, in this case it was clearly seen to be the result of climate change. As Dan Shugar concluded:

“Climate change is happening, is affecting us and it’s not just about far-off islands in the South Pacific. It’s not just about sea-level rise for them. The effects can be very rapid and can be somewhat unanticipated. Climate change may bring new changes that we’re not even really thinking about”.

Shugar is just one of an international body of scientists warning us that it is not just our way of life that is being threatened by global warming and its effects upon our climate, but our very existence itself.

In short, as Richard Leakey observed in his quotation at the beginning of this post, if the fossil record of past ages of the earth is any guide, the earth may soon be facing an extinction level event.

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Allan, An Inconvenient Truth, April 23, 2017, 12:16 pm

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