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…
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