Sixth Great Mass Extinction Event Begins; 2015 on Pace to Become Hottest Year on Record
by Dahr Jamail - Truthout
At the end of May, a few friends and I opted to climb a couple of the larger volcanoes in Washington State. We started on Mount Adams, a 12,280-foot peak in the southern part of the state.
We were able to drive to the Cold Springs Campground at 5,600 feet, where the climb would begin. This itself was an anomaly for late May, when the dirt road tended to still be covered with snowpack. But not this year, one in which Washington's Gov. Jay Inslee has already declared a statewide drought emergency, given this year's record-low snowpack.
In fact, we hiked up bare earth until around 7,500 feet before we even had to don our crampons (metal spikes that attach to climbing boots to improve traction), itself another anomaly. During a short visit to the Forest Service ranger station the day before, the ranger had informed us that we were already experiencing mid- to late-August conditions, though it wasn't yet June.
A few days later and much further north on Mount Baker, a 10,781-foot glacial-clad volcano not far from the border of Canada, we experienced the same thing. We camped on terra firma at around 5,500 feet, in an area that normally would have found us camping on several feet of snowpack. When we headed up the peak, the route was already in late season (August) conditions. We found ourselves having to navigate around several large open crevasses where snow bridges that had offered access had already collapsed due to rising temperatures and melting snow.
During our descent after visiting the summit, two of my climbing partners punched through snow bridges over crevasses, and the lower part of the route was more like a Slurpee than a glacier. I would not have wanted to be on the mountain a day later than we were.
The signs of the increasing rapidity and intensification of our warming planet are all around us. And bigger-picture reports, studies and warnings are multiplying every day.
If current rates of ACD continue, "Life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on."
NASA recently released its global temperature data for the month of May, and it was 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm. The agency's data also revealed that 2015 has had the hottest five months of any year ever recorded. As of right now, 2015 is already hotter than last year, according to NASA; in fact, if it stays on the same track, it will be the hottest year ever recorded for the planet.
Things are bad enough that President Obama's science adviser issued a warning that anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) is currently barreling forward so quickly that the entire state of California could be "overwhelmed": The state's efforts to adapt will be unable to keep pace with the rapidly intensifying developments on the ground. Essentially, this means the state does not have the financial nor physical resources to keep pace with rising seas, drought and wildfires that are all becoming the norm there.
Scientists like Bill Nye ("the Science Guy") are warning us to expect even more weather extremes as ACD progresses. For example, they predict the recent deluge of rain and flooding in Texas will become the norm for that state going forward.
A study recently published in Nature Climate Change has shown that if carbon dioxide and methane emissions are not dramatically cut extremely rapidly, ACD is set to bring about the most dramatic and encompassing rearrangement of ocean species in at least the last 3 million years. For example, the study shows that by 2100, the polar regions, which currently host some of the most diverse and widespread sea life on the planet, will likely be drained of much of their marine life.
It's not news that Arctic sea ice is melting at a record-breaking pace and that the odds of there being summer ice-free periods by next year are high. But an interesting twist resulting from this development is that this thinning Arctic ice, along with a lack of air support, has officially forced an end to trekking expeditions to the North Pole this year ... and quite likely, forever.
All of these changes are portentous.
However, the most important development this month is clearly a recently published study in Science that states, unequivocally, that the planet has officially entered its sixth mass extinction event. The study showed that species are already being killed off at rates much faster than they were during the other five extinction events, and warned ominously that humans could very likely be among the first wave of species going extinct.
The lead author of the study, Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autónoma de México, told reporters that if current rates of ACD, deforestation and pollution are allowed to continue, "Life would take many millions of years to recover, and our species itself would likely disappear early on."
Another alarming feature of the study is that it is admittedly conservative. On page three it states: "We emphasize that our calculations very likely underestimate the severity of the extinction crisis."
Study co-author Paul Ehrlich, a Bing professor of population studies in biology and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told Stanford News, "[The study] shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event. There are examples of species all over the world that are essentially the walking dead."
As we explore ACD's impact upon the four quadrants of the planet this month, we see developments that certainly confirm the aforementioned report's findings.
As warming from ACD continues to fuel increases in diseases and pests, moose in North America are dying by the thousands, according to a recent scientific report.
Another report revealed recently that the warming waters in Long Island Sound are dramatically altering fish populations, as summer flounder and sea bass that usually prefer warm water are now appearing in the northern locale.
As California's mega-drought lumbers on, redwoods and other iconic trees in that state are now dying in record numbers. As one example, Monterey pines - in one area that covers nearly 15 square acres - are already as much as 90 percent dead.
Even more disturbing is a recent report that polar bears have been seen killing and eating dolphins. That in itself isn't news, but the fact that it happened this spring, instead of during the warmer summer months, has never been seen before.
Recent NASA data has given us some remarkable graphics that show how the world's aquifers are losing their water at "alarming" rates, according to scientists. The data shows that more than half of the planet's 37 largest aquifers are being depleted. Given that the groundwater reserves take thousands of years to accumulate, one of the scientists described the situation as "critical."
São Paulo, Brazil, a mega-city of over 20 million people, has been pushed to the verge of severe water rationing, as its largest water reservoir is on pace to dry up completely by August.
In Chile, most of the ski areas have completely bare slopes. Santiago, which sits below all the ski resorts, has seen a scant 1.2 centimeters of rain this year, which is a jaw-dropping 86 percent less than normal.
North Korea is facing its worst drought in recorded history, which has sparked fears of a worsening of already severe food shortages.
The worst regional drought in nearly 10 years is hammering southern Africa, causing Zimbabweans to go hungry as crop failure has become rampant. The drought threatens to persist.
Meanwhile Nicaragua, the country with the most abundant water sources in its region (it even has the word "agua" as part of its very name), is experiencing one of its worst water shortages in five decades.
California's drought has taken at least a $2.7 billion toll on the state's agriculture.
In the United States, a record drought in Oklahoma has given wheat farmers there a glimpse of what is to come, although recent wet weather has ended the drought for now. Scientists are warning that the region should brace itself for a growing number of hotter, drier days in the future.
Farms in Utah are being wracked by drought, as officials in that state have begun rationing water, causing farmers there to worry about even more cutbacks as summer progresses.
In California, the Salton Sea - the largest lake in the state - is drying out of existence, giving us another indicator of how deep the drought is now embedded in the state's climate.
In monetary terms, a recent report shows that California's drought has taken at least a $2.7 billion toll on the state's agriculture. Obviously, that number is sure to continue to rise.
As is happening globally now, residents in some towns in central California are suffering from a health crisis that stems from not having running water and breathing increasingly dusty air, due to the drought. Respiratory problems are becoming rampant throughout the state.
In Canada, John Pomeroy, the director of the Centre for Hydrology at the University of Saskatchewan, recently spent time high up in the Rocky Mountains, along the British Columbia-Alberta divide. He witnessed clear signs of the highly damaging drought plaguing his country. Due to record dry spells, dramatically decreased river flows and the shortage of runoff water, Pomeroy said that western Canada is likely in the midst of a long-term drought.
The flip side of the water climate coin is flooding. In the United States, unprecedented amounts of rainfall across Texas and Oklahoma recently are evidence of what happens when a warming atmosphere becomes saturated with more water vapor than it used to be able to hold: yet another harbinger of our future.
By the end of the century, it is feasible that Mount Everest could be entirely without glaciers.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report showed that this May was the wettest month ever recorded in the United States, despite the mega-drought in California and the West. Obviously, scientists have linked these phenomena to ACD.
Dramatic changes are happening in most of the planet's highest places, given the rapidly accelerating melting of glaciers. Even Mount Everest, the highest point on earth, is witnessing massive changes. A recent report in the journal The Cryosphere found that thousands of glaciers across the Himalayas will likely shrink by 70 to 99 percent by 2100.
Thus, by the end of the century, it is feasible that Mount Everest could be entirely without glaciers.
Another recent study linked intensifying weather events - like the extreme cold that wracked the eastern United States last winter and spring, along with the record flooding that hit Britain - to the rapid loss of Arctic ice. This doesn't bode well, as the Arctic summer sea ice will likely begin to vanish entirely for short periods, starting as early as next summer.
A unique photography project in Alaska has captured ACD impacts over time in a stunning way. The photos are hard to look at, but everyone should see them. They represent a kind of before-and-after view of what ACD is doing to one of the most beautiful areas on the planet. The project shows dramatically reduced glacial coverage in multiple areas of Alaska, including areas that used to be heavily glaciated, which are now completely ice-free.
The project became even more relevant when a recent report was published that shows how glaciers in Alaska have lost 75 gigatons (75 billion metric tons) of ice per year, from 1994 through 2013.
In comparison, this number is roughly half of the amount of ice loss for all of Antarctica (159 billion metric tons). This new data also indicates that the Alaska region alone likely contributed several millimeters to the global sea level rise in the past few decades.
The changing chemistry of the planet's atmosphere is causing new positive feedback loops to occur. For example, in Mexico City, warmer temperatures are exacerbating the already horrible smog in that mega-city, as higher temperatures mean that industrial pollutants are released more rapidly into the air.
Another recent report from NASA begins with this worrisome observation: "In the third week of May, it was warmer in Fairbanks, Alaska, than in Washington, DC. The small town of Eagle, Alaska, was hotter on May 23 than it has been on any day in Houston or Dallas this year. In what has become a frequent occurrence in the past few years, temperature profiles in North America appeared to be upside down."
The report, titled "Baked Alaska," includes a fascinating temperature anomaly map, and notes:
On May 23, the air temperature at Fairbanks International Airport reached 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius), breaking the record of 80°F (26.7°C) from 2002. That same day, thermometers hit 91°F (32.8°C) in Eagle, marking the earliest 90-degree day in state history. The town had nine consecutive days above 80°F. In Barrow, Alaska, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, temperatures climbed to 47°F on May 21, close to 18°F above normal. Temperatures normally do not reach that high until mid-June.
Thus, not surprisingly, Alaska had its hottest May in recorded history.
India, ranked as the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, recently had to cope with one of the single deadliest heat waves to ever have hit the country, which killed over 2,500 people. The heat wave was at least the fourth deadliest in world history.
"Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon," Harsh Vardhan, India's earth sciences minister, told Reuters.
"It's not just an unusually hot summer; it is climate change."
As the heat and death toll continued to rise in India, scientists asked if this was really a glimpse of earth's future: a planet rife with skyrocketing temperatures and the human impacts to match.
Lastly in this section, a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters shows that the warming generated by carbon dioxide released by burning coal exceeds the heat generated by said combustion in a mere 34 days. In other words, ACD does not take years or decades for its impacts to be felt, as was previously believed: Changes can happen alarmingly quickly.
As wildfires burn out of control from southern California all the way up the West Coast of the United States and across Alaska, a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists is worth highlighting. The group has warned of the direct links between ACD and drier soil, less moisture, changing precipitation levels and patterns, droughts, and the increasing frequency and severity of wildfires. Scientists emphasize that the connection between the fires and ACD must be recognized and confronted.
Denial and Reality
This month, the voices of climate denial did not fail to disappoint.
Not surprisingly, shareholders of the top two largest US oil companies, Exxon and Chevron, recently rejected proposals to add directors with expertise in studying ACD to their boards. It'd be bad for profits, of course.
The oil giants got some help from the US House of Representatives, which this month passed a bill that would make funding cuts to climate research done by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
On the other hand, Pope Francis let loose on ACD deniers in his recently released encyclical, in which he stated unequivocally that "the bulk of global warming" is anthropogenic, and called on everyone to take steps to mitigate the damage by reducing consumption and reliance upon fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, another recently published report has shown that as carbon dioxide levels continue to increase over time, the planet will become progressively less able to sequester carbon dioxide in the soil or deep in the oceans, as both carbon sinks become supersaturated.
"If all of the carbon of permafrost was released, at that point, this is not going to be a habitable planet for humans."
A climate researcher with the Woods Hole Research Center, Susan Natali, recently told a reporter that as global temperatures continue to increase, thawing permafrost is releasing larger amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which of course cause temperatures to warm even further. Thus, the positive feedback loop feeds upon itself, a phenomenon that underpins runaway ACD.
"If all of the carbon of permafrost was released, at that point, this is not going to be a habitable planet for humans," Natali warned.
All of this information, taken together, paints an increasingly bleak scene for the planet and its species - including, of course, humans.
This could be why James Lovelock, the celebrated scientist and environmentalist who created the Gaia hypothesis, recently stated, "Saving the planet is a foolish, romantic extravagance."
He added that as climate disruption spins further out of control, "The civilizations of the northern hemisphere would be utterly destroyed, no doubt about it. But it would give life elsewhere a chance to recover. I think actually that Gaia might heave a sigh of relief."
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