We are in the early stages of sudden climate change, and unless something unexpected prevents it, the next few years are likely to see dramatic changes in the weather on Planet Earth, changes at least as great as those that led to the Little Ice Age. Paradoxically, this is an effect of global warming. There is also a natural cycle involved, but we might have been able to delay it if we had not emitted so much carbon dixoide into the atmosphere.
The political debate, especially in the US, has delayed the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions so long, though, that we have almost certainly run out of time. The global warming deniers have won. Unfortunately, though, what they have won is not worth winning. They were never right, and now we are all going to suffer the consequences of the inaction they have caused. If anybody has ever reaped the whirlwind, they have, as the next few years are going to reveal.
Let's take a look at where we are and what to expect.
To do that, I want to journey into the past, which is always useful in understanding the present. So come back with me a hundred and thirty seven million years, to the early Cretaceous. Many of the great dinosaurs of the Jurassic are gone, but saurians still rule the earth. It's not all a jungle, however. In fact, if you took a time machine back, the climate would be pretty familiar--temperate zones north and south of the equator, and a tropical band around the planet's midsection. Of course, it was all much warmer in general than it is now, but the poles actually had small ice caps, an unusual feature in earth's geologic history.
Then, suddenly, over what is now known to be a period of just 30 days, the world went from temperate weather to a deep freeze. What happened was that steady warming caused by the release of carbon dioxide by volcanoes caused, in turn, methane to be released from permafrost under and near the poles. This resulted in further heating, which warmed the northern oceans enough to cause methane hydrates, which "melt" at 42 degrees f, to suddenly turn into gas, which boiled up in massive quantities into the atmospehere.
What followed was a heat spike. Temperatures rose to very high levels. But then the methane, which does not persist for a long time like carbon dioxide, dissipated. This resulted in a cataclysmic collapse of the climate and the advent of colder weather than had been experienced on earth in millions of years.
The change took exactly thirty days, but lasted for many eons.
Right now, our planet is in exactly the same situation. Carbon dioxide, some emitted by volcanoes, but most emitted by us, has warmed the atmosphere to the point that larger and larger amounts of methane are escaping from the Siberian and North American tundras. Last summer was extremely hot over the whole region, and the statistics aren't in yet, but the methane release must have been dramatic. The North Atlantic is still so warm that it has pushed the Jet Stream all the way north into Greenland. While record highs are being recorded in Nunavit, record lows are being recorded in Beirut, the weather is that deranged.
At the same time, as of this writing, it is snowing in Australia--the equivalent of a snowstorm in Chicago in July.
Shades of the Superstorm. But we aren't quite there yet--I don't think. We're close, though, much closer than scientists think or will admit, or that the global warming deniers might suppose.
So, why? In our book, Art and I were looking forward 30 years to Superstorm conditions, possibly around 2030. Ten years out, though, the planet's climate has entered a period of dramatic oscillation between extremes of heat and cold that are the characteristic prelude to sudden climate change.
The reason is that something is wrong, also, with the sun. Scientists think that changes in earth's orbit or in solar activity, or both, might contribute to ice ages, but it's not clear. Maybe, though, it is becoming more clear.
The normal 11 year solar cycle has been thrown into a cocked hat. Plus, for reasons unknown, some of the other planets are showing possible indications of disturbed weather. A few years ago, NASA scientist Lori Fenton claimed that Mars was warming, but it is not clear that this is correct. However, a dramatic new storm on Saturn is correctly documented. In addition, Jupiter has been showing signs of violent weather, but it is not clear that any of the changes we are seeing on the other planets reflect warming specifically.
Nevertheless, there is a something other than our carbon emissions that is contributing to the changes we are seeing, but if we had started reducing them 10 years ago, it is also clear that Art and I would have been right--sudden climate change would still be a danger safely off in the future.
Given snow in Australia, the Middle East, terrific storms in eastern North America and Europe, and the possibility that, when that huge kink in the jet stream collapses, there will be further heavy weather across the Northern Hemisphere, especially in Eastern Canada and the Eastern US, it is obvious that something is wrong.
Last summer, there were 4,100 heat records recorded worldwide. This winter there have so far been 1,800 cold records recorded. That is unprecedented, and is a clear sign of the type of extreme oscillation that signals sudden climate change.
However, the methane hydrates in the Arctic Ocean are not yet melting. It is quite possible, though, that some summer soon, they will release into the atmosphere. When that happens, there will be an extraordinary temperature spike that will last about three years. Afterward, the planet will be plunged into another ice age.
In that context, there will be a megadeath of human beings on Planet Earth. We will experience the worst dieback in our known history. In another journal, I will describe what this will be like, and what areas will be most and least vulnerable.
But let's all hope and pray that it doesn't happen. We are at such an extraordinary point in human development, with more people healthy and educated than ever before in our history. It is hard to realize, but history is going to look upon this period as a golden age, albeit punctuated by periods of great upheaval and violence.
In the depths of World War Two, Winston Churchill shared his vision with the British people, that victory would carry the world into "broad, sunlit uplands," and to some extent, that has happened.
Unfortunately, this period of human prosperity is also a time fraught with great danger. The balance is in jeopardy, and if our climate falls off that high wire, then we fall with it, with consequences that will be a central moment of human history, and perhaps even the last moment.