A new temperature record, why hot years matter more than cold ones, and threat multipliers.

By now, most of you have probably heard: a town in Siberia recently reported a temperature of 100.4°F/38°C.

A small Siberian town north of the Arctic Circle reached 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, a figure that—if verified—would be the highest temperature reading in the region since record-keeping began in 1885.
“This scares me, I have to say,” environmentalist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben tweeted in response to news of the record-breaking reading in Verkhoyansk, where the average high temperature in June is 68°F.

Washington Post climate reporter Andrew Freedman noted Sunday that if the reading is confirmed, it “would be the northernmost 100-degree reading ever observed, and the highest temperature on record in the Arctic, a region that is warming at more than twice the rate of the rest of the globe.”

“On Sunday, the same location recorded a high temperature of 95.3 degrees (35.2 Celsius), showing the Saturday reading was not an anomaly,” the newspaper reported. “While some questions remain about the accuracy of the Verkhoyansk temperature measurement, data from a Saturday weather balloon launch at that location supports the 100-degree reading. Temperatures in the lower atmosphere, at about 5,000 feet, also were unusually warm at 70 degrees (21 Celsius), a sign of extreme heat at the surface.”

The World Meteorological Organization said Sunday that is “preliminarily accepting the observation as a new extreme” as it conducts a more thorough review of the Verkhoyansk reading.

With all the chaos and misery of the last four years, it’s hard not to feel as if we’ve entered into the “climate catastrophe” era I always feared. It has always been clear that the climate has been warming faster than most scientists have predicted (despite what the science deniers keep saying), and I’ve always known, in the back of my mind, that global warming and associated chaos would be the “setting” for the second half of my life. It was a gloomy enough prospect that I generally focused on the slim hope that it could be avoided, but I don’t think it’s a secret that I’ve been expecting we’d keep falling short of the various changes needed.

In light of this grim new record, I think it’s worth revisiting a post I wrote back in 2016 while I was applying to join Freethoughtblogs: 

Earth’s systems are already out of balance. The comparative equilibrium we saw during most of the last 10,000 years meant that the amount of ice we had was roughly the amount of ice we were likely to get and keep at our current temperature and greenhouse gas level. When we increased the average temperature, that balance was shifted, and ice started melting in response to the increased temperature of the climate.

The “lull” between 1998 and 2015, which was not much of a lull, still saw accelerating ice melt, permafrost thawing, and sea level rise, because we had already raised the temperature enough to make those inevitable, based on our understanding of physics. Even a year that was down to the 1990 or 1980 temperature level, on average, followed by a return to 2000s temperatures, would have fairly little effect. The melting would have slowed, without stopping, and then sped up again when the temperature returned to the decadal “norm”.

But a dramatically hotter year – like this El Niño year – is a different matter. It injects a bunch more heat into the system, which means faster ice melt, and so lower albedo for the coming year, and more permafrost melt, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year, and more water evaporation, and so more greenhouse gasses for the coming year.

A single, unusually cold year, does not do much when we’re still above the temperature at which the current ice sheets formed, but a single hot year can create a spike of warming factors, which will cause even more warming in the years to come.

If we had not been emitting fossil fuels, it’s possible that the dip in global temperatures in the late 1960s/early 1970s would have led to more global cooling, and even an ice age – we’re certainly due for one – but we had already started the slowly accelerating process of global warming. We already had warming momentum, even back then, so we had a temporary cool period, and then when we came out of the 1970s, the temperature skyrocketed.

We’ll have more warming “pauses” in the future. That is a virtual certainty, but unless we re-balance the planet’s temperature budget by reducing greenhouse gases, the planet will just keep warming until it reaches a new equilibrium. Because of feedbacks like the albedo and the melting permafrost, even if we stop emitting CO2 now, the planet will keep warming for thousands of years, and the new equilibrium will be far, far hotter than anything our species has ever encountered.

There are a number of ways we could respond to this, but our best bet is to stop contributing to the problem, prepare for the changes we know are coming, and develop a strategy for deliberately managing the planet’s greenhouse gas levels.

That said, there is one way in which I am an optimist on this. I still believe that, through science, technology, and massive social and economic change, we can weather the coming storm, and even thrive as a species, while helping the rest of the planet recover from the damage we’ve done. That said, I believe it’s safe to say that we can now no longer avoid a period of chaos and hardship unlike anything humanity has ever experienced. That’s one of the biggest reasons that it’s so important to address injustices like those created by white supremacy. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we don’t have time for this bigoted bullshit. The global fascist/white supremacist movement is acting massively amplify every other problem we face, kinda like climate change…

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!


  1. says

    I used to wonder when human civilization went from “sustainable” to on a collision course with our waste products. Certainly, imperial Rome was not sustainable. Perhaps ancient Greece?

  2. says

    I think there have probably been multiple “checkpoints” where things would have been fine if we had had the understanding to adjust how we did things. The advent of agriculture seems to be the point at which we started having an escalating impact on the biosphere, with the Industrial Revolution being the next really big shift.

    There’s always a way in which the goal isn’t indefinite sustainability, so much as “sustainable for as long as non-human factors would allow”.

    Eventually the planet will become uninhabitable no matter what we do.

    I suppose the ideal goal is to last long enough that we figure out an actually achievable way to move into space, and take on an interstellar version of of a nomadic “Island-hopping” society, sticking with each planet for as long as it can sustain life.

    It may well be impossible, but if we’re going to go extinct I’d prefer it to be a cosmic event that we can’t avoid, not the greed of a small number of assholes.

  3. says

    I suppose the ideal goal is to last long enough that we figure out an actually achievable way to move into space, and take on an interstellar version of of a nomadic “Island-hopping” society, sticking with each planet for as long as it can sustain life.

    There is currently something like 1 trillion lbs of living human meat that we’re not going to lift out of the gravity well. Someone’s going to have to stay behind and face the music. A lot of someones.

    I used to wonder if there was something like a “United Federation of Planets” that would come around and make sure that garbage civilizations didn’t spread their garbage to the stars. Oops, giant asteroid, now you’re terraformed.

  4. says

    I’m talking on a timescale of tens or hundreds of thousands of years. People like Musk and Bezos are trying to use our entire species as rocket fuel for their vanity projects. It’s not going to happen in the lifetime of anyone alive now, or any of our great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

    My version of the goal is to have a galactic human diaspora with the ability to, when the time comes, move all of those humans off the planet.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    “we figure out an actually achievable way to move into space, […] , sticking with each planet for as long as it can sustain life”

    If we can get out of this solar system at all – by no means certain or even likely – then by definition almost the only use we will have for planets will be tourism. Any civilisation that can live in space will… live in space.

    See: http://www.vavatch.co.uk/books/banks/cultnote.htm

  6. says

    I could believe it, it just also seems likely that if we can figure out how to meaningfully terraform planets, people would want to.

    Either way, it would be nice if humans had time to see what was possible, so I guess time is what I’m working for.

  7. StevoR says

    Also in the Arctic massive “zombie” fires too :

    he fires, shown on imagery collected by the European Union’s Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service (CAMS), are burning in areas where blazes broke out last northern summer.

    Scientists suspect they continued burning underground during winter and then re-erupted amid the persistent high temperatures of recent months, earning the name ‘zombie’ or ‘overwintering’ fires.

    Last summer, fires in Russia burnt through more than three million hectares of land.

    Dr Mark Parrington, a senior CAMS scientist, said the new fires above the Arctic Circle had been burning more intensely than the long-term average and increasing day by day over the past week.

    Source : https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-19/zombie-fires-and-fire-thunderstorms-hit-arctic/12369818

    I fear this marks a tipping point being passed together with the our Australian Unprecendeted Bushfires, the huge and record breaking Amazon fires, and others last year and continuing this year -and likely worse, more frequent, massive and severe to come.

  8. says

    I forget where I saw it, but someone pointed out that this heat wave is in line with the worst predictions of the worst-case model, for 2100. If the calendar on the disaster is moved forward by 80 years, that means some of us are going to live (part of the way) through it, or at least during it.

  9. says

    I mentioned to someone on Twitter that the dramatic clearing of air pollution due to the COVID-19 shutdown could well have caused a spike in temperature that will, to a degree, go away as industry starts up again.

    It’s unclear how much of that heat is just here for good, and how much may be “lost” again as we go back to our normal polluting ways.

    It has always been a problem we were going to have to deal with – the kind of dramatic shift in industrial/energy activity that we need would also cause a big spike in temperature by removing reflective aerosols from the atmosphere.

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