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Dahr Jamail | "Peak Water," Methane Blowholes and Ice-Free Arctic Cruises: The Climate Crisis Deepens

Monday, 18 August 2014 11:05 By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Report
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Anthropogenic climate disruption(Image: Anthropogenic climate disruption via Shutterstock)

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed." 

- Mahatma Gandhi

We begin this month's climate disruption dispatch with comments from NASA's Earth Observatory about the extreme juxtaposition of temperatures we are experiencing in North America this summer.

"If you live in the northern hemisphere, the past few weeks have been strange," NASA states. "In places where it should be seasonably hot - the eastern and southern United States and western Europe - it's just been warm. In places where weather is usually mild in the summer - northern Europe, the Pacific coast of North America - it has been ridiculously hot."

To get a look at how this appears on a map of the northern hemisphere, click here.

NASA continues:

Records for high temperatures (mid-30s°C, mid-90s°F) were approached or broken in Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Sweden in late July and early August. Searing temperatures also dried out forests and fuelled wildfires in Siberia; in the U.S. states of Oregon, Washington, and California; in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, and Northwest Territories; and even in Sweden. At the same time, cool air moved from high northern latitudes into much of the U.S., setting record-low daytime and nighttime temperatures as far south as Florida and Georgia. Temperatures dropped to the winter-like levels in the mountains of Tennessee.

The extremes generated by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) were off the charts last year, as well, according to a recently released report from Live Science.

In 2013, global temperatures continued their long-term rising trend as the planet hit new records for greenhouse gases, Arctic heat, warm ocean temperatures and rising global sea levels. Additionally, Arctic sea ice extent was its sixth lowest and continued to decline by 14 percent per decade, Super Typhoon Haiyan recorded the highest wind speed for a tropical cyclone with sustained winds reaching 196 mph, record high temperatures were recorded in the Arctic, including record temperatures being recorded 60 feet down into the permafrost.

Indeed, when we observe what is happening in the Arctic, just one look at this before (1979) and after (2014) photo of the ice cap makes the stark reality of our situation clear.

A study recently published in Nature warns that the two-headed dragon of air pollution and ACD will likely result in 50 percent more people going hungry by 2050, due to damaged crop growth.

This month's overview of how the four aspects of the planet are being impacted by ACD provides another sobering reality check, demonstrating how rapidly our world is moving toward an unsurvivable state.

Earth

Examples of the impacts of ACD across planetary species (including our own), which are struggling to adapt, are plentiful this month.

In the far south, Antarctic climactic variations are causing dramatic changes in fur seals that are being born smaller, showing genetic changes, and breeding later in life.

Speaking of the poles, ACD is causing fish and other ocean life to migrate into previously cooler waters, causing disruptions of the previously balanced ecosystems in both areas.

Southern Britain is now beginning to be invaded by birds and bugs from the Mediterranean, which are being drawn by the UK's abnormally hot sun.

Across Africa, population growth and ACD are causing increasing competition for land, which is leading to increasing violence across much of that continent. One example of this is the al-Shabaab Islamist militants forcing people off their lands for farming purposes.

In southwest Florida, mangroves already on the move due to ACD are now appearing as though they will drown within the next 100 years due to ever-increasing sea-level rise.

In the North Atlantic, the numbers of codfish spawning are at an all-time low, and regulators are pointing towards ACD as the reason.

Salmon in Oregon are feeling the impacts, as diminishing river flows, higher water temperatures and the effects of drought are combining to take their toll on the Klamath Basin fisheries. Not surprisingly, drought-plagued California is also seeing large numbers of juvenile salmon die off due to low river flows and hotter-than-normal temperatures.

In Washington State, Gov. Jay Inslee, a champion of working to both educate and mitigate the impacts of ACD is working overtime to inform people about how billions of baby oysters in his state are dying.

And finally, in what could easily be categorized as "disgusting human tricks," ACD tourism is coming to the Arctic, where people can take a cruise ship for a trip through the now ice-free Northwest Passage.

Water

We know water is essential for the survival of all life - but it's not just about drinking water. Seventy percent of world's freshwater use is for irrigation. While each person drinks an average of one liter of water daily, it takes 2,000 liters per person to produce the food we eat.

Irrigated areas on the planet tripled to 700 million acres between 1950 and 2000, but after decades of constant and rapid increase, growth has slowed dramatically. This, coupled with a dramatic depletion of underground water resources, comprises an example of how "peak water" is likely upon us. The term frames our understanding around the growing lack of availability, quality and use of fresh water.

As of today, 18 countries that contain half the population of humans on the planet are over pumping their aquifers. China, India and the United States, which are the three largest grain producers on the planet, are included in these. Saudi Arabia has become the first country to predict that its aquifer depletion will shrink its harvest of grain, and will thus soon become completely dependent upon imports for all of its grain. Saudi Arabia has a population of 29 million.

Rivers that now run dry or are reduced to a tiny trickle before reaching the sea for at least part of the year now include the Colorado (a major river in the southwestern United States), the Yellow (the largest river in northern China), the Nile (the lifeline of Egypt), the Indus (which supplies the majority of Pakistan's irrigation waters), and the Ganges (which is situated in India's most populated area - the Gangetic basin).

Land grabs for farming are essentially water grabs, as demonstrated in Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan, where three-fourths of the Nile River Basin is located. These countries are already in a struggle with Egypt for that river's water. This is but one example of dozens.

Speaking of conflicts over water, in India, armed bandits were recently threatening villagers with death unless they delivered 35 buckets of water a day. This is due primarily to the fact that since 2007, water in northern India has been scarce due to the annual monsoon delivering only half of what it used to.

In the United States, examples of "peak water" abound. Nowhere is peak water more evident than in California, where more and more farmers lack enough water to maintain their livelihoods. The record-breaking drought across the Golden State is hammering the lake and river tourism industry there, where marinas and boat ramps are becoming high and dry. Entire cities in California are now under threat of running completely out of water, and country groundwater levels are falling at higher rates than is normal as a result of the severe drought.

In fact, California's drought has become one of the worst in North American history, as the state is short more than one year's worth of reservoir water for this time of year. The streams continue to dry up, and crops are dying off as three years of persistent drought conditions continue. Recently, dire conditions forced the state to implement statewide emergency water-conservation measures to preserve what is left of the water.

The drought has continued to intensify relentlessly throughout much of the summer, transforming the global food market in the process, since California is the nation's biggest agricultural state by value. Impacts have reverberated as far away as China, where the California drought has resulted in an increase in the price of milk.

The US Southwest is showing broader signs of "peak water," as a recently published study by NASA and University of California, Irvine has revealed that groundwater in the Colorado River Basin is disappearing at a "shocking" rate.

Mapping the droughts across the United States over the decades reveals that in the last 10 years, droughts in some regions are rivaling the epic droughts of the 1930s and 1950s.

Nevada's Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, is currently at an all-time low, which translates to water shortages likely being declared across a region that is home to 40 million people located in seven of the fastest-growing states in the country.

Other global examples of decreasing water availability include snow missing from New Zealand's ski slopes, and severe drought in China looking as though it will end 11 years of harvest growth.

The other end of the water spectrum, too much water, is being impacted by ACD, including rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Boston city leaders are looking into building canals in order to mitigate and adjust to ACD as global sea levels continue to rise.

The city of Miami Beach is proposing an increase in storm water fees to fund city projects in an effort to deal with sea-level rise. In nearby Miami, the contrast is clear in a city leadership who is populated largely by ACD deniers, hence the low-lying city is looking like it will be the first American Atlantis for lack of acceptance, mitigation and adaptation measures.

North Carolina's Outer Banks are vanishing due to development and ACD, according to scientists, while up in Alaska, several communities that are fishing-dependent are under threat from increasing ocean acidification, which is what happens when large amounts of carbon dioxide are absorbed into marine waters.

Back in New Zealand, rising sea levels are threatening to drive Torres Strait Islanders from their homes as the low-lying islands are becoming engulfed by the ocean.

These are but a few examples of what is to come, as recent information published by the National Climatic Data Center shows that the planet set the new mark for the hottest June on record. This was due in large part to the planet having the hottest ocean temperatures since recordkeeping began over 130 years ago.

Air

The capital city of Texas is expected to see summertime high temperatures six degrees above its current average high, in addition to seeing temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the city more than 20 days per year by the end of this century, according to a recent study commissioned by the city of Austin.

New research has shown that tornadoes are becoming increasingly common over the last 60 years, and ACD is the driver of the change.

July saw new all-time heat records in the Siberian town of Norilsk, which is just above the Arctic Circle and known as one of the world's coldest cities, where temperatures were on par with those in the Mediterranean.

Several massive methane blowholes that left craters in Siberia recently have left much of the scientific community scratching their heads, but the fact that methane is involved is extremely worrisome. One of the craters is 200 feet across, and appears bottomless. Russian scientists found extremely high concentrations of methane at the bottom of the first crater found.

In the atmosphere, methane is a greenhouse gas that, on a relatively short-term time scale, is far more destructive than carbon dioxide.  It is 23 times as powerful as carbon dioxide per molecule on a 100-year timescale, 105 times more potent when it comes to heating the planet on a 20-year timescale - and the Arctic permafrost, onshore and off, is packed with the stuff. 

NASA has already reported about the threat posed by the distinct possibility of a massive amount of methane being released from the Arctic - which holds five to six times the carbon equivalent of that humans have burned in our entire existence on Earth - along with the fact that most of this carbon is located in thaw-vulnerable top soils within 10 feet of the surface.

However, the NASA report was from June 2013. Now, researchers surveying the Arctic Ocean's seafloor are expressing even graver concerns over their findings, which include plumes of methane rising in bubbles from the sea floor.

Widely published climatologist Jason Box, who closely followed the research expedition, responded to what he saw with a tweet that quickly went viral: "If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we're f'd."

Moving beneath the Arctic Ocean where methane hydrates - often described as methane gas surrounded by ice - exist, a March 2010 report in Science indicated that these cumulatively contain the equivalent of 1,000 to 10,000 gigatons of carbon. Compare this total to the 240 gigatons of carbon humanity has emitted into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution began.

This is why Box's abrupt and blunt statement is as prophetic as it is shocking, coming from a scientist of his caliber.

To underscore this point, a study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesshows that the rapid rise in temperatures in the Arctic (since 2000, temperatures in the Arctic have risen twice as fast as the rest of the world) are linked directly to changes in extreme weather and global wind patterns.

Fire

It is now well known that ACD is generating larger, hotter wildfires burning earlier and later than their historic seasons. This summer we are witnessing "unprecedented" wildfires across Washington and Oregon, where evacuations are ongoing and homes continue to burn to the ground.

One of the fires in Washington smashed all previous records, becoming the largest that state has ever seen, so far. The governors of both Washington and Oregon declared states of emergency because of several major fires burning in their states. California's Gov. Jerry Brown did the same, as he declared a state of emergency due to threats posed by several dozen wildfires in his state.

Just after California was declared in a state of emergency, the Obama administration released a video that linked the fires to ACD. In it, White House science adviser John Holdren said: "While no single wildfire can be said to be caused by climate change, climate change has been making the fire season in the U.S. longer and on average more intense." He went on to say that annual western wildfires in the United States had "increased several-fold in the last decade" alone, and pointed out how the eight worst years on record for "area burned" by wildfires had all occurred "since 2000."

In total, the amount of acres consumed by wildfires has doubled to more than 7 million annually, and the US fire season has expanded from 60 to 80 days since 1980.

Canada is being hammered by record-breaking wildfires as well. Large forest fires across the remote Northwest Territories are extending their reach far above average for the year, thus far. Canadian scientists are all too aware of the fact that fires like this are the new normal for their country, thanks to ACD. Across the globe, desertification is threatening what is left of the planet's fertile lands, as extreme heat and aridity are spreading as ACD progresses.

Denial and Reality

The willful ignorance of the fossil-fuel industry-funded ACD denier/skeptic movement in the United States continues to astound.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) recently told reporters that "climate change occurs no matter what," and that the EPA's efforts to reduce emissions from existing power plants are "outside of the confines of the law," and amount to no more than "an excuse to grow government, raise taxes and slow down economic growth."

A poll involving 20 countries and more than 16,000 people revealed that the United States leads the planet when it comes to ACD denial, finding that 52 percent of US citizens agreed with this statement: "The climate change we are currently seeing is a natural phenomenon that happens from time to time." The United States was tied by India, and China was a close second.

The United States also got the blue ribbon for having a scant 32 percent of its population disagree with this statement: "The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity." Australia, which just repealed its carbon tax, came in second with that statement, with 25 percent of its population saying they didn't believe in ACD.

Back in the real world, the US military is not letting polls nor politicians hinder its planning for ACD as it is pushing forward on strategies with partner nations to mitigate security effects resulting from ACD.

NOAA recently released its 2013 State of the Climate, and said the planet continued to warm at an unhealthy pace last year, and in fact revealed, "The planet is changing more rapidly . . . than any time of modern civilization." Meanwhile, Climate Central released an amazing tool, where you can view "1001 Blistering Future Summers," enabling the user (us) to interact and see what 1,001 cities' summers will be like by 2100. By way of example, using the tool you can see how, by 2100, summers in Phoenix (103.96 degrees Fahrenheit) will be like summers now in Kuwait (114.08 degrees Fahrenheit).

A recent NASA study showed that as climate models factor in temporary warming and cooling impacts of El Nino and La Nina, they are accurate predictors of global warming. This is consistent with recent studies that show how global temperatures appear to be set to rise rapidly.

As has been mentioned in these dispatches previously, the planet is now in the early stages of its sixth mass extinction event, and humans are indeed responsible, according to yet another published study, this one in Science.

According to the study, large vertebrate animals (megafauna), which include elephants and polar bears, face the steepest decline since they require large habitats and are targeted by human hunters. The loss of megafauna places ecosystems off balance and leads to consequences like massive rodent infestations that proceed to impact the well-being and stability of a large segment of species, including humans. The study highlights how the particularly steep decline of megafauna we are seeing now is characteristic of all the previous mass extinction events.

Massive climactic shifts (cooling or warming) were the signatures of the five worst mass extinction events of the planet, and each are believed to have been triggered by either asteroid impacts or volcanism.

Given the massive injection of carbon dioxide gasses into the atmosphere by humans and the fact that large amounts of methane are already being released in the Arctic which many scientists believe is already a runaway feedback loop that will add several more degrees warming to the planet, the current mass extinction event may closely resemble the Permian-Triassic extinction that happened about 251 million years ago.

During that extinction event, earth's worst, 95 percent of all species were killed off.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Dahr Jamail

Dahr Jamail, a Truthout staff reporter, is the author of The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (Haymarket Books, 2009), and Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from Iraq for more than a year, as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last ten years, and has won the Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism, among other awards.

His fourth book, The Mass Destruction of Iraq: Why It Is Happening, and Who Is Responsible, co-written with William Rivers Pitt, is available now on Amazon. He lives and works in Washington state.


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