When Art Bell and I published “Superstorm” in 1999, we were criticized as being sensationalists who brought environmentalism a bad name, and hurt the movement. In 2004, when “the Day After Tomorrow”, the film inspired by our book, was released, we received humiliating press treatment, and the film was generally condemned, once again, as being too sensationalistic.
Throughout this whole process, I continued to make the argument that it was NOT sensationalistic at all, but rather that it accurately reflected a type of climate change event that has been well documented. Now, however, two major new pieces of information have emerged that make me repeat my warning: sudden climate change is, indeed, VERY sudden, and it is staring us right in the face right now.
The first new piece of data has just been announced by a group of German scientists studying annual sediment layers at a lake in Northern Germany have discovered that a period of sudden cooling 13,000 years ago started in less than a single year and lasted for 2,000 years.
This means, basically, that an extraordinary weather upheaval took place over a SINGLE SEASON, which resulted in the whole of northern Europe and much of North America becoming radically colder for thousands of years.
If this happens again, western civilization will experience the worst disaster in its history, even worse than the climate upheaval 5,200 years ago that wrecked Egypt’s Old Kingdom and caused the ruin of the Mediterranean world as it existed then. That disaster, which involved the sudden creation of glaciers in places as disparate as Switzerland and Peru, has, as yet, an unknown cause, but it was just as swift as the event 13,000 years ago. 5,200 years ago, an ice storm in Peru quick froze leafy plants–probably in a matter of minutes–that are found at the bottom of glaciers that exist to this day. In Switzerland, an ice storm overtook and buried Oetzi, the ice man who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps. When the storm overtook Oetzi, he was running through an alpine meadow. The glacier that resulted has only recently begun to melt.
The event that took place 13,000 years ago was even more dramatic and long-lasting. It is called by scientists the Younger Dryas, and previously it was believed that it emerged over a period of about ten years.
Now, however, the work of the GFZ (GeoForschungs Zentrum) German Research Centre for Geosciences at Potsdam, has shown that the change took place with horrific suddenness. Essentially, what happened was that temperatures plummeted, probably over a matter of a few months, and the whole of northern Europe was plunged into a deep freeze that, if it happened now, would destroy mankind’s most advanced countries.
The United States would survive in a greatly diminished form, but the whole of northern Europe and the United Kingdom would cease, for example, to have a growing season long enough to produce crops. At the same time, their fuel demands would increase astronomically, and their industrial and social infrastructures would collapse.
The world would be plunged into a deep and abiding depression, would suffer vast population decline, and civilization as we know it now would simply unravel.
How likely is all of this to happen? Unfortunately, it is quite likely.
The reason is that conditions are emerging right now that mirror those that existed immediately prior to the Younger Dryas. Specifically, it will be announced shortly that there is massive outgassing of methane taking place in the arctic, precisely as it did just before the Younger Dryas. This outgassing is due to phenomenal arctic melt, and it is being accompanied by a flood of fresh water into the northern oceans, exactly the condition that caused the Gulf Stream to collapse immediately prior to the Younger Dryas.
Let’s take a closer look at just what happened in our world between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. 15,000 years ago, the Pleistocene ended with extraordinary drama when the great glaciers of that age suddenly collapsed. There has recently been evidence offered that this was caused by an impactor that struck the ice sheet where the Great Lakes are now, instantanously vaporizing an area of ice the size of Rhode Island that a mile deep, and causing a flood that left a mat of algae across the entire North American continent that is now known as the ‘black mat’ by archaeologists. The event depopulated North America and caused the extinction of thousands of species, including the great Wooly Mammoth that ranged the area in huge numbers at the time.
Flooding followed worldwide, and is doubtless the source of the flood myths that persist in most human cultures to this day.
After this, there was very rapid and dramatic warming of the planet. This happened because the huge ice sheets were gone, and with them, their white surfaces that had reflected so much of the sun’s heat back into space.
By 14,000 years ago, conditions on earth were strikingly similar to what we see today, with rapidly rising carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and warmer and warmer temperatures. Arctic melt then took place, and with it the release of massive amounts of methane that had been trapped in the permafrost.
By 13,000 years ago, temperatures were spiking dramatically due to the extreme heat retention of the methane, which is a much more powerful global warming gas than carbon dioxide.
Ocean currents, which must have been in decline for years, must have stopped abruptly, with the result that the catastrophic plunge in temperatures that the German scientists have discovered, then took place.
This is virtually certain, at this point, to happen again. But when we do not know. Soon, though, without question. Prior to the shift to lower temperatures will come a period of heating unprecedented in human history. As the methane builds up in the atmosphere, surface temperatures will rise far beyond the most dire predictions. Land areas that are now at the edge of viability will become unviable as summer temperatures routinely reach into the 120s across southern India, southeast Asia, parts of Central Africa and the United States.
At some point, the outgassing of methane will expend itself and temperatures will stabilize, but at a much higher level than we are used to now. Due to warming polar waters, oceanic circulation, and with it, the jet streams, will fail, and the world will experience a period of years with very little air circulation and very high temperatures. Most cities without stringent air pollution standards will fail as communities. Places like Beijing, Tehran, Lima, Mexico City and many others will literally suffocate.
The collapse of farming during and before this period will bring on general food shortages and mass starvation in many areas of the world.
At some point, the outgassing of methane will end as abruptly as it began, and the amount of this short-lived gas in the atmosphere will plummet. (And, judging from what the world experienced at the beginning of the Younger Dryas, this happens very suddenly.) Suddenly, the arctic will become cold again. Without ocean currents to moderate the effects of the change, cold air will surge southward, and there will come a season of fantastic upheaval, as a world already shattered by extreme warming, will be shattered again by ferocious storms and extreme cooling.
When will all of this happen? Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information to be certain, but we will see the beginning of the process when–and if–the solar maximum develops in 2011 and 2012. How fast it will evolve from there is anybody’s guess. But the strength of the next solar max is also anybody’s guess, and it is now looking as if it could be extraordinarily weak. If so, we might get a reprieve.
If not, is there anything we can do to reduce the effects of the heating event, and prevent the inevitable sudden plunge into devastating cold? Probably not at this point. If we had begun an aggressive drive against global warming back in the seventies and eighties, we might have had some chance of managing the situation. But instead we chose to debate the matter, and therefore nature will now take its course. Unless some sort of a miracle happens, we are going to see this unfold in the lifetimes of most of us.
Meanwhile, clever politicians and their corporate masters keep the false debate alive, with the result that there won’t even be any planning for the catastrophe, at least not in the United States. Fortunately, Europe is not under the control of powerful companies who look not to the future, but to their profitability three months from now for their policy positions. There is real concern among many European governments about the problem, but the larger question remains: can this be planned for?
The only way to interrupt the process would be to engage in a massive and worldwide reduction in CO2 emissions, in the hope of returning effective freeze to the arctic and interrupting the outgassing of methane. But this will never happen, not with the United States unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices and China and Russia too disorganized to do so effectively even if the did possess the political will.
The first clear sign of the coming disaster will be a summer, possibly as early as the summer of 2011 or 2012, that will be marked by phenomenal heat waves across much of the northern hemisphere. There will be generalized death in many areas, primarily in the third world where people will not have sufficient access to water and shelter. This will be due to the fact that the human body cannot handle heat much above 120 f. for very long, and even relatively small amounts of movement at such temperatures can quickly be fatal, or even, in the case of the very young and the very old, simply being in heat like that for more than a few hours.
Is there anything to be done to prepare for this? On a personal basis, people who live in areas near substantial oceanic flow will experience the least amount of overheating until the currents actually stop, so possibly the west coast of the Americas are more survivable, say, than the high desert areas.
But, in general, there is little that can be done. We are going to experience this, as matters now stand. But the human species has a powerful survival urge. Not everybody agrees with the short-sighted, the greedy and the stupid, and there is always a possibility that, even if no emergency effort is made to correct the situation now, some intelligent planning will take place in the future.
There is, however, a wildcard in all this, which is the sun itself. August, 2008, saw the smallest amount of sunspot activity recorded in a hundred years, and lower amounts of solar activity are strongly associated with global cooling. So, maybe the sun will save us. Or maybe it was somebody else who is trying to give us a little more time to come to our senses.
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