Humanity is acting as a force of nature, and we have little time to develop responsibility to match that power.

“Oh, there is a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat!”

“So… what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture?”

Excerpt from “They’re made of of meat”, by Terry Bisson

The scale of the warming event humanity is causing right now seems to exist pretty close to the boundary of what we, as a society, are capable of processing with our meat computers. I don’t think it will always be out of our grasp, but it seems to me that when it comes to how we understand the cosmos, we really do have a collective consciousness. Just as interactions between the different kinds of matter in our brains seem to expand our cognitive capacity, so to do the interactions between individual humans, between groups of humans, and between generations of humans transcending our lifespans.

As a group, we are continually expanding the list of concepts we can conceive of, but I feel like we’re still stuck on the notion that we’re insignificant compared to the sheer size of the planet we live on. How could we be affecting something so mind-bogglingly huge that a significant portion of the species can’t bring themselves to believe it’s actually round? Because our power, as a species, has recently increased beyond what “common sense” might lead us to believe. I think we’re tricked by our sense of individual identity into feeling that our collective power is bounded by what we each do alone.

My favorite effort to describe the scale of what’s happening around us is the measurement of Earth’s rising temperature in units of atom bombs per second. It’s around four. Every second of every day, an amount of heat equivalent to four atomic explosions is trapped by the extra insulation we’ve been putting into the atmosphere.

Once, we were just one species among millions. We made changes to the world at a scale similar to things like beavers. Now, we have become a force of nature when it comes to the size of our impact on the surface of this planet.

In the new paper, published in the journal npj Climate and Atmospheric Science, the research team found that changes in the last 50 years to an important weather phenomenon in the North Atlantic — known as the North Atlantic Oscillation — can be traced back to human activities that impact the climate system.

“Scientists have long understood that human actions are warming the planet,” said the study’s lead author Jeremy Klavans, a UM Rosenstiel School alumnus. “However, this human-induced signal on weather patterns is much harder to identify.”

“In this study, we show that humans are influencing patterns of weather and climate over the Atlantic and that we may be able to use this information predict changes in weather and climate up to a decade in advance,” said Klavans.

By now, I think, the fact that we are affecting global weather patterns is familiar to most people. In many ways, that’s a fairly easy pill to swallow. It’s not hard to imagine how the endless extraction and burning of carbon could affect the air and water around us. We can see the changes we’ve made in our environments, and have vivid images like burning rivers and smog-choked cities to help us understand.

Unfortunately, it goes beyond that.

Not long after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, I began to hear people discussing the possibility that there might be a climate link. At the time, this seemed absurd to me. It felt like the kind of hyperbolic doomsaying that environmentalists have always been accused of. After all, it’s one thing to affect air and water temperatures, but how could warming cause something like an earthquake? It couldn’t, of course.

Not by itself.

The problem is that earthquakes don’t come out of nowhere. They’re a release of tension that’s constantly building up as the hard material of Earth’s crust drifts on the molten magma of the mantle. They’re like a medieval crossbow; the crank allows for an archer to pull back on a bowstring that requires far more force than any human is capable of exerting unaided. Once that tension is built up, very little strength is required to release it.

A weather event can’t cause an earthquake, but if a large storm hits the right area, landslides and flooding can move enough material around that it could, in theory, release tension that was already building. We’ll likely never know if that’s what happened in Haiti, but the terrifying reality is that it certainly could be, and it’s something that could happen in the future. If that’s possible, I think it’s also fair to worry about the kinds of tension buildup that result in volcanic eruptions.

When I was first considering these ideas, I was also put in mind of the concept of “isostatic rebound“. In brief, when a glacier or ice cap melts away, vast amounts of weight is dispersed, to the point that Earth’s crust actually floats up on the magma below it, just as a boat rides higher in the water as you unload it. The amount of ice being lost in Greenland, for example, is not only causing that island to gain elevation, it’s also literally redistributing gravitational forces in the region, with global effects on the distribution of ocean water.

Considering all of these factors, and the fact that much smaller activities like those related to “fracking” can cause earthquakes more directly, I think it’s fair to say that our effects on the climate are not limited to air and water. We are also changing the forces that cause earthquakes and volcanoes. It’s hard to tell what those effects might be or when they might be felt, but it does make me worry about things like the Yellowstone supervolcano.

We’re not just changing the climate and biosphere of the planet, we’re acting on the scale of a force of nature when it comes to the crust – the solid matter on which all life we know of exists.

Unfortunately, it goes beyond that.

On March 14th, 2011, at around 05:46 UTC, days became shorter by 1.8 microseconds. This was caused by a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan that redistributed enough mass that our planet’s rotational axis shifted by 17 centimeters, and pulled enough mass toward the center of the earth that its rotation sped up just a little. As the article notes, this is something that happens to some degree with most big earthquakes. The fact that it could happen was news to me, but not to the collective consciousness of our species (or at least the parts of us that study such things). Going back to the earlier discussion of climate and earthquakes, it seems pretty clear at this point that the warming humanity is causing through greenhouse gas emissions can literally affect the balance of the entire planet as it spirals through space. It’s unlikely to be enough that we’d notice without checking, but that’s the situation we have created for ourselves.

Taking all of this into consideration, I hope it is not too much of a shock to my readers to learn that this has, in fact, already occurred:

Using data on glacier loss and estimations of ground water pumping, Liu and her colleagues calculated how the water stored on land changed. They found that the contributions of water loss from the polar regions is the main driver of polar drift, with contributions from water loss in nonpolar regions. Together, all this water loss explained the eastward change in polar drift.

“I think it brings an interesting piece of evidence to this question,” said Humphrey. “It tells you how strong this mass change is — it’s so big that it can change the axis of the Earth.”

Humphrey said the change to the Earth’s axis isn’t large enough that it would affect daily life. It could change the length of day we experience, but only by milliseconds.

The faster ice melting couldn’t entirely explain the shift, Deng said. While they didn’t analyze this specifically, she speculated that the slight gap might be due to activities involving land water storage in non-polar regions, such as unsustainable groundwater pumping for agriculture.

Humphrey said this evidence reveals how much direct human activity can have an impact on changes to the mass of water on land. Their analysis revealed large changes in water mass in areas like California, northern Texas, the region around Beijing and northern India, for example — all areas that have been pumping large amounts of groundwater for agricultural use.

“The ground water contribution is also an important one,” Humphrey said. “Here you have a local water management problem that is picked up by this type of analysis.”

Liu said the research has larger implications for our understanding of land water storage earlier in the 20th century. Researchers have 176 years of data on polar drift. By using some of the methods highlighted by her and her colleagues, it could be possible to use those changes in direction and speed to estimate how much land water was lost in past years.

We appear to have reached the point where we can calculate our extraction and movement of natural resources like groundwater by the ways in which that activity is changing the speed and angle of our planet’s rotation. It’s incredible that as a species, we’ve gotten to the point where we’re capable of making such calculations, but it also drives home the central point of this article.

Humanity is now, by the scale at which such things are calculated, a force of nature on this planet. Our activities are effecting literally the entire planet. Through collective thought and collective labor we have become powerful enough, as a species, to shake the foundations of the Earth, and that fact should terrify anyone, especially given how the use of that power is currently decided.

This, more than the weapons with which our rulers are so enamored, is proof that we are meddling in forces that can erase us from existence. Give any untrained person control over something like an explosive or a truck, and there’s a very real danger that they will kill either themselves or someone else. In general, we don’t allow people to wield that kind of power until they’ve demonstrated the ability to do so safely. I want humanity to reach the stars some day, and to fulfill the potential that has inspired countless science fiction writers before me; but in order to get there we must develop a degree of collective responsibility that is commensurate with that terrifying power, and we must do it quickly.

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  1. klatu says

    My favorite effort to describe the scale of what’s happening around us is the measurement of Earth’s rising temperature in units of atom bombs per second. It’s around four.

    Jesus fucking christ…

    It generally feels like everyone is scampering to quickly become a “world power” and enter history before history is over.

    It would be funny if it weren’t so terrifying and tragic and entirely unnecessary.

    Thanks for the post, Abe.

  2. says

    I like to remind people we are not the first organisms to make major changes to the planet. We may not survive, but life will likely adapt. Look at all the oxygen breathers.

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