It is an odd and chilling feeling to see Hurricane Sandy called a superstorm. It’s going to go down in history as Superstorm Sandy.
I didn’t coin the word ‘superstorm’ but the Coming Global Superstorm, certainly brought it into the language. And the movie based on it, the Day After Tomorrow, fixed the idea of such storms in the public imagination.
Sadly, my work also added fuel to the false debate about global warming that was being generated by powerful moneyed interests such as the Koch Brothers, big coal and big oil, and put before the public by Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine and Rush Limbaugh. What is so pitiful is that their efforts to avoid spending money to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are going to lead to them spending vast amounts more to save their assets from the storm damage that is coming. And some of these companies will not survive at all, perhaps many of them. Perhaps most.
They weren’t interested in winning the debate. The debate itself was the delaying tactic that they sought, and in that sense, they won the battle. We have indeed delayed doing anything serious about global warming until this late hour.
While I can and do blame the responsible parties for creating this fake debate, what concerns me more is that the most serious effects of the delay that it caused have yet to be felt. To be specific, there are billions of gigatons of ‘frozen’ methane on the sea floor of the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Changes in the Atlantic currents caused by a warming of the water have drawn the Gulf Stream northward. At some point, these waters are going to get too warm for the methane hydrates to remain frozen, and they are going to release, causing almost unimaginable quantities of this gas to enter the atmosphere.
Measurements being taken around the arctic since 2010 have indicated that methane is already spiking there, and arctic warming is indeed proceeding faster than global warming models predicted just a few years ago. This is not because of melting methane hydrates, but because of melting permafrost releasing trapped organically produced methane into the atmosphere. But it’s the beginning of a chain reaction. As the permafrost melts, it charges the atmosphere with methane, which then traps 20 times more heat that carbon dioxide. This, in turn, causes the arctic ocean to warm, which forces Atlantic currents further and further north. This happens because they require cold water for the vast ‘heat pump’ on which they depend to work. The temperature difference between warm water in the south and cold water in the north is what makes the currents possible.
Last summer, the warming of the North Atlantic drove the Gulf Stream far to the north. This opened a late-season ‘gate’ of warm water and warm air that allowed Sandy to enter northern waters and collide with cold air storms that were descending from the Arctic across the North American land mass. The result–a storm that was at one point a thousand miles wide, by far the largest storm, in terms of area covered, that has ever been recorded in the region. Another result: the North Atlantic warming is continuing.
Methane hydrates melt into methane gas at 47 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is only a matter of time before the temperature of the water in contact with them exceeds that level. When that happens, massive amounts of methane will enter the atmosphere. This gas is a far more efficient heat trapper than carbon dioxide, and it will cause dramatic temperature spikes and a climactic upheaval that is likely to be extremely damaging.
However, methane does not last for years and years like carbon dioxide. It dissipates in about 12 years. The result of this will be that temperature spikes caused by the methane will suddenly, at some point, lose their support from atmospheric methane.
Compared to what will happen then, Superstorm Sandy was just a baby. Because we allowed the false debate to go on too long, even if the United States and China dropped our carbon dioxide releases to zero, it is now too late.
There is more, and worse, to come. And the false debate will not end. Even as the upheaval overtakes us, it will continue. Unlike the methane, we will remain frozen.
I find it difficult to believe that China can make any real progress in reducing its emissions. The country is simply too corrupt and too big a polluter to do this. The US can and is doing this, but it is probably too little too late, and with China’s emissions increasing, it is not going to help.
The entire coastal region around the Atlantic, from Florida up through Canada, Greenland, and Europe all the way down to the Straits of Gibraltar is at risk from rising sea levels, climactic extremes of flooding and drought and storms of unprecedented power. The probability of crops being destroyed in vulnerable but high-productivity areas such as central and southern Europe and the British Isles, is overwhelming, as is the likelihood that coastal areas over the entire region will sustain in some cases irrecoverable damage.
So what is to be done? The first thing is that existing urban infrastructure needs to be strengthened to make sure that essential services and metropolitan population concentrations are protected as much as possible. Secondly, analysis of agricultural trends needs to be done, and growing areas that are likely to survive, in particular in Africa, need to be developed with all haste.
I assume that the false debate will not end. Even as their profits are being destroyed by climate change, the companies that pay for the fake science behind it will continue to support it. Rush Limbaugh will not change his position, and millions of people will continue to send representatives to congress who do not ‘believe in’ global warming, as if belief had anything to do with it. The Koch brothers, big oil and big coal will continue to fund the fake science that argues against the obvious, and millions of people will continue to believe Rupert Murdoch’s propaganda machine.
However, many more people, and more every day, are not willing to listen to the propaganda any more. They have only to look around them–and they are doing so–to see that it is a lie. Global warming models have been strikingly accurate up to now, and if they are adjusted to account for rising levels of atmospheric methane, their record will remain intact. If not, then the rate of change will overtake them.
Thanks to the power of the fake debate in our political life, though, we have lost our chance to reduce carbon dioxide emissions enough to matter over the next 10 to 20 year period. This means that it is also too late to stop the methane cycle that is currently beginning. It is not too late, however, to understand it and prepare our infrastructure as best we can to meet the challenge of the upheaval that is coming.