The second colossal winter storm of the winter is slamming the eastern half of the United States. The greatest cyclone in Australian history is hitting Queensland in Australia. These events come during one of the most intense winters in recorded history, after a summer that was among the hottest on record. The whole situation seems like a chapter out of the book I wrote with Art Bell, Superstorm.
So, what is happening? What can we expect?
What is happening is that climate change is apparently upon us, some years earlier than I expected when we were preparing Superstorm. I would have thought that this would happen around 2020, not in 2010-2011, but, in fact, the deterioration of climate has been much more rapid and more extreme than I expected. Nevertheless, I believe now that my expectations were correct: the increasing carbon dioxide load in earth’s atmosphere would cause increasingly intense weather events.
This is because carbon dioxide holds heat in the troposphere, or lower atmosphere, which, in turn, disrupts weather over the poles more intensely than it does in the lower lattitudes. And, in fact, while the midcontinent of the northern hemisphere has been enduring an extreme winter, much of the arctic has been experiencing unusually warm conditions. At one point last week, it was as cold in Gary, Indiana as it was warm at the North Pole. They were just a few degrees apart.
The loss of sea ice in the arctic last summer was unprecedented, and with the loss of sea ice comes violent weather. This is because the melt floods the northern ocean with fresh water, which exchanges heat much more rapidly than salt water. Instead of the relatively slow changes that we experienced in the past, the changing seasons now cause quite dramatic changes in sea water temperatures in the North Atlantic, with the result that the weather changes just as fast.
Apparently, the flow of the Gulf Stream has also weakened, as would be expected under these conditions, and this has brought very harsh winter weather to the British Isles and the western part of the European continent.
What we can expect is, frankly, a very dangerous situation to develop in the near future. Specifically, the arctic melt is causing the outgassing of methane all across the arctic region. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and its appearance in the atmosphere has, time and again over the past three million years, signaled the violent and sudden transition that characterizes the shift from a temperate climate to a much colder one.
In the past, volcanic activity has caused carbon dioxide levels to increase to the point that massive outgassing of methane trapped in tundra and in methane hydrates under the Arctic Ocean has taken place. When the methane enters the atmosphere, dramatic warming occurs. But methane, unlike carbon dioxide, dissipates in a few years.
When it does, the atmosphere cools suddenly, with accompanying storms even more intense than we are witnessing now. These storms leave a sheet of snow and ice over the northern third of the northern hemisphere that does not melt over the course of a summer. This, in turn, causes an increase in the albedo, or reflectivity, of the planet. Another winter comes and more snow is laid down. Again it doesn’t melt. And you have the beginning of another ice age.
Most climate scientists assume that increasing carbon dioxide will cause contunally increasing warming, but this is not the mechanism that we have seen in the past, and it is not likely what we will see this time.
We are at the end of an interglacial and this time, human-generate CO2 emissions are speeding up the process of climate change and, in all likelihood, making it more violent. In the past, as melt increased, water pressure on the continental shelves resulted in increased volcanic activity, which in turn raised CO2 even further.
In addition to that happening, we now also have our own emissions. One would think that human CO2 emissions might cause the atmosphere to warm so much that the collapse into a much colder regime will not happen this time. However, over the next half century human activity is going to be much reduced due to disruptions in the food supply and an accompanying dieback of the species, so carbon dioxide emissions from human activity will also decline, opening the way to another shift to a much colder climate.
Net food import areas such as the Middle East and much of Africa are in danger of famine. Countries with stressed agrculture, such as China, may need to become food importers on very short notice. As matters stand, China is a grain importer much of the time. If harvests continue to decline in Russia, the Ukraine and North America, a very serious situation is going to evolve very quickly in these areas.
The sun plays a role in all of this, but it’s not clear what that role is. We do know that there is a level of agitation in the solar system at present, as evidenced by the enormous storm that is unfolding on Saturn, and we also know that the sun has departed from its usual 11 year cycle. Could it be that this is part of a much larger solar cycle, that will result in a reduction of solar output, which will contribute to the return of the ice?
Over most of its geologic history, earth has not had polar caps. But over the past three million years, it has not only had them, they have waxed and waned dramatically, with the northern cap sometimes extending down to the mid lattitudes in the form of glaciers, and other times receding even more profoundly that it has so far in the current era.
There is no way to predict with certainty what is going to happen next. Obviously, the climate is no longer stable. What I think is most likely, in the short term, is that, unless solar radiation diminishes, we will see another extremely hot summer, followed by further winter violence. Our most immediate concern is food. Already this year, disruptions across the world have dramatically reduced grain supplies, and if this should continue for another year, the planet will not be producing enough food for its existing population.
I pray and hope that this situation does not come to pass, but I fear that it will.
This evening, I walked out with my wife, and saw in the park a tiny boy, just up and walking, toddling along after a ball his father was rolling for him. His happy cries joined those of other children, the barking of dogs, people chatting, and my heart was so filled with hope and compassion, I wanted to spread my arms and somehow enclose them all and protect them, and shelter them.
How I wish I could. I well remember the night that I sat listening to the Master of the Key, and realized that he was explaining the mechanism of climate change. He spoke with enormous dignity and gravity, but also with the conviction of real knowledge. He knew for certain that his description of what was then a mysterious mechanism was correct.
Then, as I researched his explanations, I came to feel that I absolutely must do something to help, which was the inspiration for Superstorm. But it did not help. If, ten years ago when it was being published, there had been a serious effort on the part of the developed countries to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, we could have slowed the process of climate change instead of speeding it up, which is what we have done.
I am deeply sad that I was not able to put my case across. Instead, Superstorm was scoffed at by climate scientists–the same climate scientists who now accept as a given that climate change can be very sudden. The phrase ‘superstorm scenario’ has entered the lexicon.
Al Gore received a Nobel Prize for his eloquent defense of the global warming model, which is not, in fact, the whole story, and which has left most people with the impression that it might get too hot someday, but that day is not now. At the same time, people like the Koch Brothers, companies such as ExxonMobil and foundations like the Atlas Economic Foundation have spread the word that climate change is nonsense. They have been aided by many media personalities, to the point that the United States has become politically gridlocked on the matter, at a time when it should be acting decisively to lead the human community in the direction of survival for that little boy I saw in the park, and all the generations to come.
I see an extraordinary flowering of economic and scientific progress, and I can more dimly see a marvelous future that could unfold for us all, but I fear that we will not face and solve our problems quite in time, and that we will not soar into the future, but struggle into it amid storms and disruption.
I love mankind and the little planet on which we live, and all its creatures from the depths of my being, and I so hope that what I see unfolding over the next few years does not happen. I have never in my life wished so much to be wrong.
I wish that I am, and fear very much that I am not.