It’s Not Just Summer: Winter Heatwave Scorching South America

As you all know, 2023 has been off the charts, in terms of the global temperature. There have been record-breaking heatwaves and fires all over the northern hemisphere, but we’ve had the predictable chorus of “it’s always hot in the summer”. I don’t expect to persuade any of those people – they’re either wholly detached from reality, or they are being paid to help usher humanity to extinction. They are, however, a useful rhetorical device, and thanks to decades of relentless propaganda, there are still some who are uncertain about the facts of global warming, so in response to that bad-faith argument, I would like to direct your attention south of the Equator, to South America, which is currently in its winter, and has also been undergoing a record-breaking heatwave. From August 3rd:

Now should be South America’s bleak midwinter, but several parts of the continent are experiencing an extraordinary unseasonal heatwave that scientists believe offers a disturbing glimpse of a future of extreme weather.

Argentina’s riverside capital, Buenos Aires, this week recorded its hottest 1 August in 117 years.

Cindy Fernández, a weather bureau spokesperson, said her country was facing “a year of extreme heat”.

“Winter temperatures are way off the scale – not only in the central region where Buenos Aires is but also in the northern regions bordering Bolivia and Paraguay where temperatures reached between 37C (98.6F) and 39C (102.2F) this week.”

Hundreds of miles to the west, in Chile, temperatures rose even higher, towards 40C.

“July was the planet’s hottest month since records began and the Andes are now experiencing their own thermal ordeal,” announced the Santiago-based newspaper La Tercera. “Although we’re in winter, Chile is living through a little hell of its very own.”

Raúl Cordero, a climate expert from the University of Santiago, told the newspaper that as far as temperatures and rainfall were concerned, “Chile’s winter is disappearing”.

“It’s not surprising that temperature records are being set all over the world. Climate change ensures these records are broken more and more frequently,” Cordero said.

Parts of Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil have also been baking in what extreme weather-watcher Maximiliano Herrera called “brutal” temperatures of almost 39C. “For at least five more days there won’t be any relief and we can’t rule out some 40s,” Herrera predicted on Twitter where he claimed the unusual winter heat was “rewriting all climatic books”.

“We are used to the heat in Paraguay, but the weather now makes it so hot we don’t leave the house,” said Ariel Mendoza, a 32-year-old car salesman in Paraguay’s capital Asunción, as the mercury there rose to 33C on Thursday.

Five years ago, winter in Paraguay made for chilly days, Mendoza pointed out. “But now it’s 30C-35C [86F-95F] in the winter due to climate change.”

In a stunning turn of events, turning up the temperature of the whole planet, turns up the temperature of the whole planet. The heatwave isn’t over, either. Here’s a lovely map from just a few days ago:

The image is a heat map of South America, showing a deep red over Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, parts of Equador and Columbia. The Andes can be seen as a green stripe hugging the west coast, and turning blue towards the southern tip of the continent. Urugay and Argentina show green, outside the heat dome. Two markers show temperatures of 45C/113F in Villamontes, Bolivia on August 22nd, and 41.9C/107.42F in Vueva Asuncion, Paraguay on August 23.

The image is a heat map of South America, showing a deep red over Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, parts of Equador and Columbia. The Andes can be seen as a green stripe hugging the west coast, and turning blue towards the southern tip of the continent. Urugay and Argentina show green, outside the heat dome. Two markers show temperatures of 45°C/113°F in Villamontes, Bolivia on August 22nd, and 41.9°C/107.42°F in Vueva Asunción, Paraguay on August 23.

The running theme of this century will be that nowhere is safe. This isn’t because we didn’t already know that. It’s been clear for decades that a global rise in temperatures was happening, and that nowhere would be safe from the harm that would cause. Unfortunately, thanks to the corruption and propaganda I mentioned earlier, a lot of people still haven’t really internalized what is happening to our world.

Apparently, they needed to actually see it happen, to actually believe it, and so here we are.

I don’t really blame people who have been duped on this issue, so much as those who have spent and earned fortunes in duping them. Even so, it’s hard not to be angry at those who have spent decades fighting to make this world, with all its horrors, come to be, because they were so afraid of communism, or so hateful of minorities, that they could not see the bigger picture.

It is not just summer. It is global warming, and it is everywhere.

Drilling Deep: Methane, Hydrothermal Vents, and a False Alarm

Dear Readers, I would like to take you on a short emotional journey. I was browsing science headlines, and I came across one that had me worried for a good minute. Past climate warming driven by hydrothermal vents, with a sub-header specifying methane release from these vents as the driver of a warming event 55 million years ago. I imagine many of you already know why this caught my attention. Methane is well-known as a potent greenhouse gas, emitted by both fossil fuel extraction, and animal agriculture. It also exists in massive sea-floor deposits called “clathrates” or “hydrates”, in which a combination of low temperatures and high pressure create stable ice formations. The clathrate gun hypothesis is a proposal to explain warming during the Quaternary period, and it basically suggests that these deposits can destabilize, release all their methane, which would bubble up through the water into the atmosphere, driving an increase in global temperature.

The fear for us has been that this could be triggered by the warming of the oceans, adding fuel to the fire that is global warming. Last October, I posted about new research indicating that this was not actually likely to be a serious problem. See, getting the right combination of temperature and pressure for clathrates to form requires them to be deep enough under water, that the gas released by them is pretty much entirely absorbed:

New research from scientists at the University of Rochester, the US Geological Survey, and the University of California Irvine is the first to directly show that methane released from decomposing hydrates is not reaching the atmosphere.

The researchers, including John Kessler, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and DongJoo Joung, a former research scientist in Kessler’s lab and now an assistant professor in the Department of Oceanography at Pusan National University in Korea, carried out the study in mid-latitude regions—Earth’s subtropical and temperate zones.

While the stability of the methane hydrate reservoir is sensitive to changes in temperature, “in the mid-latitude regions where this study was conducted, we see no signatures of hydrate methane being emitted to the atmosphere,” says Joung, the first author of the study, published in Nature Geoscience.

Reading about this research was a load off my mind. There are a number of ways in which global warming could make things go sideways really fast. The jaw-dropping spike in ocean temperatures that we’ve been seeing this year have, I think, alerted more people to that possibility, but for a while, the clathrate gun was the thing that worried me the most. A big part of the problem with global warming is the speed at which it’s happening. If it had taken us ten thousand years to warm the earth this much, ecosystems might have been able to adapt better, and we would have had a much easier time ending fossil fuel use. Unfortunately, it’s taken us something more like 150 years, and that’s already more than we can handle, based on how things are going. A sudden, massive release of methane into the atmosphere could speed that up even more, and that would try even my ability to be optimistic.

So, I see this new headline, about methane emissions from hydrothermal vents, and I immediately think of the hydrothermal vents with which I’m most familiar – the ones that exist deep in the ocean, surrounded by tube worms and furry crabs. The last month has been pretty stressful for me, and I was not looking forward to hearing confirmation that deep-sea methane could, in fact, reach the surface.

Fortunately, that is not what I read.

About 55 million years ago, the Atlantic Ocean was born. Until then, Europe and America were connected. As the continents began to move apart, the Earth’s crust between them ruptured, releasing large volumes of magma. This rift volcanism has led to the formation of large igneous provinces (LIPs) in several places around the world. One such LIP was formed between Greenland and Europe and now lies several kilometres below the ocean surface. An international drilling campaign led by Christian Berndt, Professor of Marine Geophysics at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, and Sverre Planke, Professor of Marine Geophysics at the University of Oslo, Norway, has collected extensive sample material from the LIP, which has now been evaluated.

In their study, published today in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers can show that hydrothermal vents were active at very shallow depths or even above sea level, which would have allowed much larger quantities of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere than previously thought [emphasis mine].

Phew! Looks like we’re still in the clear.

With that anxiety now quelled, let’s take a look at how the researchers came to this conclusion, because it was quite the endeavor:

“At the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, some of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history took place over a period of more than a million years,” says Christian Berndt. According to current knowledge, this volcanism warmed the world’s climate by at least five degrees Celsius and caused a mass extinction – the last dramatic global warming before our time, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). Geologists have not yet been able to explain why, as most modern volcanic eruptions cause cooling by releasing aerosols into the stratosphere.

Further studies of the Karoo large igneous province in South Africa revealed an abundance of hydrothermal vents associated with magmatic intrusions into the sedimentary basin. This observation among others led to the hypothesis that large amounts of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane could have entered the atmosphere through hydrothermal venting. “When our Norwegian colleagues Henrik Svensen and Sverre Planke published their results in 2004, we would have loved to set off immediately to test the hypothesis by drilling the ancient vent systems around the North Atlantic,” says Christian Berndt. But it wasn’t that easy: “Our proposal was well received by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), but it was never scheduled because it required riser drilling, a technology that was not available to us at the time.”

As the research progressed hydrothermal vent systems were discovered that were within reach of riserless drilling. Thus, the drilling proposal was resubmitted, and the expedition could finally begin in autumn 2021 – 17 years after the first proposal was submitted.

Around 30 scientists from 12 nations took part in the IODP (now the International Ocean Discovery Program) research cruise to the Vøring Plateau off the Norwegian coast on board the scientific drilling ship “JOIDES Resolution”. Five of the 20 boreholes were drilled directly into one of the thousands of hydrothermal vents. The cores obtained can be read by scientists like a diary of the Earth’s history. The results were compelling.

The authors show that the vent was active just before the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum and that the resulting crater was filled in a very short time, just as the global warming began. Quite unexpectedly, their data also show that the vent was active in a very shallow water depth of probably less than 100 metres. This has far-reaching consequences for the potential impact on the climate. Christian Berndt: “Most of the methane that enters the water column from active deep-sea hydrothermal vents today is quickly converted into carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas. Since the vent we studied is located in the middle of the rift valley, where the water depth should be greatest, we assume that other vents were also in shallow water or even above sea level, which would have allowed much larger amounts of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere”.

As far as today’s climate warming is concerned, there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn from the cores. On the one hand, they do not confirm that the global warming at that time was caused by the dissolution og gas hyrates [sic] – a danger that has been much discussed in recent years. On the other hand, they show that it took many millennia for the climate to cool down again. So the Earth system was thus able to regulate itself, but not on time scales relevant to today’s climate crisis.

Reading that feels a bit like reading about a city built on top of another city, with the ancient ruins still down there to be explored. I get that in principle, this isn’t much different from taking any other geological core samples, but it feels different to me for some reason.

Regardless, while the researchers did not make this connection in these materials, I think that for our purposes, we can take some comfort from the shallowness of these ancient vents. Obviously, global warming is a crisis that demands great urgency, and this changes that not one bit. Clathrate gun or no, we are running out of time. The reason I wanted to share this (aside from it just being interesting research), is that I think it’s genuinely helpful to know at least one of the ways in which everything could get suddenly worse, isn’t something we need to worry about.

If you value the work I do, please consider helping to pay for it over at Even small contributions like a couple dollars per month add up to make a big difference! If you can’t afford that, then I definitely don’t want your money, but I’d appreciate it if you shared this post with others, to help me increase my readership. Thanks for reading, and be sure to take care of yourselves in this scary world!

Should we be worried about ancient frozen bugs? Yes, but not for the reasons you might think.

Human discourse about pathogens tends to be pretty narrowly focused on those viruses and organisms that directly infect humans. This is, I think, entirely understandable. Our health is hugely important to every aspect of our lives, as we all become aware when we get sick, or develop chronic health problems. I know nobody reading this has any personal experience with this, but if you add in something like an epidemic that goes global, well that adds a whole other layer to it. We have ample reason to be somewhat obsessed with our health and things that affect it.

Second to that, we care about the health of our food and our working and companion animals, which I would argue is also mostly about our own health.

Less attention is given to how pathogens affect wildlife. We tend to view nature as something that takes care of itself, when we’re not actively destroying it, but of course other life forms have all the same health concerns we do, adjusted for the specifics of their species. More than that, humans have acted as something akin to global plague rats, as we’ve scurried about all over the surface of this planet, introducing animals, plants, and microorganisms everywhere we go. Well, now we’ve found a new way to introduce microbes are new to our ecosystems, this time because of their age.

We’ve seen it in science fiction and horror, folks, and now it’s time for the real life version. Are you prepared for a panoply of prehistoric pathogens?

The idea that “time-traveling” pathogens trapped in ice or hidden in remote laboratory facilities could break free to cause catastrophic outbreaks has inspired generations of novelists and screenwriters. While melting glaciers and permafrost are giving many types of dormant microbes the opportunity to re-emerge, the potential threats to human health and the environment posed by these microbes have been difficult to estimate.

In a new study, Strona’s team quantified the ecological risks posed by these microbes using computer simulations. The researchers performed artificial evolution experiments where digital virus-like pathogens from the past invade communities of bacteria-like hosts. They compared the effects of invading pathogens on the diversity of host bacteria to diversity in control communities where no invasion occurred.

The team found that in their simulations, the ancient invading pathogens could often survive and evolve in the modern community, and about 3 percent became dominant. While most of the dominant invaders had little effect on the composition of the larger community, about 1 percent of the invaders yielded unpredictable results. Some caused up to one third of the host species to die out, while others increased diversity by up to 12 percent compared to the control simulations.

The risks posed by this 1 percent of released pathogens may seem small, but given the sheer number of ancient microbes regularly released into modern communities, outbreak events still represent a substantial hazard. The new findings suggest that the risks posed by time-traveling pathogens — so far confined to science fiction stories — could in fact be powerful drivers of ecological change and threats to human health.

I tend to have mixed feelings about this kind of simulation research, but there is no question that there are viruses, bacteria, and even roundworms that were frozen tens of thousands of years ago (or thousands of thousands, in the case of that bacterium), and that are viable once thawed. While it’s certainly possible some of them could directly infect humans, it’s far more likely that the danger from these ancient microbes lies in their potential to further disrupt ecosystems that are already collapsing under the weight of habitat destruction, pollution, and global warming.

Some of you may recall that I posted last year about the way European earthworms have been colonizing and altering North American ecosystems for centuries, to the point where most folks in the US have never seen an indigenous earthworm. More recently, there was that research indicating that invasive species cause more economic damage than earthquakes, so you can see why some people might have fears about ancient frozen bugs that have absolutely nothing to do with worrying about the next pandemic.

As I so often say, humans are part of the ecosystems that surround us, and we ignore that fact at our peril. The physical changes that we’ve caused on the surface of our planet are devastating, and they’re more than enough to cause a mass extinction all by themselves. Add in prehistoric organisms, which could end up altering the climate themselves, and it’s hard to tell what could happen. Unfortunately, it’s also very easy to look at all of this and feel some level of despair. I do get that, and of course I feel it myself sometimes, but I continue to believe that we have the means to survive this crisis, as a species. That window of opportunity is closing, but it’s never over till it’s over, and the more we understand about what’s happening, the better our chances of finding a way through.

If you value the work I do, please consider helping to pay for it over at Even small contributions like a couple dollars per month add up to make a big difference! If you can’t afford that, then I definitely don’t want your money, but I’d appreciate it if you shared this post with others, to help me increase my readership. Thanks for reading, and be sure to take care of yourselves in this scary world!

AMOC Time: Entering a New Era in Ocean Currents

Confession time: I’ve been conflating the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the Gulf Stream in my head. The two aren’t unrelated, but they’re not the same thing. As I currently understand it, the Gulf Stream is a surface current driven by trade winds, which in turn are driven by Earth’s rotation. The AMOC is a set of currents deeper in the ocean, driven by changes in temperature and salinity at the poles, and it’s just the Atlantic “loop” of a global set of currents. While the AMOC does follow a similar path to the Gulf Stream, and may contribute to its speed from below, they’re different phenomena driven by different things.

This distinction is good to make, because as Rebecca Watson noted, a number of news outlets have been wrongly claiming that recent AMOC research is about the Gulf Stream. The good news is that the Gulf Stream is not expected to collapse any time soon, because the factors driving it – Earth’s rotation and the shape of the continents – aren’t affected by global warming very much.

The bad news is that the research does indicate that the AMOC is in danger of collapse. Worse, while that collapse had initially been forecast for some time in the 22nd century or even later, it now seems that we can expect it this century, with a low but non-zero chance of it happening as early as two years from now.

Now. What does this mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean that the current will collapse in 2025. While it is technically possible, that’s the scary end of this study’s margin of error, not The Prediction. That’s important to state, because as with Al Gore’s predictions of an ice-free Arctic, deniers will absolutely pretend that the prediction was for a collapse no later than 2025. That is not what’s going on here. It seems increasingly likely that, on our current trajectory, the AMOC will collapse this century, but beyond that, it’s hard to tell. Climatologist and oceanographer Stefan Rahmstorf gave his thoughts on this over at, and you should really read the whole thing if you want to understand what’s going on. In particular, though, I wanted to draw attention to his reasoning for why the standard climate models used by the IPPC are likely underestimating the risk of an AMOC collapse:

Standard climate models probably underestimate the risk. There are two reasons for that. They largely ignore Greenland ice loss and the resulting freshwater input to the northern Atlantic which contributes to weakening the AMOC. And their AMOC is likely too stable. There is a diagnostic for AMOC stability, namely the overturning freshwater transport, which I introduced in a paper in 1996 based on Stommel’s 1961 model. Basically, if the AMOC exports freshwater out of the Atlantic, then an AMOC weakening would lead to a fresher (less salty) Atlantic, which would weaken the AMOC further. Data suggest that the real AMOC exports freshwater, in most models it imports freshwater. This is still the case and was also discussed at the IUGG conference.

The post overall provides a great breakdown of the available data, why scientists say the AMOC has been weakening, and how the “blob” of cold water off Greenland is a part of that process. It also, nearer the beginning, gives a great overview of the importance of this subject:

The AMOC is a big deal for climate. The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is a large-scale overturning motion of the entire Atlantic, from the Southern Ocean to the high north. It moves around 15 million cubic meters of water per second (i.e. 15 Sverdrup). The AMOC water passes through the Gulf Stream along a part of its much longer journey, but contributes only the smaller part of its total flow of around 90 Sverdrup. The AMOC is driven by density differences and is a deep reaching vertical overturning of the Atlantic; the Gulf Stream is a near-surface current near the US Atlantic coast and mostly driven by winds. The AMOC however moves the bulk of the heat into the northern Atlantic so is highly relevant for climate, because the southward return flow is very cold and deep (heat transport is the flow multiplied by the temperature difference between northward and southward flow). The wind-driven part of the Gulf Stream contributes much less to the net northward heat transport, because that water returns to the south at the surface in the eastern Atlantic at a temperature not much colder than the northward flow, so it leaves little heat behind in the north. So for climate impact, the AMOC is the big deal, not the Gulf Stream.

If the AMOC collapses, western Europe gets colder. It wouldn’t happen overnight (since people have been referencing The Day After Tomorrow), but it would happen pretty quickly. As always, the damage of this isn’t just about the absolute temperature – plenty of people live with winters of the kind we’re likely to see from this – but about what we’re used to, and what our infrastructure can withstand. The flat in which I currently live is a for example, doesn’t appear to have much if any insulation. If it does, it’s undercut by the drafts coming in around the loosely-set windows, and the fact that every single room has an un-closeable vent to the outside, probably to prevent carbon monoxide buildup. If we were hit by a Newfoundland winter, I think there is approximately zero chance that our ancient gas boiler could keep the apartment at a livable temperature.

It goes well beyond that, however. It’s not clear to what degree an AMOC shutdown would affect the overturning circulation in the Pacific, but even if we’re lucky and the collapse was limited to the Atlantic, there would be global weather implications. I would freeze, but the heat that I’d be missing would be released elsewhere, possibly causing a big spike in temperature further south. It would also, without question, affect rain patterns all over the planet, which would increase the odds of those multiple simultaneous crop failures we were talking about earlier this month.

This research is more of a warning than a forecast. It’s not that we have a collapse coming and there’s X amount of time to prepare, but rather that we’re entering a period during which that collapse could happen with very little warning.

That means that we don’t know how much time we have to prepare, but the sooner we get to work on that, the better, because I expect it would take a decade of unprecedented effort and investment to make us “ready” for any effects of an AMOC shutdown. I’ve discussed some this before, but “preparation”, in this case, means a few different things. The biggest one, in my opinion, is changing food production. We should move as much of it indoors as possible, and work on things like factory-produced bacterial and algal foodstock. We should also have stored food, of course, but it’s not clear that weather patterns would ever recover, at least within our lifetimes, from this. It also means investment in infrastructure, both to handle the extreme weather that would be sure to follow the shutdown, and to handle any sudden changes in regional sea level due to the current’s disruption.

As always, this news adds to the urgency, but it doesn’t really change what you or I need to be doing. Join unions and left-wing political organizations, organize those unions and organizations if they don’t exist, build a store of food for you and your neighbors if you’re able, encourage organizing and direct action in those around you, and do what you can to elevate and empower those around you. We’re in a bad place, and on our current path, it’s only going to get worse. The way out is to reject the individualistic and anti-community dogmas of capitalism, practice solidarity, and work together.

If you want me to be able to store food for myself and my neighbors, or if you just want to support this blog, head over to Patreon and give me a couple bucks. If you found this post useful, please share it around! Thanks for reading, and take care of yourselves out there.


Crawford Lake, Ontario, Chosen to Represent the Beginning of the Anthropocene

I’ll admit it – I don’t know a whole lot about geology. I think I did take a 101 class in college, but I don’t remember a whole lot from that. As I understand it, geological periods, like Jurassic, Pleistocene etc., are defined by “events” that are recorded in the layers of rock that make up the geologic record. Mass extinctions are common markers, as vast numbers of species simply vanish from the fossil record, but that doesn’t help us if we’re trying to determine whether we are, right now, at a boundary between the Holocene epoch and a new epoch that has been dubbed Anthropocene, in which humans are the dominant force acting on the surface of the planet. Because this is a relatively new idea, work is ongoing to determine whether it’s real/valid as a geological period, and where to draw the line. From what I can tell, the division among those who think it’s real is mainly between whether to start it in the Neolithic era, with the rise of agriculture, or around the start of the Industrial Revolution. From what I can tell, the idea of a more recent starting point is more widely supported, and it’s certainly the one with which I am most familiar.

Resolving this disagreement requires research, of course, but it’s a bit tricky to study a geological layer as it’s forming. All the other ones scientists have studied are long enough ago that they’re literally set in stone.  The Subcommission on Quaternary Strategraphy, a part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, itself a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences (an NGO that’s part of the International Science Council) set up the Anthropocene Working Group to study the Anthropocene and figure out whether there’s evidence supporting a formal ratification of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch. They’ve been working since 2009, just published their work choosing a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point to mark the start of the Anthropocene, for future study. .

Specifically, they’ve chosen Crawford Lake, a little south and west of Toronto, for its “exquisite” sedimentary record, and they are proposing a layer of plutonium from the testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s, as the starting point of the new epoch:

“The sediments found at the bottom of Crawford Lake provide an exquisite record of recent environmental change over the last millennia,” says Dr Simon Turner, Secretary of the Anthropocene Working Group from UCL. “Seasonal changes in water chemistry and ecology have created annual layers that can be sampled for multiple markers of historical human activity. It is this ability to precisely record and store this information as a geological archive that can be matched to historical global environmental changes which make sites such as Crawford Lake so important. A GSSP is used to correlate similar environmental changes seen in other sites worldwide, so it is critical to have a robust and reproducible record at this type locality.”

The team has gathered core sample sections from a variety of environments around the world, from coral reefs to ice sheets. Samples from a range of these sites were then sent for analysis to the University of Southampton’s GAU-Radioanalytical labs at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. Researchers there processed the samples to detect a key marker of human influence on the environment – the presence of plutonium.

Professor Andrew Cundy, Chair in Environmental Radiochemistry at the University of Southampton and member of the Anthropocene Working Group, explains: “The presence of plutonium gives us a stark indicator of when humanity became such a dominant force that it could leave a unique global ‘fingerprint’ on our planet.

“In nature, plutonium is only present in trace amounts. But in the early-1950s, when the first hydrogen bomb tests took place, we see an unprecedented increase and then spike in the levels of plutonium in core samples from around the world. We then see a decline in plutonium from the mid-1960s onwards when the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty came into effect.”

Other geological indicators of human activity include high levels of ash from coal-fired power stations, high concentrations of heavy metals, such as lead, and the presence of plastic fibres and fragments. These coincide with ‘The Great Acceleration’ – a dramatic surge across a range of human activity, from transportation to energy use, starting in the mid-20th century and continuing today.

From the hundreds of samples analysed, the core from Crawford Lake has been proposed as the GSSP, along with secondary supporting sites that show similar high-resolution records of human impact. Evidence from the sites will now be presented to the ICS, which will decide next year whether to ratify the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch.

I could quibble with this starting point, mainly because by 1950, we were already more than half a century past Arrhenius’ calculation that our CO2 emissions were warming the world. That said, I can’t argue with the utility of the plutonium layer as an excellent global marker, as well as something that will be detectable long into the future. There’s also the fact that defining eras like this is always going to be at least a little arbitrary, determined by convenience or conceit. I talked before about the concept of a “long century”, in which historians include events from the end of one century as part of the beginning of the next, so that the centuries overlap, because our categorization of the past is, itself, fairly arbitrary, and determined by convenience or conceit. The new epoch has to start somewhere, and the point at which we coated the entire planet with plutonium works as well as anything else.

I appreciate Dr. Cundy’s reasoning for Crawford Lake as a site, as well. In the video above he mentions that not only does the sediment provide a clear record of the modern era, it also provides a good record of pre-industrial, and pre-colonial human habitation. I often talk about ways in which the colonial era never really ended, it just changed tactics. That change is as good a reason to mark out a new era as any other, but the similarities are important, because there was a real effort to erase Indigenous Americans from the continent, and in many ways that effort is still ongoing. As we fight for Indigenous rights, and for Land Back, we are also fighting for their history – something that has been under attack along with the people themselves.

We are in a period that is itself defined by the speed at which things are changing. On the one hand, I think that’s just part of the human experience, but on the other, we know, without question, that our species has never experienced a warming event like this in its history. Whether or not the Anthropocene ends up being ratified as and Official Epoch, it will be vital for us to understand this era, if we survive long enough to really learn from it.

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!

Marine ecosystems are struggling, and mining is set to make it worse.

I was poking around the internet, looking for something to write about, when I came across two research headlines that I think form a depressingly good microcosm of what we’re doing to the planet (and ourselves) as a whole. The first is grim, if unsurprising news; a catchy headline reading, “Multiple ecosystems in hot water“. The study was a 10-year review of California’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), which concluded that because of global warming, they aren’t actually helping much. MPAs are, as the name suggests, protected from fishing, industrial activity, tourism, and other activities, depending on the relevant laws. These don’t just protect habitat from destruction, they also serve as a sort of bio-reservoir that can help replenish fish stocks depleted by industrial fishing. The problem is that the absolutely staggering amount of heat that the oceans have been absorbing – equivalent to seven Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions per second in 2021 – has been making it hard for protected areas to replenish themselves, let alone other nearby habitats.

 As MPA managers around the world face increasing climate shocks, the extent to which MPAs can buffer the worst of these events has become an important question. The working group scientists asked how the ecological communities in California’s protected areas fared after such a severe and prolonged heatwave: Would the communities shift and if so, how? Would they ‘bounce back’ when the marine heatwave subsided? Could the marine protected areas protect sensitive populations or facilitate recovery?

To find answers to their questions, they synthesized over a decade of data collected from 13 no-take MPAs located in a variety of ecosystems along the Central Coast: rocky intertidal zones, kelp forests, shallow and deep rocky reefs. The team looked at fish, invertebrates and seaweed populations inside and outside these areas, using data from before, during and after the heatwave.

They also focused on two of these habitats, rocky intertidal and kelp forests, at 28 MPAs across the full statewide network to gauge whether these locations promoted one particular form of climate resilience — maintaining both population and community structure.

“We used no-take MPAs as a type of comparison to see whether the protected ecological communities fared better to the marine heatwave than places where fishing occurred,” said Smith, now an Ocean Conservation Research Fellow at Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The results are somewhat sobering, though not altogether unexpected.

“The MPAs did not facilitate resistance or recovery across habitats or across communities,” Caselle said. “In the face of this unprecedented marine heatwave, communities did change dramatically in most habitats. But, with one exception, the changes occurred similarly both inside and outside the MPAs. The novelty of this study was that we saw similar results across many different habitats and taxonomic groups, from deepwater to shallow reefs and from fishes to algae.”

The implication of these findings, according to Smith, is that every part of the ocean is under threat from climate change. “MPAs are effective in many of the ways they were designed, but our findings suggest that MPAs alone are not sufficient to buffer the effects of climate change.”

Did we need this study to tell us that? Well, sort of. I think most informed people would have guessed at this result, but it’s good to actually know. We do actually need to check our predictions against reality, and when we find something unexpected, that’s generally a source of new information. This is yet another piece of evidence that climate change is damaging our world right now, and the longer we wait to take that seriously, the less will remain to be saved.

And that brings me to the second piece of research that caught my eye. “Ocean animals vacate areas both around and outside deep-sea mining operations“. A lot of the worries I’ve read about deep-sea mining have related to noise. The sounds from a mine can carry for hundreds of kilometers through the ocean, and with sound being a vitally important tool for marine organisms, that’s a serious issue all by itself. Unfortunately, sound is far from the only problem. Just like its dry-land counterpart, deep-sea mining destroys habitat, and generates a great deal of pollution: .

In 2020, Japan performed the first successful test extracting cobalt crusts from the top of deep-sea mountains to mine cobalt — a mineral used in electric vehicle batteries. Not only do directly mined areas become less habitable for ocean animals, but mining also creates a plume of sediment that can spread through the surrounding water. An investigation on the environmental impact of this first test, published July 14th in the journal Current Biology, reports a decrease in ocean animals both in and around the mining zone.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), which has authority over seafloor resources outside a given country’s jurisdiction, has yet to finalize a set of deep-sea mining regulations. However, for companies looking to mine the ocean’s floor for minerals such as cobalt, copper, and manganese, the ISA is required to either adopt a set of exploitation regulations or consider mining exploitation under existing international laws starting July 9.

“These data are really important to get out,” says first author Travis Washburn, a benthic ecologist who works closely with the Geological Survey of Japan. “A set of regulations is supposed to be finalized soon, so a lot of these decisions are happening now.”

The team analyzed data from three of Japan’s visits to the Takuyo-Daigo seamount: one month before the mining test, one month after, and one year after. After taking a seven-day boat trip from port, a remotely operated vehicle went to the seafloor and collected video of the impacted areas. One year after the mining test, researchers observed a 43% drop in fish and shrimp density in the areas directly impacted by sediment pollution. However, they also noted a 56% drop in the fish and shrimp density of surrounding areas. While there are several possible explanations for this decrease in fish populations, the team thinks it may be due to the mining test contaminating fish food sources.

The study did not observe a major change in less mobile ocean animals, like coral and sponges. However, the researchers note that this was only after a two-hour test, and coral or sponges could still be impacted by long-term mining operations.

“I had assumed we wouldn’t see any changes because the mining test was so small. They drove the machine for two hours, and the sediment plume only traveled a few hundred meters,” says Washburn. “But it was actually enough to shift things.”

The researchers note that they will need to repeat this study several times to gain a more accurate understanding of how deep-sea mining impacts the ocean floor. Ideally, multiple years of data should be collected before a mining test occurs to account for any natural variation in ocean animal communities.

“We’re going to need more data regardless, but this study highlights one area that needs more focus,” says Washburn. “We’ll have to look at this issue on a wider scale, because these results suggest the impact of deep-sea mining could be even bigger than we think.”

I like to say that we humans are a part of the ecosystems that surround us. We’ve tried to pretend otherwise, but we depend on the “services” they provide to us, and the ocean is no exception to that. My favorite example is the way modern medicine – including every COVID vaccine – relies on the blood of horseshoe crabs, but there are a myriad of other ways in which marine ecosystems help us. There’s the food, obviously; around 20% of the protein humans eat comes from fish, and most of that is from the oceans. As with dry land, marine ecosystems also mitigate pollution, generate oxygen, and provide cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual value to people.

It seems like a problem, then, that we’re just moving ahead with mining the sea floor. I mean, obviously, we’ve been doing seafloor oil drilling for ages, and we definitely need to change how we go about getting cobalt, but as I wrote a couple months ago, we’ll never know the full scale of oceanic biodiversity that we’ve already destroyed. The effects of seafloor mining that we already know about are bad news all by themselves, but when you add in the research about what’s happening to MPAs, more mining could end up being like gasoline on a flame. At a time when global warming is already pushing ecosystems beyond what they can bear, I think that we should be wary of adding more destruction. Rather than mining the sea floor, we should be vastly improving conditions in the mines on land, and investing in better ways to recover things like cobalt from dysfunctional electronics.

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!

Climate Threat to Crops Underestimated: What can we expect as the world warms?

If I could snap my fingers and make one, single change to most improve humanity’s shot of surviving this global warming event, I would move all of our food production indoors. We are vulnerable to climate change in a lot of ways, but one of the biggest is the fact that the vast majority of our food production is tied to historically reliable seasonal weather patterns. Human agriculture has been shaped through history by the regional climates in which we’ve lived – the best times and crops to plant and harvest, the behavior of fish and game to supplement crops and livestock. Growing up, my dad told me that when the goldenrod bloomed, it was 6 weeks till the first frost, and that fireflies and Juneberries mean the mackerel are running. These and other such things are bits of regional “climate wisdom” that once contained vital information for getting enough food to survive the winter, but have been mostly useless for well over a decade.

For the most part, the changes we’ve seen thus far have been manageable, but we’ve always known that there would be a point at which that was no longer the case. Crop failures due to drought and other weather events are not a new thing, but there has never been any question in my mind that we’re very close to a time when there are so many climate-related crop failures at the same time, all around the world, that it causes serious problems. It’s arguable that that has already been happening in the past couple years, to some degree. From last year:

June 28 (Reuters) – Eric Broten had planned to sow about 5,000 acres of corn this year on his farm in North Dakota, but persistent springtime rains limited him to just 3,500 in a state where a quarter or more of the planned corn could remain unsown this year.

The difficulty planting corn, the single largest grain crop in the world, in the northern United States adds to a string of troubled crop harvests worldwide that point to multiple years of tight supplies and high food costs.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major agricultural exporter, sent prices of wheat, soy and corn to near records earlier this year. Poor weather has also reduced grain harvests in China, India, South America and parts of Europe. Fertilizer shortages meanwhile are cutting yields of many crops around the globe. read more

The world has perhaps never seen this level of simultaneous agricultural disruption, according to agriculture executives, industry analysts, farmers and economists interviewed by Reuters, meaning it may take years to return to global food security.

“Typically when we’re in a tight supply-demand environment you can rebuild it in a single growing season. Where we are today, and the constraints around boosting production and (war in) Ukraine … it’s two to three years before you get out of the current environment,” said Jason Newton, chief economist for fertilizer producer Nutrien Ltd. (NTR.TO).

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the world faces an unprecedented hunger crisis, with a risk of multiple famines this year and a worse situation in 2023.

Ahead of a crucial North American harvest, grain seeding delays from Manitoba to Indiana have sparked worries about lower production. A smaller corn crop in the top-producing United States will ripple through the supply chain and leave consumers paying even more for meat than they already are, as corn is a key source of livestock feed. read more

Global corn supplies have been tight since the pandemic started in 2020, due to transportation problems and strong demand, and are expected to fall further. The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) expects end-of-season U.S. corn stocks to be down 33% from pre-pandemic levels in September before this year’s harvest, and down 37% in September 2023.

There are factors at work here that are separate from climate change, but with weather-related harvest reductions all around the world, it’s clearly part of the story. I said the other day that we’re not prepared for what’s coming in the very near future, and a big part of that is the fact that very, very little has been done to climate-proof food production. I’ve been saying (to my tiny readership) that we’ve got to move things indoors, because if we don’t do it now, we’ll be doing it later, after far too many lives are lost to famine. Indoor farming does require spending energy on grow lights, but it is vastly more water-efficient, and the controlled environment means a dependably idea “climate” for the crops, and much, much less of a pest problem. There are other options, like using more of a factory setting to grow algae and edible bacteria, but what matters is that there are options, and we need to be building them up right now.

I am quite certain that hydroponics, and aeroponics, and bacterial cultures, and fungus farms, and any other ways of growing food indoors will have problems that need to be sorted out. Power failures would be a much greater danger for food production, for example, and given that extreme weather tends to mess with the power grid, that means that we’ll need to either improve the grid, have excellent backup for these facilities, or ideally both. That’s just one example, though, and it would be far better for us to figure out those problems now, while we still have plenty of food grown the old-fashioned way.

The question is, how much time do we have?

My answer, as always, is “not enough, so we should get to work now”. I’ve long felt that the possibility of simultaneous crop failures around the globe has been criminally under-reported. I don’t entirely trust mainstream news outlets not to turn potential food shortages into a Malthusian overpopulation thing, but this is something that needs to be addressed, because I believe it’s coming sooner than most people think, and it looks like the science agrees with me:

The risks of harvest failures in multiple global breadbaskets have been underestimated, according to a study Tuesday that researchers said should be a “wake up call” about the threat climate change poses to our food systems.

Food production is both a key source of planet-warming emissions and highly exposed to the effects of climate change, with climate and crop models used to figure out just what the impacts could be as the world warms.

In the new research published in Nature Communications, researchers in the United States and Germany looked at the likelihood that several major food producing regions could simultaneously suffer low yields.

These events can lead to price spikes, food insecurity and even civil unrest, said lead author Kai Kornhuber, a researcher at Columbia University and the German Council on Foreign Relations.

By “increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases, we are entering this uncharted water where we are struggling to really have an accurate idea of what type of extremes we’re going to face,” he told AFP.

“We show that these types of concurring events are really largely underestimated.”

The study looked at observational and climate model data between 1960 and 2014, and then at projections for 2045 to 2099.

Researchers first looked at the impact of the jet stream – the air currents that drive weather patterns in many of the world’s most important crop producing regions.

They found that a “strong meandering” of the jet stream, flowing in big wave shapes, has particularly significant impacts on key agricultural regions in North America, Eastern Europe and East Asia, with a reduction in harvests of up to seven percent.

The researchers also found that this had been linked to simultaneous crop failures in the past.

One example was in 2010, when the fluctuations of the jet stream were linked to both extreme heat in parts of Russia and devastating floods in Pakistan, which both hurt crops, Kornhuber said.

The climate events of 2010 are something I’ve brought up before when making this point. I want to say that when it comes to most climate-related things, I very much want to be proven wrong. Everything I’ve seen indicates that things are going to get worse that most people expect, faster than most people expect. I do feel a small amount of satisfaction when I see things I’ve been saying break into the mainstream more (though I played no role in that), but I’d much rather climate change turn out to be not a serious problem. There are people to whom I’d enjoy saying “I told you so”, but none of them read this blog, and chances are good that many of them will ever know I exist.

At this point, as we consider the possibility of a global food shortage driven by our rapidly warming climate, I want to take a brief moment to use the history of my current home – Ireland – to discuss how those first climate famines are likely to unfold, assuming no major changes to our global agricultural system.

So, as most of you are aware, Ireland had a devastating famine from 1845-1852, during which time around one million people died, and around two million people left the island in desperation. Leading up to that point, British colonial rule had led to the Irish relying heavily on potatoes to survive. They had to grow food to export, for the profit of English landlords, and potatoes can feed more people more easily per acre of crops than grains, so the tenant farmers subsisted on them to maximize land for the cash crops. When the potato blight hit Europe, it specifically took out the primary subsistence crop for the island. All the other food – grains and cow products especially – was grown for money, and so while Ireland starved, more food was exported than was needed to feed the nation. There’s a lot of stuff out there on this, but if you want a brief overview, I recommend this video from the Gravel Institute:

This is not directly analogous to the global situation today, but where Ireland was dependent on potatoes, and forced to keep exporting food “owed” to English capitalists as they starved, a great many nations in the world are dependent on food imports bought with money earned by growing cash crops, almost always for the profit of multinational corporations. Africa, in particular, is extremely dependent on imports – a problem that has been maintained through neocolonial debt traps, and a capitalist system backed up by threat of war or the assassination of any leader that tries to put their country on a new track. What this means is that when (not if) climate change creates major crop failures, it’s probably not going to result starvation for people in rich, white countries, at the beginning.

As with Ireland, the cash crops will continue to be exported, but as food prices rise, African countries will have a harder time importing the food they need to survive, and so starvation will hit there first. There will be people dying of malnutrition in rich countries, of course, but that’s a matter of routine policy to keep workers in line, as I’ve discussed in the past. The same global capitalist system that exploits the former colonies will also act as a buffer between rich countries and certain consequences of climate change. Poor nations, just like poor citizens in rich countries, will be sacrificed for the “greater good” of maintaining the wealth, power, and comfort of the capitalist aristocracy.

I think that the way the English press reported on the famine can also inform what we will hear, as those people starve:

The worst famine in a century was depicted as an extension of normal, recurring events, and the newspaper consistently complained about the financial burdens forced on British workers for the sake of the starving Irish. On 15 September 1846, its editorial declared,

‘It appears to us of the very first importance to all classes of Irish society to impress on them that there is nothing really so peculiar, so exceptional, in the condition which they look upon as the pit of utter despair’.

It continued, ‘Is the English labourer to compensate the Irish peasant for the loss of potatoes, and secure him a regular employer for this next twelvemonth? Why, the English labourer is in just the same case.’

Indolent Irish

The notion that the Irish were leaching off the English taxpayer (often used as a synonym for the British taxpayer) was a view bound up with contemporary debates about politics, culture and the economy, as well as emerging ideas about race.

The Irish did not fare well in such theories. Amongst politicians and in large sections of the public, they were viewed as inferior and antithetical to the English. While pity and sympathy for Ireland’s plight was not uncommon in early newspaper depictions of the Famine, negative stereotypes were just as prevalent, and the Irish were often viewed in opposition to the English labourer, who typified the ‘respectable’ poor whom the indolent Irish were trying to abuse.

The Times argued that Ireland should ‘pay for its own improvement’ (19 August 1846); the apparent unwillingness of its people to do so demonstrated ‘a case of permanent and inveterate national degradation’ (12 October 1847).

‘Their own wickedness and folly’

Nor was The Times alone in its view. Other publications claimed that the Irish were responsible for their own misfortune. The Economist, founded in 1843, declared on 10 October 1846 that Irish distress was ‘brought on by their own wickedness and folly’.

Punch, a new type of illustrated magazine founded in 1841, portrayed these views pictorially. In one cartoon from February 24, 1849,  we can see a smiling, shabbily dressed Irishman (denoted by ape-like features, clothing and a clay pipe) riding the shoulders of England’s respectable poor with a sack of £50,000 slung over his shoulder.

Blaming the Irish

These national views often complemented provincial reportage elsewhere in Britain. In Liverpool, the extensive immigration of the Irish poor had provoked questions about the social ills impacting the city – questions which Victorian society had become increasingly preoccupied with since the early nineteenth century.

Refugees fleeing Ireland were treated much the same as refugees are treated today. They were scapegoated for all the problems of the host countries, and blamed for problems of their home countries, and this is what we can expect from the climate famines that will come later this century. I feel quite comfortable predicting this, because it’s still very much a part of daily life in rich nations. Any online conversation about problems in Africa will inevitably conjure an army of (usually white) people to talk about how it’s all their own fault and why we shouldn’t accept refugees, and some of them will probably bring up the racist drivel of The Bell Curve.

Take the recent sinking of a refugee boat off of Greece, for example. There’s no shortage of people willing to blame the drowning victims for their deaths, even as it looks increasingly as though the Greek coast guard was to blame. Around the world, look at how wealthy nations are handling refugees of all sorts, and you’ll get an idea for how climate change will turn crop failures into mass starvation and death. Over time, those food shortages will do more than just raise prices in rich nations, but the first wave will break hardest on the poorest nations in the world, and that is by design. It is also by design that refugees will face high death rates as they seek safety, and poor treatment from host countries.

As I’ve said before, there are things we could be doing to prevent this gloomy forecast from coming true. Indoor food production has been growing for years, so many problems have already been solved. A massive investment could make a real difference in a pretty short amount of time, at least when it comes to the mechanics of successfully producing enough food. Unfortunately, neocolonialism is a problem that needs to be solved all by itself. If we don’t do that, then as with Ireland in the 1840s, the former colonies will be “left” to a fate forced upon them.

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!

Climate Change is Heating Up, and We’re Not Ready

Ok, so I know that I post about a pretty wide array of topics, but this is still a global warming blog, more than anything else. That being the case, I have no choice but to post about recent developments in Earth’s temperature. You may remember when, back in April, I posted about a strange and frightening anomaly in global ocean temperatures, ahead of a growing El Niño. Among other things, I said that we should expect more extreme weather in the coming years, and while I would have predicted a new record “hottest day” some time in July or early August, I would not have expected that record to be broken the next day, nor broken again a couple days after that. Countries around the world are beset with floods, heat waves, droughts, and other climate-related problems, but that’s all with the background of a global climate that is warming off the charts:

Earth’s average temperature set a new unofficial record high on Thursday, the third such milestone in a week that already rated as the hottest on record and what one prominent scientist says could be the hottest in 120,000 years.

But it’s also a record with some legitimate scientific questions and caveats, so much so that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has distanced itself from it. It’s grabbed global attention, even as the number — 63 degrees Fahrenheit (17.23 degrees Celsius) — doesn’t look that hot because it averages temperatures from around the globe.

Still, scientists say the daily drumbeat of records — official or not — is a symptom of a larger problem where the precise digits aren’t as important as what’s causing them.

“Records grab attention, but we need to make sure to connect them with the things that actually matter,” climate scientist Friederike Otto of the Imperial College of London said in an email. “So I don’t think it’s crucial how ‘official’ the numbers are, what matters is that they are huge and dangerous and wouldn’t have happened without climate change.”

Thursday’s planetary average surpassed the 62.9-degree mark (17.18-degree mark) set Tuesday and equaled Wednesday, according to data from the University of Maine’sClimate Reanalyzer, a tool that uses satellite data and computer simulations to measure the world’s condition. Until Monday, no day had passed the 17-degree Celsius mark (62.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in the tool’s 44 years of records.

Now, the entire week that ended Thursday averaged that much.

Johan Rockstrom, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, called the 63-degree mark “an exceptional outlier” that is nearly 6 degrees warmer than the average of the last 12,000 years. Rockstrom said it will “with high likelihood translate to even more severe extremes in the form of floods, droughts, heat waves and storms.”

“It is certainly plausible that the past couple days and past week were the warmest days globally in 120,000 years,” University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann said. He cited a 2021 study that says Earth is the warmest since the last age ended, and said Earth likely hasn’t been as warm dating all the way to the ice age before that some 120,000 years ago.

We are in uncharted territory. Not only is this temperature unprecedented, but the rate at which we’ve gotten here – in around two centuries – is far faster than it normally takes for this planet to go through that sort of temperature change. It may be that there will turn out to be some sort of error in the measurement equipment, but given the coincident rise in ocean temperatures, that seems unlikely. If the oceans are giving off more heat than usual, it stands to reason that the air would be hotter as well. As I’ve said before, the oceans have been absorbing the overwhelming majority of the last century’s excess heat, and it looks as though it might start releasing that heat in ways that we’ve not seen before.

As with El Niño, I expect that this temperature spike will be temporary. The oceans will “cool down” again, and we might even go back to something more resembling the more normal pattern of more gradual warming. That heat released into the atmosphere, though? That’s going to have lasting effects. It’s going to speed the melting of ice, and the decaying of matter. It’s also going to cause humans to burn more fossil fuels trying to keep cool. The heat may go away for a time, but it will, without question, add to the momentum of this warming.

It sure as hell seems like things are speeding up, which is bad news for all of us. It’s a bit ironic – the US, with all of its wealth and power, was perhaps the best-situated nation when it came to preparing for climate change. There is zero question in my mind that had it so chosen, the US could have maintained its colonial empire, kept using all that oil, but improved its infrastructure, and maintained a cutting-edge standard of living. The problem was that the same people who worked so hard to ensure that this climate catastrophe would happen, are the ones who’ve worked just as hard to ensure that people in the US would not be protected. Hell, just this past June, Texas governor Gregg Abbot banned cities from mandating that workers get water breaks. It’s like he’s trying to cause misery and death. Honestly, he might be – I don’t know if I’ve said it on this platform, but to a capitalist, any happiness among workers is proof that they could be working harder. The ill health and misery of workers is an indicator that they’re being fully exploited.

And that is the mindset of those leading us into this horrifying new phase of human existence. It does not bode well.

There’s every reason to believe that harder times are coming for all of us. It’s been well over a decade since I had any real expectation that we could avoid this, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to see. As I’ve said before, I think that people should be keeping a store of food, if they have the resources. It’s something worth doing before there’s a crisis, because there is actually a skill to be learned. Even shelf-stable foods don’t last forever, so if you want your emergency supply to be good to go when you need it, you should probably be constantly cycling through what you have. That way, you have fresh supplies, and you’re used to eating that stuff and making it taste good, rather than switching from your normal diet to “emergency rations”. Likewise, I think it’s worth having a first aid kit, the means to purify water, and the means to cook if the power goes out.

But more important that all of that, is other people. In a crisis, it’s people that tend to be your most valuable resource. That’s how we humans survive when things get tough. To that end, do what you can to build community around you. It can be hard, if jobs and housing costs keep forcing you to move, but as with the pantry, I think community is both a skill and a habit that needs to be developed and maintained. It’s something that I am still quite bad at, but I’m trying. Because of the importance of community, I believe that when you store food for emergencies, you ought to be doing so with the intent to share. The idea is to keep your community alive and well, so that they can keep you alive and well, and as a group, you can work to make things better.

Another thing I’m bad about is getting involved in left-wing political organizations, whether that’s a union, a political party – anything that’s focused on pulling people together, and uplifting ourselves through our collective power. In addition to building connections and helping with that community stuff I was just talking about, it’s through that sort of political organizing that I think we stand the best chance of forcing businesses and governments to make the changes we need, and of taking the power to make those changes for ourselves.

None of this is easy. As I’ve said, I’m far from a role model here, but I am fighting my inclination to be a hermit. From what little I’ve seen, and what I’ve heard from those with more experience, left-wing organizations are often chaotic and fraught with interpersonal conflicts. It’s worth getting involved anyway, because communities are often exactly the same, and it’s worth being able to navigate that terrain.

It’s hard to know exactly what’s coming. As previously mentioned, we’re in uncharted territory, and as this year has demonstrated, the unexpected will happen. Being aware of what’s going on is scary, depressing, and infuriating all at once, but the best we can do is to keep working to build our collective resilience, and trust that in doing so, we’re also building the power to build a better world.

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!

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!