Hey everybody! They figured out why the temperature’s rising!

I hope you’re all sitting down as you read this. As some of you may have heard, the planet’s temperature has been rising recently, and according the very wise Bloodsucking Monster Lobby, we just can’t possibly know the cause. As you all know, I’ve just been so unsure what to say about all of this. Well, thankfully, the good folks at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute seem to have figured it out. It turns out that humans are the ones doing it! More specifically, it’s the stuff we’ve been burning for energy!

New research provides clear evidence of a human “fingerprint” on climate change and shows that specific signals from human activities have altered the temperature structure of Earth’s atmosphere.

Differences between tropospheric and lower stratospheric temperature trends have long been recognized as a fingerprint of human effects on climate. This fingerprint, however, neglected information from the mid to upper stratosphere, 25 to 50 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.

“Including this information improves the detectability of a human fingerprint by a factor of five. Enhanced detectability occurs because the mid to upper stratosphere has a large cooling signal from human-caused CO2 increases, small noise levels of natural internal variability, and differing signal and noise patterns,” according to the journal article, “Exceptional stratospheric contribution to human fingerprints on atmospheric temperature,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Noise in the troposphere can include day-to-day weather, interannual variability arising from El Niños and La Niñas, and longer-term natural fluctuations in climate. In the upper stratosphere, the noise of variability is smaller, and the human-caused climate change signal is larger, so the signal can be much more easily distinguished.

“Extending fingerprinting to the upper stratosphere with long temperature records and improved climate models means that it is now virtually impossible for natural causes to explain satellite-measured trends in the thermal structure of the Earth’s atmosphere,” the paper states.

“This is the clearest evidence there is of a human-caused climate change signal associated with CO2 increases,” according to lead author Benjamin Santer, an adjunct scientist in the Physical Oceanography Department at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Massachusetts.

“This research undercuts and rebuts claims that recent atmospheric and surface temperature changes are natural, whether due to the Sun or due to internal cycles in the climate system. A natural explanation is virtually impossible in terms of what we are looking at here: changes in the temperature structure of the atmosphere,” added Santer, who has worked on climate fingerprinting for more than 30 years. “This research puts to rest incorrect claims that we don’t need to treat climate change seriously because it is all natural.”

Jokes aside, this is important research.

I don’t know if this is the piece of climate science I wished more people knew, but it’s up there. See, if the warming was caused by an external source, like solar activity, or cosmic radiation, then the upper atmosphere would be warming as fast, or faster than the bits nearer the surface. If, on the other hand, the warming is due to greenhouse gases, then the extra heat is being trapped here. That means that less heat reaches the outer atmosphere. If the climate scientists have been right all these years, then the outer atmosphere should be cooling, and shrinking. We’ve had evidence that this is happening for a bit now, but the clearer the picture, the harder it is to refute, and this research plugs some holes in the existing data:

Although these earlier studies considered global-mean temperature changes in the middle and upper stratosphere, roughly 25 to 50 kilometers above Earth’s surface, they did not look at detailed patterns of climate change in this layer. This region can be better studied now because of improved simulations and satellite data. The new research is the first to search for human-caused climate change patterns – also called “fingerprints” – in the middle and upper stratosphere.

“The human fingerprints in temperature changes in the mid to upper stratosphere due to CO2 increases are truly exceptional because they are so large and so different from temperature changes there due to internal variability and natural external forcing. These unique fingerprints make it possible to detect the human impact on climate change due to CO2 in a short period of time (~10 – 15 years) with high confidence,” stated co-author Qiang Fu, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington.

“The world has been reeling under climate change, so being as confident as possible of the role of carbon dioxide is critical,” said co-author Susan Solomon, Martin Professor of Environmental Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The fact that observations show not only a warming troposphere but also a strongly cooling upper stratosphere is unique tell-tale evidence that nails the dominant role of carbon dioxide in climate change and greatly increases confidence.”

Santer said that although it is intellectually gratifying to be able to extend fingerprinting higher up into the atmosphere to test the prediction by Manabe and Wetherald, it is also deeply concerning.

“As someone who tries to understand the kind of world that future generations are going to inhabit, these results make me very worried. We are fundamentally changing the thermal structure of Earth’s atmosphere, and there is no joy in recognizing that,” Santer said.

“This study shows that the real world has changed in a way that simply cannot be explained by natural causes,” Santer added. “We now face important decisions, in the United States and globally, on what to do about climate change. I hope those decisions are based on our best scientific understanding of the reality and seriousness of human effects on climate.”

It’s honestly pretty remarkable the degree to which, by the time I started paying attention to this stuff, climate scientists really did know what was going on, and the “rebuttals” of the corporate-backed denial campaign have all turned out to be bullshit. Maybe I’m being too generous, but you’d think they’d get at least something right, right?  Apparently not.

I’m with Santer on not finding joy in this information, obviously. We already knew the house was on fire, and while it’s nice to have more details on the exact nature of that fire, they won’t matter much in the long run if we don’t take steps to put it out. It’s hard not to feel like every new piece of research that comes out, only really serves as another piece of evidence to be presented at a trial of our “leaders” that will never come. There was no reasonable doubt as to the cause of climate change, immediately prior to the publication of this research. There was no reasonable doubt, if we’re honest, when I was born almost 40 years ago.

That’s why this climate blog focuses so much on politics, and social justice, and organizing – because our biggest lesson of the last 50 years must be that simply having the facts on your side is not enough, even if we’re risking human extinction. Most of the world is already on our side, in wanting more action. When it comes to the powerful few who stand in our way (and their servants), persuasion is a waste of time. We can convince them after we win.

The Birds are Shrinking!

When I was getting my biology degree, I was very much focused on ecology. Life on this planet is a complex, shimmering web of interaction and interdependency; pluck one strand, and the whole world vibrates. As organisms, we all affect both each other, and also the abiotic world around us. Some species, like humans, have bigger effects than others, but the reality is that you cannot study one organism without, at least in part, accounting for the others that live around it.

Later, when I was working as a curriculum developer, I wrote climate science lessons that viewed the issue through an ecological lens. See, while there was still mainstream “debate” over whether the planet was warming, wildlife around the globe was already actively responding to changes that a lot of people either didn’t notice, or were able to dismiss in their own minds. By focusing on ecosystems, we were able to show, over a decade ago, that the planet was warming, and that the effects of that warming were already measurable in the wildlife around us. I still think it was a good project, but the US public education system has little room to try new things, and is utterly clogged with testing. Add to that the difficulty in getting funds for this sort of work, and it’s hard not to feel like we were doomed from the start. That perspective on climate change, however, is still useful.

At the time, a lot of the research we were looking at related to changes in migration timing, ecological mismatch, and species range shifts. More recently, scientists have been tracking changes in body size and shape, driven by the warming of our planet. The latest example is a study showing that birds, at least in the Americas, are getting smaller, with longer wings:

The study combines data from two previously published papers that measured body-size and wing-length changes in a total of more than 86,000 bird specimens over four decades in North and South America. One study examined migrating birds killed after colliding with buildings in Chicago; the other looked at nonmigrating birds netted in the Amazon.

Though the two datasets are nonoverlapping in both species composition and geography, and the data were collected independently using different methods, the birds in both studies displayed similarly widespread declines in body size with concurrent increases in wing length.

Now, a new analysis of the combined data has revealed an even more striking pattern: In both studies, smaller bird species declined proportionately faster in body size and increased proportionately faster in wing length.

“The relationships between body size and rates of change are remarkably consistent across both datasets. However, the biological mechanism underlying the observed link between body size and rates of morphological change requires further investigation,” said U-M ornithologist Benjamin Winger, one of the study’s two senior authors, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and an assistant curator at the Museum of Zoology.

Both the Chicago and Amazonian studies attributed the reductions in species body size to increasing temperatures over the past 40 years, suggesting that body size may be an important determinant of species responses to climate change.

Birds hitting buildings is actually a serious problem, with around one billion killed every year in the US alone. It’s also helpful for science. I worked in a natural history museum in college, and part of my job was turning dead animals into study specimens. This was not taxidermy – that’s a whole art form in itself, and if I attempted it, my work would probably end up on Bad Taxidermy. No, what I did was skin them carefully (mostly birds), treat the skin, and stuff it with cotton wrapped around a wooden dowel, creating a sort of a preserved bird on a stick. These specimens are kept in drawers, so that they can be studied, and most of them came from people bringing in roadkill or window-killed birds. Natural history museums basically have libraries of dead plants and animals, along with data about them, that allow us to study the past, and compare it to what’s going on now. It’d be best if we could cut down on the death, but in the mean time, we might as well learn from it, right? I don’t miss the smells, though.

Getting back to the point of this post, the researchers also discussed the implications of the faster change in smaller birds:

It could be that smaller-bodied birds are adapting more quickly to evolutionary pressures. But the available data did not allow the U-M-led team to test whether the observed size shifts represent rapid evolutionary changes in response to natural selection.

“If natural selection plays a role in the patterns we observed, our results suggest that smaller bird species might be evolving faster because they experience stronger selection, are more responsive to selection, or both,” said co-senior author Brian Weeks, an evolutionary ecologist at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

“Either way, body size appears to be a primary mediator of birds’ responses to contemporary climate change.”

So, if larger-bodied birds are responding more slowly to global change, what’s the prognosis for the coming decades, as temperatures continue to climb?

“Our results suggest that large body size could further exacerbate extinction risk by limiting the potential to adapt to rapid, ongoing anthropogenic change,” said study lead author Marketa Zimova, a former U-M Institute for Global Change Biology postdoctoral researcher now at Appalachian State University.

“In contrast, the body-size effect on evolutionary rates might increase persistence of small taxa if their rapidly changing morphology reflects a faster adaptive response to changing conditions.”

It’s important to remember the broader context in which this is happening. Specifically, the fact that bird populations are declining dramatically. It’s kind of neat to see natural selection in action like this, but it’s important to remember that this isn’t birds “changing their body sizes”, it’s the death or decreased reproductive success of birds that, in this case, are too big, or have wings that are too short. What I said about squid and lizards last October applies here as well:

When the average limb length of a Caribbean anole population changes, that doesn’t mean that we’ve got the same number of lizards and they all just have different legs. It means all of the ones with different proportions died. If you lay tens of thousands of eggs at a time, like the squid, then your population can probably bounce back pretty quickly if a few of you adapt to changing conditions. For those of us who reproduce more slowly, a drop in population like that means that it will take that much less to kill off everyone that remains.

If bird populations were stable as this change took place, then I don’t think there would be much cause for concern, but they’re not. They are adapting to climate change, but combined with habitat destruction, pollution, and pesticides, that may not be enough for many species. The world is changing around us, and every species on the planet is responding to it, ourselves included. Whether we are able to survive will depend on how quickly we adjust, and how much we do to slow down the warming. At the moment, it’s not looking good.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

Dark Powers Resurrect Dead Argument, Demonstrate Need for Direct Action

Many years ago, when I was still fairly new at this whole climate blogging thing, I came across a fantastic website called Skeptical Science that had a list of all the arguments against the scientific consensus on man-made global warming, along with their rebuttals. I was also an avid consumer of Peter Sinclair’s work, and between those resources, and my old hobby of arguing with deniers on the internet, I ran into the claim that the planet hadn’t been warming in years – over a decade, in fact. Specifically, the claim was that global warming stopped in 1998.

This was, of course, a dishonest argument. 1998 was the ultimate cherry-pick, because of an unusually strong El Niño that caused ’98 to stand out from the broader trend. Because it was such an outlier, using it as a starting point allowed dishonest actors to draw a line showing an apparent temperature decline, by ignoring the years prior. From Climate.gov:

Did global warming stop in 1998?

No, but thanks to natural variability, volcanic eruptions, and relatively low solar activity, the rate of average global surface warming from 1998-2012 was slower than it had been for two to three decades leading up to it.

How much slower depends on the fine print: which global temperature dataset you look at, whether it includes the Arctic, and the exact time periods you compare. Regardless, the big picture of long-term global warming remained unchanged.

Global temperature trends by decade

(top) Based on NOAA data, global average surface temperature (orange line) has risen 0.13°F (0.07°C) per decade since 1880 (red line), which is nearly identical to the rate of warming during the 15-year period from 1998-2012 (gray line). (bottom) The rate of warming from 1998-2012 was slower than the two preceding 15-year periods, but faster than the two 15-year periods before that. NOAA Climate.gov graph, based on data from NCEI.

Those who deny the scientific evidence of human-caused global warming turned the slowdown into a slogan: “Global warming stopped in 1998.” In scientific journals and assessment reports, climate experts described the episode as a “pause” or “hiatus” in the previous decades’ rapid warming: they knew it wouldn’t last.

Not only was 1998-2012 the warmest 15-year period on record at the time, but greenhouse gases continued to climb to new record highs, and other climate indicators continued to show the impacts of long-term, global-scale warming: subsurface ocean heating, global sea level rise, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and record-low Arctic sea ice extent.

The argument was dead on arrival, but it was never meant to be truly alive. It was designed to spread doubt among people who didn’t know enough to spot the lie, and to support the beliefs of those already committed to denial. Understanding the intent of an argument like that is important, if you want to understand why, a decade later and a good bit warmer, some people are trying to bring it back to life:

For those who can't see it, this is a screenshot of a tweet by one John Shewchuck that reads:

For those who can’t see it, this is a screenshot of a tweet by one John Shewchuck that reads: “After over 1,000 queries via Twitter, Youtube comments, various blogs, and during my talks, every #ClimateScam alarmist completely avoids answering the question … Why are we in a 7-year cooling trend? They fear data – like a vampire fears the sun.” Followed by a graph showing Lower Tropospheric Global Temperature Anomalies from 2015 to 2022, with a trendline showing a very slight decline.

They don’t need real arguments, because the climate denial “movement” exists to support the interests of some of the most wealthy and unscrupulous people on the planet. On the one hand, I feel almost nostalgic. I was so much younger and more naïve when I first met this particular bullshit. On the other hand, it’s a testament to just how much power stands against real action on climate change. All they have to do is keep spending money, and the arguments they like will hang around forever, no many how many times they’ve been refuted. More than that, bought politicians will continue pretending that arguments like this have even a shred of merit. Still, this means I get to bring out one of my favorite gifs, at least from this particular debate:

The gif shows 7 previous "cooling periods", each one warmer than the last, between 1970 and 2020.

The gif shows 7 previous “cooling periods”, each one warmer than the last, between 1970 and 2020.

This is called The Escalator, and it shows very nicely how cherry-picked data sets can show a “cooling trend”, even in the midst of a rise in temperature that has climate scientists shitting their proverbial pants. The most recent iteration of this lie was debunked earlier this year, but I doubt you could convince Mr. Shewchuck of that. I particularly appreciated this tweet from climate scientists Zeke Hausfather:

The tweet reads:

The tweet reads: “While our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are driving long-term warming, natural variability in the form of El Nino and La Nina (ENSO) events can have a big impact on year-to-year changes. If we remove the effects of ENSO from the record, we see clearer warming:” Followed by a graph showing the Berkley Earth temperature record (blue), with a recent “pause” visible over the last few years, along with the temperature record with ENSO removed (orange) showing a more steady rise in temperature.

The thing is, I feel pretty comfortable saying that this “cooling trend” is about to reach its end, and we’re all going to be worse off because of that. The deniers will be worse off, of course, because it’ll kill their zombie talking point, and they’ll have to wait a bit before they can re-animate it and go back to insisting it’s alive and well. The rest of us will be worse off, because this whole global warming thing is getting to be a serious problem.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, scientists have detected an anomalous spike in sea surface temperatures that seems to be separate from the coming El Niño. By itself, that would already herald an increase in extreme weather, and an increase in air temperature. Add in El Niño, and it seems likely that things could get pretty wild. More than that, there’s some concern that the temperature spike might indicate that a line has been crossed, with regard to the ocean’s ability to absorb heat. If that absorption is slowing down, or if some of that heat is returning to the atmosphere in a new way, then the rate of warming may be about to increase dramatically.

The problem with this “cooling trend” line is that even if it were sincere, it relies on a vague hope that there’s some causal factor, still undiscovered, that explains the apparent pause. Even were that the case, we’d still need to account for the known thermal properties of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, because as I’ve said before, it’s physically impossible to pour that stuff into the atmosphere without trapping more heat. It’d be like putting on a heavy winter coat, and expecting to cool off over time.

I’m posting this in part because it’s worth having more rebuttals out in the world. More that that, though I’m posting this to point out the way that the concentrated power of capital – the aristocrats at the top of big corporations – can keep arguments going forever, no matter how much evidence is provided to prove them wrong. We can work to debunk and persuade, but by itself, that will never be enough. If we want change, we have to make change. We have to organize, coordinate our actions, and bring and end to this greed-fueled rush to extinction.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity: The Dark Side of Urban Greenery

I talk a lot about why we should cover our cities with plants. They’re good for our health in a number of ways, and through transpiration, they tend to cool off their surroundings. Urban heat islands are a big problem that is getting bigger as the planet warms, and plants are regularly proposed as at least a partial solution. I continue to believe that we should have as much urban greenery as possible, but some recent research has touched on a concern I’ve had for a while now.

As I said the other day, we urgently need to be rebuilding our society to deal with a coming heat that can no longer be avoided. That means that we need to account, as best we’re able, for conditions unlike anything our species has ever encountered. I want us to actually be proactive about this. We should be moving cities away from low-lying coastal areas, or rebuilding them to withstand rising seas. We should be moving our agriculture indoors, to the greatest degree possible, to protect food production from the heat and instability of this brave new world.

And, since we know that the temperature will keep rising, we should be planning for extreme heat waves, even if we do manage to literally green our cities. That means accounting for the fact that the transpiration that works so well to lower the temperature also works to increase humidity. Even if all the plant life lowers a city’s temperature by ten degrees, that won’t make it safe outside if the humidity creates wet-bulb conditions, in which we lose our ability to cool ourselves by sweating. The one advantage that cities have in this regard is that they tend to be drier than their surroundings, and bringing in more plants could make the heat deadly at lower temperatures:

A new study, led by Yale School of the Environment scientists and published in Nature, investigated the combined effect of temperature and humidity on urban heat stress using observational data and an urban climate model calculation. Researchers found that the heat stress burden is dependent on local climate and a humidifying effect can erase the cooling benefits that would come from trees and vegetation.

“A widely held view is that urban residents suffer more heat burden than the general population owing to the urban heat island phenomenon. This view is incomplete because it omits another ubiquitous urban microclimate phenomenon called the urban dry island — that urban land tends to be less humid than the surrounding rural land,” says Xuhui Lee, Sara Shallenberger Brown Professor of Meteorology, who directed the study.  “In dry, temperate, and boreal climates, urban residents are actually less heat-stressed than rural residents. But in the humid Global South, the urban heat island is dominant over the urban dry island, resulting in two to six extra dangerous heat stress days per summer.”

Lee and YSE doctoral student Keer Zhang, lead author of the study, say they were motivated to investigate the issue for several reasons: a large percentage of the global population lives in urban areas; many people in informal urban settlements do not have access to air conditioning; and the problem is going to get worse as temperatures rise and more people move to cities. About 4.3 billion people, or 55% of the world’s population, live in urban settings, and the number is expected to rise to 80% by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum.

The researchers developed a theoretical framework on how urban land modifies both air temperature and air humidity and showed that these two effects have equal weight in heat stress as measured by the wet-bulb temperature, in contrary to other heat indexes, which weigh temperature more heavily than humidity. Wet-bulb temperature combines dry air temperature with humidity to measure humid heat. The results of the study, the authors note, raise important questions.

Green vegetation can lower air temperature via water evaporation, but it can also increase heat burden because of air humidity. The question then is to what extent this humidifying effect erases the cooling benefit arising from temperature reduction. We hope to answer this question in a follow-up study, where we are comparing observations of the wet-bulb temperature in urban greenspaces (with dense tree cover) and those in built-up neighborhoods,” Lee says.

I’ve made the same assumption they’re calling out. This doesn’t negate the various benefits I mentioned at the top, which is why I still like the “green cities” idea, but it underscores the importance of guaranteeing access to artificial cooling. I’ve said before that we’re pretty close to a world in which spending time outside will be lethal in a growing portion of the the population, for a growing portion of the time. We know how to deal with lethally cold temperatures – the fact that we generate heat just by living, means that we can insulate ourselves against the cold, at least for a time. That’s not an option when it comes to heat. I suppose we could try to give everyone a version the liquid cooling garments that astronauts wear, but to me, it seems more practical to start rebuilding cities so that, in addition to the goals of the 15 minute city concept, it’s possible for most of the population live their day to day lives without having to go outside at all. This would require a pretty radical rebuilding of most cities, but in the face of the coming heat, we need to do that anyway.

I will probably keep being nervous about the recent unexplained spike in sea surface temperatures going forward. Even the best-case scenario, going forward, is a terrifying reminder that the really bad times the scientists have been warning us about are a lot closer than most people realize. Having plants around is a good thing, but the rules are changing as the temperature rises, and we have to change with them if we want to survive.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

Record Ocean Heat Frightens Scientists, Threatens Grim New Era

For the last few decades, Earth’s oceans have been absorbing the vast majority of global warming – over 90%. This has resulted in declining oxygen levels, marine heatwaves, and a myriad of problems for marine life. Last March, I covered research from Monterey Bay Aquarium that confirmed that “extreme” heat is now the norm for a majority of the ocean’s surface. That would be alarming enough, even though the news is a year old, but now we’ve got more bad news to add to it:

Temperatures in the world’s oceans have broken fresh records, testing new highs for more than a month in an “unprecedented” run that has led to scientists stating the Earth has reached “uncharted territory” in the climate crisis.

The rapid acceleration of ocean temperatures in the last month is an anomaly that scientists have yet to explain. Data collated by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), known as the Optimum Interpolation Sea Surface Temperature (OISST) series, gathered by satellites and buoys, has shown temperatures higher than in any previous year, in a series stretching back to 1981, continuously over the past 42 days.

The world is thought to be on the brink of an El Niño weather event this year – a cyclical weather system in the Pacific, that has a warming impact globally. But the El Niño system is yet to develop, so this oscillation cannot explain the recent rapid heating, at a time of year when ocean temperatures are normally declining from their annual March and April peaks.

Prof Mike Meredith of the British Antarctic Survey said: “This has got scientists scratching their heads. The fact that it is warming as much as it has been is a real surprise, and very concerning. It could be a short-lived extreme high, or it could be the start of something much more serious.”

The image shows the annual variation of ocean surface temperatures for every year from the present, dating back to 1981. April 2023 is far and away the hottest global sea surface temperature from that time period.

The image shows the annual variation of ocean surface temperatures for every year from the present, dating back to 1981. April 2023 is far and away the hottest global sea surface temperature from that time period.

That “something much more serious” is will happen, sooner or later. As the oceans warm, their capacity to keep absorbing the excess heat diminishes, which means that from our perspective, things are going to suddenly start warming a lot faster. Hotter oceans also have less capacity to absorb gases from the atmosphere, which increases the rate at which greenhouse gas concentrations increase. On top of all of that, there’s the fact that a hotter ocean creates stronger storms, which will set us even further back in this age of endless recovery. If the oceans are reaching some sort of thermal tipping point, that could also disrupt the big ocean currents that are so important to moving heat around the planet, and to bringing oxygen to the depths. A big change to those currents could have pretty immediate and dramatic effects on a global scale. It’s not just this year, either. Over the last 15 years, the oceans have apparently warmed as much as the previous 45 years; a finding that has been described as so disturbing that scientists don’t like to talk about it:

Scientists from institutions including Mercator Ocean International in France, Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, and Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research collaborated to discover that as the planet has accumulated as much heat in the past 15 years as it did in the previous 45 years, the majority of the excess heat has been absorbed by the oceans.

In March, researchers examining the ocean off the east coast of North America found that the water’s surface was 13.8°C, or 14.8°F, hotter than the average temperature between 1981 and 2011.

The study notes that a rapid drop in shipping-related pollution could be behind some of the most recent warming, since fuel regulations introduced in 2020 by the International Maritime Organization reduced the heat-reflecting aerosol particles in the atmosphere and caused the ocean to absorb more energy.

But that doesn’t account for the average global ocean surface temperature rising by 0.9°C from preindustrial levels, with 0.6°C taking place in the last four decades.

The study represents “one of those ‘sit up and read very carefully’ moments,” said former BBC science editor David Shukman.

Lead study author Karina Von Schuckmann of Mercator Ocean International told the BBC that “it’s not yet well established, why such a rapid change, and such a huge change is happening.”

“We have doubled the heat in the climate system the last 15 years, I don’t want to say this is climate change, or natural variability or a mixture of both, we don’t know yet,” she said. “But we do see this change.”

It’s true, we don’t know for sure what’s going on. Maybe Godzilla is to blame!

In all seriousness, I don’t blame Shuckmann for being careful in the claims she makes. If I’m annoyed, it’s because of the people who love to jump on qualifiers like that to say, “See? They don’t even know what’s happening!” The reality is that even if this turns out to be a blip, and we’re lucky enough to get cooler sea surface temperatures over the next few years, that won’t change the trajectory we’re on. The heat in the oceans won’t just go away, even if it’s not at the surface. What’s more, when you have an unusually hot year, that adds to the momentum of the whole crisis. Ice melts a bit faster, permafrost thaws and rots a bit more, we get a few more fires, and now there’s just that much more CO2 in the atmosphere, and that much less ice to reflect sunlight back into space, and ecosystems are just that much less resilient.

As long as greenhouse gas levels keep rising, this can only go one way.

A study published earlier this year also found that rising ocean temperatures combined with high levels of salinity lead to the “stratification” of the oceans, and in turn, a loss of oxygen in the water.

“Deoxygenation itself is a nightmare for not only marine life and ecosystems but also for humans and our terrestrial ecosystems,” researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in January. “Reducing oceanic diversity and displacing important species can wreak havoc on fishing-dependent communities and their economies, and this can have a ripple effect on the way most people are able to interact with their environment.”

The unusual warming trend over recent years has been detected as a strong El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is expected to form in the coming months—a naturally occurring phenomenon that warms oceans and will reverse the cooling impact of La Niña, which has been in effect for the past three years.

“If a new El Niño comes on top of it, we will probably have additional global warming of 0.2-0.25°C,” Dr. Josef Ludescher of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research told the BBC.

It looks like we should expect more extreme weather in the coming year or so, but if we have reached a point where the oceans are going to be less effective at absorbing heat and greenhouse gases, then things up on dry land are probably going to start progressing much more quickly. I often talk about how the action that has been taken so far to end fossil fuel use is criminally inadequate, but at this point that’s only half the picture. It’s been a decade or two since we passed the point at which dangerous warming could still be prevented. The inaction of our leadership, which seems to be a gerontocracy still stuck in the mid-20th century, has meant that it will keep warming for the rest of my life, and the rest of your life, dear reader, and the lives of your children, and of their children. Absent a series of technological and political miracles that seems very unlikely, this is our future now.

That means that simply ending fossil fuel use, while absolutely essential, is not enough. We must do better to prepare for a hotter planet. We must change how we produce food, to protect it from the conditions that we have created. We must reshape our infrastructure to deal with higher temperatures, stronger storms, and rising seas. We must take measures to to help those countries that have been deliberately kept poor for the benefit of rich nations withstand the hellish forces that have been unleashed upon this world.

Well, we must do all of that if we value human life. If we want to weather this storm, and keep making the world better.

It is past time that we considered that “we” don’t really want any of that, when it comes to the aristocracy of global capitalism. Despite Biden’s words, his actions show that he feels no urgency to deal with climate change. I’ll probably write more about this soon, but the people who run our world seem to be deliberately driving us to destruction, while setting themselves up to rule what remains. Maybe they think that reducing the population will reset the timer on how long they can cling to a system based on endless growth. Whether it’s delusion, malice, or both, they seem poised to use global warming to kill off most of humanity, while they live in luxury and insist that it’s all for the greater good.

I think the oceans could literally be boiling, and they’d still insist that they know best.

We are running out of time and options, both as a species, and as the working class that makes up most of that species. I don’t know how much longer we can afford to wait for those at the top to go against everything they believe, and act for the benefit of humanity. I think we’ve already wasted more time than we had on that false hope, and we’ve yet to fully grasp the price that we’re going to pay for that. We need revolutionary change, and we need it as soon as possible. It is my hope that a combination of worsening conditions, and a general strike, might get the powerful to change their tune. I don’t know how to get there from where we are. I’ll look into it, but I feel like we need more than my current attempt at an organizing guide. Mass unionization is probably the most direct route to the kind of organization we need. It’s a concept that’s familiar to people, and unions are more popular now than at any time I can remember. While I still like the notion of organizing centered around communities, the reality is that work is a bigger part of people’s lives than community right now, so it makes sense on multiple levels to start there.

In the meantime, one thing that individuals can do, outside of organizing and agitating, is prepare for hard times. If you can afford to, make a habit of keeping a store of non-perishable food, not just because climate change may disrupt supply chains and lead to shortages, but also because in the event of a general strike, you and those around you are likely to need the supplies. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but a strike is a siege, and so success will depend on how well supplied we are.

At the same time, if you can, feed people who are hungry. Help people who need help. Economic desperation is the main weapon wielded by the rich in the class war, and undermining that empowers people, and builds solidarity. Those of us who want humanity to have a future have to come together and fight for that future. What I laid out above is the only path I can see that might lead to revolutionary change without war. As mentioned above, this big jump in ocean temperatures may just be a blip. We might have a rough year, then go back to a “normal” that’s still unacceptable. But we might not. Things have gone so far that it’s a real possibility that we’ve passed a major tipping point sooner than expected. If we don’t organize, prepare, and change course very soon, things will get ugly.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

River study shows how global warming is killing Indigenous Alaskans

When I hear about the thawing of the permafrost, my mind generally goes straight to the greenhouse gases being emitted, and how that’s making the climate crisis that much worse. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I tend to forget that it also has more immediate effects, down here on the ground. When we talk about changes to mountain snowpack, and melting glaciers, I think a lot of people get that that ties to water shortages either now, or in the not-so-distant future. Permafrost, in addition to holding a vast amount of dead plant matter, also holds a lot of water, and when that melts, it can join in with the snowpack and glacier water to change how the rivers downstream behave.

Streamflow is increasing in Alaskan rivers during both spring and fall seasons, primarily due to increasing air temperatures over the past 60 years, according to new CU Boulder-led research.

This increased volume of free-flowing water during the shoulder seasons is compounded by earlier snowmelt and thawing permafrost, also driven by increasing temperatures; all of which are affecting the formation and safety of Alaska river ice in winter, and the timing of when rivers “break up” in response to seasonal warming each spring.

The findings are the result of a collaboration between researchers at CU Boulder, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Park Service, who analyzed data from 1960 to 2019 for nine major river basins in Alaska. Their results, published in February in Environmental Research Letters, show how rivers can serve as a measurable quantity for understanding the cumulative impacts of climate change in Arctic regions.

“Measuring rivers is useful because it integrates all these other changes in temperature, precipitation, permafrost and snow cover. All the dynamics that feed the hydrologic cycle eventually get filtered into the amount of water in a river,” said Dylan Blaskey, lead author on the study and doctoral student in civil engineering.


The researchers analyzed six decades’ worth of monthly data from river gages in nine Alaskan rivers, comparing streamflow to air temperature, soil temperature, soil moisture and precipitation across the basins. They also accounted for large scale climate anomalies, such as El Niño and La Niña.

Streamflow in Alaskan rivers typically peaks in summer, and remains quite low in winter, with stark transitions between the two seasons. The study found that while the amount of water flowing through these rivers on a yearly basis is not changing, when it flows through them is shifting, with more water freely flowing from October through April—creating more gradual seasonal transitions.

Changes in air temperature have had the biggest impact on streamflow in these Alaskan rivers. The average days above freezing in April and October have increased by about a day every decade, according to Blaskey. These months are also when average monthly streamflow has increased the most: by 15% per decade in April and 7% per decade in October.

They also found that the correlation of increased streamflow with temperature is only getting stronger over time when data from the first 30 years (1960–1989) are compared to the most recent 30-year period (1990–2019).

Since the 1960s, winter air temperatures have increased by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) on average across the global Arctic. The findings from Alaskan river gages help quantify the disproportionate impacts that climate change is having on the planet’s northernmost ecosystems.

“One of the opportunities and challenges of researching in Alaska is that signals of climate change have already begun to appear,” said Blaskey.

I’ve been primarily a city-dweller for over a decade now, and I’ve lived in places that don’t tend to have serious water problems yet. That means that while my work has generally kept me aware of what’s happening in the world around me, seemingly small fluctuations in river flow don’t really affect my life in any direct way. For the Indigenous people who have been living off the land in Alaska for millennia, there’s no choice but to deal with these changes:

Indigenous communities use rivers for vital transportation and sustenance, whether frozen in ice or as free-flowing water. Many rivers are part of traditional hunting and fishing routes, which can be traveled over when they are frozen. Rivers also serve as essential thoroughfares to connect communities and to bring in seasonal supplies, such as fuel and food, because road networks are limited in Alaska.

As the seasons shift, ice freezes later and breaks up earlier, undermining the stability and safety of river ice.

“The shrinking of the fall and spring seasons affects how long river ice persists and is safe to travel over. Indigenous communities have suffered an increasing number of fatalities over the last few decades,” said Musselman. “It seemed that everyone at the workshop had stories of someone who had fallen in the ice and lost their life.”

We’re well past the point where the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine is relevant – we’ve been losing actual miners for a while now. Fortunately, if we look to the history of mine safety, we know how to improve things- it’s by organizing and working together. Whether it’s activists or people just trying to go about their lives, we are losing people in this fight. The changes have barely begun, compared to what lies ahead, but the world has already been made measurably less safe in a myriad of small ways that can be difficult to quantify.

Take all of the evidence together, though, and it’s pretty clear that we’re in trouble. Those people who’ve been forced to the bottom, and to the margins of society are getting hit first, as we’ve always known they would, but there’s nowhere that’s not affected now, and it’s only going to keep getting hotter.

Research suggests we’re on track for 3 degrees

Have I mentioned that I think we’re being too slow in our response to climate change? I feel like it’s come up. We’re not moving fast enough. We need to end fossil fuel use far, far faster than the current rate, and that is not going to happen if we care more about corporate profits than human survival. Now, I suppose I should say that this is based on the modeling of a research group, and it isn’t currently the “consensus” that we’re headed for three degrees of warming. I’m willing to bet that most climate scientists would agree that we are, or that three degrees is optimistic, but I couldn’t cite you a source on that. What I can cite is this report saying that it’s likely that that’s the trajectory we’re on:

“More and more countries are promising that they will phase out coal from their energy systems, which is positive. But unfortunately, their commitments are not strong enough. If we are to have a realistic chance of meeting the 2-degree target, the phasing out of coal needs to happen faster, and countries that rely on other fossil fuels need to increase their transition rate”, says Aleh Cherp, professor at the International Environmental Institute at Lund University.

The phasing out of coal is a necessity to keep the world’s temperature increase below 2 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels. In a study by Mistra Electrification, a group of researchers has analyzed 72 countries’ pledged commitments to phase out their coal use by 2022-2050.

In the best case scenarios, the researchers show that it is possible that the temperature increase will stay below 2 degrees. But that assumes, among other things, that both China and India begin phasing out their coal use within five years. Furthermore, their phase-out needs to be as rapid as it has been in the UK and faster than Germany has promised.

The research group has also developed scenarios that they consider to be the most realistic. These scenarios indicate that Earth is moving towards a global warming of 2.5-3 degrees.

“The countries’ commitments are not sufficient, not even among the most ambitious countries. In addition, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine risks jeopardizing several of the countries’ commitments”, says Jessica Jewell, Associate professor at Physical Resource Theory, Chalmers University of Technology.

And Biden’s not really helping, either.

To say I’m disappointed would be to imply that I expected better. I suppose I did expect better, a couple decades ago, but world “leaders” have taught me the naivete of that optimism. This isn’t a problem that we can solve by trying to “nudge” the market in a particular direction, because a great many of the most powerful people in the world are already spending vast sums of money to “nudge” things back on track. I’ll be writing a post soon about how the billionaires think all this is going to play out, but the basic reality is that we can’t afford to wait for them to realize they’re wrong, assuming they’re even capable of such a realization. As a matter of survival, we need to take control of society away from them, and put it on a different path.

It’s Not Just Us: Viral outbreaks in Pacific corals worsened by climate change

For those who are unfamiliar, corals are marine invertebrates that typically live in colonies, and typically have a symbiotic relationship with algae. The “main” organism is a polyp – a jellyfish-like creature that builds the calcium carbonate structures that we recognize as “coral”. For the species that have symbiotic algae incorporated into the polyp’s body, the algae are the source of the coral’s bright colors, and when temperatures get too high, the polyp expels the algae, causing “bleaching”. If the temperature lowers and the polyps get new algae, they can recover. If they can’t do that, then they eventually die. This, plus the corrosion from ocean acidification, are the most widely known effects of global warming on coral.

The algae are important, because they both consume waste generated by the polyp, and they produce nutrients for it via photosynthesis. Unfortunately, it seems that expulsion due to a stressed polyp isn’t the only threat. There’s now reason to believe that marine heat waves can come with viral epidemics for the algae specifically:

Lead author Lauren Howe-Kerr said coral and marine disease researchers are paying closer attention to coral viruses in the wake of studies in October 2021 and February 2022 that found evidence suggesting viral infections of symbiotic dinoflagellates might be responsible for stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD). One of the deadliest coral diseases ever recorded, SCTLD has been decimating reefs in Florida and the Caribbean since it was first identified in 2014.

“While this study is not focused on SCLTD, it builds our understanding of coral viruses, and particularly RNA viruses that infect coral endosymbionts,” said Howe-Kerr, a Rice postdoctoral researcher who co-authored the study with more than a dozen colleagues from Rice, Northeastern University, the University of Oregon, the University of the Virgin Islands, Rutgers University, Oregon State University, George Mason University, New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the Mote Marine Laboratory’s Coral Reef Research and Restoration Center in Summerland Key, Florida.

“Our work provides the first empirical evidence that exposure to high temperatures on the reef triggers dinoRNAV infections within coral colonies, and we showed those infections are intensified in unhealthy coral colonies,” Howe-Kerr said.

The study was carried out at the Moorea Coral Reef Long-term Ecological Research station on the Pacific Ocean island of Moorea in French Polynesia. Moorea, which is about 20 miles from Tahiti, is ringed by coral reefs. Samples from 54 coral colonies around the island were collected twice a year between August 2018 and October 2020. The warmest water temperatures during that span were in March 2019. Reefs across the island suffered heat-related stress during this period, including widespread bleaching.

The study sites were located in a variety of reef zones that were subject to different kinds of environmental stress. For example, ocean-facing forereefs are deeper, with cooler and more consistent water temperatures, while near-shore fringing reefs in lagoons are subjected to the highest temperatures and greatest temperature variability.

This makes perfect sense to me. It’s well known that most organisms, when placed under various kinds of stress, are more vulnerable to disease. This is true of humans, and as far as I know, it’s true of all of our distant relatives covering this planet. It’s part of why the ongoing climate crisis is so scary – the changing conditions are putting everything under some level of increased stress. That doesn’t, by itself, guarantee doom, but it increases the odds of something going wrong when there aren’t resources to handle it. For every little bit the temperature rises, we all get just a little less wiggle room. For humans, the biggest disease risk that’s discussed is exposure to new zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, the myriad of ways in which life is getting worse for most of us for societal reasons are already putting us in some danger, and the rise in heatwaves and other such disasters is only going to make that worse.

I like talking about global solidarity, but in many ways that needs to extend well beyond our own species. We need to consume other organisms to survive, but in order for that to happen, we need those organisms to, you know, exist. If you need a direct benefit, coral reefs support fish that many people depend on for food, but healthy ecosystemns do far more for us than just the direct filling of our bellies. When I talk about finding ways to integrate with ecosystems, rather than existing in opposition to them, it’s not just because I have a utopian vision of literally green cities, it’s because I don’t think we’ve got much chance at a real future without doing that. The upside is that, while there’s a long way to go, most of the steps we need to take will make life better in the short term, too. I doubt there’s much we can do to help coral, in the short term, but life is persistent, and if we can change our ways in time, I have little doubt that nature will recover.

New study reinforces concern over the collapse of oceanic currents

There are a lot of big worries when it comes to global warming, but one of the big ones is that it will change the big ocean currents. These currents are important for the role they play in “stirring” the oceans, and delivering oxygen to waters too deep and dark for photosynthesis. The other big role they play is in redistributing heat around the planet. Ireland, for example, is further north than anywhere I’ve lived in the U.S., but its climate is much more stable. It never gets as cold in the winter, and it never gets as hot in the summer, and that’s all thank to the “ocean conveyor belt” current known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which brings heat north and east from the Gulf of Mexico, and gives western Europe a relatively warm and stable climate. If the current shuts down, Europe suddenly gets a whole lot colder, and some other part of the world gets a whole lot warmer, and the general result is global chaos:

Such an event would have catastrophic consequences around the world, severely disrupting the rains that billions of people depend on for food in India, South America and West Africa; increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe; and pushing up the sea level off eastern North America. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

The complexity of the AMOC system and uncertainty over levels of future global heating make it impossible to forecast the date of any collapse for now. It could be within a decade or two, or several centuries away. But the colossal impact it would have means it must never be allowed to happen, the scientists said.

“The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary,” said Niklas Boers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who did the research. “It’s something you just can’t [allow to] happen.”

Unfortunately, what we can or cannot “allow” has little bearing on what we do, or rather what is done by the ruling class. As Boers says later in that article, the odds of this catastrophe increase with every bit of CO2 we add to the atmosphere (and that’s not to mention all the other greenhouse gases we produce). The current has been slowing down, and while there’s not conclusive proof that that’s due to climate change, that certainly seems to be the most likely culprit. These currents are primarily driven by big changes in temperature and salinity at the poles, and shockingly, if you add a whole bunch of fresh water from melted ice into the mix, that’s gonna change conditions.

New research published in Nature reports on an effort to model what’s going on down there, and how increasing meltwater will affect things, and you’ll be shocked to hear that the results aren’t great for us:

Antarctic circulation could slow by more than 40 per cent over the next three decades, with significant implications for oceans and the climate.

Direct measurements taken from the deep ocean have established that warming is already underway.

The deep ocean circulation that forms around Antarctica could be headed for collapse, say scientists.

Such a decline would stagnate the bottom of the oceans and affect climate and marine ecosystems for centuries to come.

The results are detailed in a new study coordinated by Scientia Professor Matthew England, Deputy Director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science (ACEAS) at UNSW Sydney. The work, published today in Nature, includes lead author Dr Qian Li – formerly from UNSW and now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – as well as co-authors from the Australian National University (ANU) and CSIRO.

Cold water that sinks near Antarctica drives the deepest flow of the overturning circulation – a network of currents that spans the world’s oceans. The overturning carries heat, carbon, oxygen and nutrients around the globe. This influences climate, sea level and the productivity of marine ecosystems.

“Our modelling shows that if global carbon emissions continue at the current rate, then the Antarctic overturning will slow by more than 40 per cent in the next 30 years – and on a trajectory that looks headed towards collapse,” says Prof England.

Modelling the deep ocean

About 250 trillion tonnes of cold, salty, oxygen-rich water sinks near Antarctica each year. This water then spreads northwards and carries oxygen into the deep Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

“If the oceans had lungs, this would be one of them,” Prof England says.

The international team of scientists modelled the amount of Antarctic deep water produced under the IPCC ‘high emissions scenario’, until 2050.

The model captures detail of ocean processes that previous models haven’t been able to, including how predictions for meltwater from ice might influence the circulation.

This deep ocean current has remained in a relatively stable state for thousands of years, but with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, Antarctic overturning is predicted to slow down significantly over the next few decades.

Impacts of reduced Antarctic overturning

With a collapse of this deep ocean current, the oceans below 4000 metres would stagnate.

“This would trap nutrients in the deep ocean, reducing the nutrients available to support marine life near the ocean surface,” says Prof England.

Co-author Dr Steve Rintoul of CSIRO and the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership says the model simulations show a slowing of the overturning, which then leads to rapid warming of the deep ocean.

“Direct measurements confirm that warming of the deep ocean is indeed already underway,” says Dr Rintoul.

I wrote about some of those direct measurements back in 2020, and I think this is a good reminder that all of these models are built using real-world data, and repeatedly tested against new data as it becomes available. This is also a good point at which to remind everyone that we will start feeling the effects of a continued slowdown long before, and long after the current can be described as “stopped”. As with so many other aspects of climate change, this isn’t likely to be enough to and civilization by itself, but it will certainly make life harder. Changes to temperature and precipitation will continue to interfere with conventional food production, and it’s hard to say when we’ll be able to see how this is affecting fisheries. The truly catastrophic stuff, like the lower layers of the ocean turning anoxic, are unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, simply due to the sheer size of the oceans – it takes time for things to affect such a large mass.

That said, we have been “affecting” said mass for well over a century, and the scale of that effect has been growing that whole time. It may be that the “less catastrophic” stuff will be more than enough to end our species, so while I feel like we’re on the wrong path, I’ll agree again with Dr Boers above – we cannot allow this to continue.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!

Conflict between humans and animals is rising with the temperature

When we talk about societies coping with climate change, a huge part of any conversation tends to be about dealing with mass migration of people. With changing weather conditions and rising seas, many places that have historically held large populations are becoming increasingly hostile, and the number of people displaced by climate change is ever-growing. The thing is – humans aren’t the only ones being displaced. You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but changing climate conditions have also been driving animals to seek out new places to live, or new sources of food. With so much of the planet affected by human activity, and so much habitat being destroyed in the name of greed, displaced animals are increasingly showing up in populated areas. This, in turn, is driving an increase in conflict between humans and wildlife:

The new study shows that climate shifts can drive conflicts by altering animal habitats — like sea ice for polar bears — as well as the timing of events, wildlife behaviors and resource availability. It also showed that people are changing their behaviors and locations in response to climate change in ways that increase conflicts. Other examples of the effects of short- and long-term climate events include:

  • Torrential floods in Tanzania led to more lion attacks after their usual prey migrated away from floodplains.
  • Higher air temperatures in Australia triggered more aggressive behavior in eastern brown snakes, leading to more incidents of snake bites.
  • Wildfires in Sumatra, Indonesia — triggered by El Nino — drove Asian elephants and tigers out of reserves and into human-inhabited areas, leading to at least one death.
  • Disruption of terrestrial food webs during La Nina events in the Americas drove black bears in New Mexico and foxes in Chile into human settlements in search of food.
  • Warmer air and ocean temperatures in a severe El Nino led to an increase in shark attacks in South Africa.

Most cases of human-wildlife conflict linked to climate involve a shift in resources — not just for wildlife, but also for people.

A majority of cases on land also involved a change in precipitation, which will continue to be affected by climate change. Many resulted in human deaths or injuries, as well as property damage.

In 2009, for example, a severe drought struck the western part of Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Region. This reduced food supplies for African elephants, which in turn entered local fields to graze on crops — at times destroying 2 to 3 acres daily. Local farmers, whose livelihoods were directly threatened by the drought, at times resorted to retaliatory killings of elephants to try to mitigate these raids.

“Identifying and understanding this link between human-wildlife conflicts is not only a conservation issue,” said Abrahms. “It is also a social justice and human safety issue.”

These types of conflicts are likely to rise as climate change intensifies, particularly as mass migrations of people and wildlife increase and resources shift.

Unfortunately, we know this kind of conflict often goes, and it doesn’t tend to end well for the non-human participants. Another factor that this article doesn’t mention is the risk of disease transmission. I mentioned this last year, but the increase in human-animal interaction also increases the risk of a new disease being transmitted. Regardless of how, exactly, COVID19 ended up in the human population, there seems to be universal agreement that the disease was zoonotic in origin, probably carried by bats. There are plenty of animal diseases that humans simply cannot catch, but there are plenty more that we can, and as I said last year, we can thank climate change for the fact that “once in a century” pandemics will probably come multiple times in this century.

The upside, according to these researchers, is that there’s evidence that better understanding how humans and wildlife come into conflict can help us mitigate that problem:

But, it doesn’t have to be all bad news.

“One major motivation in studying the link between climate change and human-wildlife conflict is finding solutions,” said Abrahms. “As we learn about specific incidents, we can identify patterns and trends — and come up with interventions to try to address or lessen these conflicts.”

Some interventions may be as simple as public-awareness campaigns, such as advising residents of the American Southwest during La Nina years to carry bear spray on a hike. Governments can also plan for times when extreme climate events will bring people and wildlife into closer contact. Botswana, for example, has funds in place to compensate herders and ranchers for drought-induced attacks by wildlife on livestock, often in exchange for pledges not to engage in retaliatory killings of wildlife.

“We have effective drought forecasts now. So, governments can engage in fiscal planning for mitigating conflicts ahead of time,” said Abrahms. “Instead of a ‘rainy day’ fund, have a ‘dry day’ fund.”

To Abrahms, one success story of note lies in the waters of the eastern Pacific. In 2014 and 2015, a record number of humpback and blue whales became ensnared in fishing lines off the California coast. Research later showed that an extreme marine heat wave had pushed whales closer to shore, following their primary food sources. California regulators now adjust the start and end of each fishing season based on climate and ocean conditions in the Pacific — delaying the season if whales and fishing gear are likely to come into close contact.

“These examples show us that once you know the root causes of a conflict, you can design interventions to help both people and wildlife,” said Abrahms. “We can change.”

We can change.

I talk a lot about how humanity’s greatest strength is our ability to work together for mutual benefit, but another strength is our ability to thrive under all sorts of conditions, and to change how we do things to better suit our environments. I think we might put too much emphasis on how we change our environments to suit us, because while we do do that, the fact remains that what changes we make are often dictated by local conditions. In the past, when “local conditions” included regular, violent encounters with animals, our solution has often been to kill those animals. With a global society that’s blessed with abundance, that’s no longer necessary to ensure our survival. We could, pretty easily, ensure that any time one part of the planet is having a rough time, they get resources from those areas that are doing better. To some degree, we do this now, but it’s inadequate, and often comes with conditions that empower whoever’s providing the aid. In a world that doesn’t prioritize the endless greed of the aristocracy, we would have far more flexibility to change how we interact with our surroundings.

We should also be rewilding a lot of developed land, and practicing ecosystem management to help wildlife cope with climate change. While the main reason people want to do that is to help slow or reverse global warming, it will also make it far less likely that animals will feel a need to interfere with us. We have a wealth of knowledge that could help us build a very different, much better society, and I also believe we have the material resources to do that. What we lack is organized political power to actually bring that better society into being.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!