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 user 2006-03-29 at 11:45:00 am Views: 124
  • #15035

    ‘Be Worried, Be Very Worried’

    Polar Ice Caps Are Melting
    Faster Than Ever… More And More Land Is Being Devastated By
    Drought… Rising Waters Are Drowning Low-Lying Communities… By Any
    Measure, Earth Is At … The Tipping Point

    No one can say exactly what it looks like when a planet takes ill,
    but it probably looks a lot like Earth. Never mind what you’ve heard
    about global warming as a slow-motion emergency that would take decades
    to play out. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the crisis is upon us.

    It certainly looked that way last week as the atmospheric bomb that
    was Cyclone Larry–a Category 5 storm with wind bursts that reached 180
    m.p.h.–exploded through northeastern Australia. It certainly looked
    that way last year as curtains of fire and dust turned the skies of
    Indonesia orange, thanks to drought-fueled blazes sweeping the island
    nation. It certainly looks that way as sections of ice the size of
    small states calve from the disintegrating Arctic and Antarctic. And it
    certainly looks that way as the sodden wreckage of New Orleans
    continues to molder, while the waters of the Atlantic gather themselves
    for a new hurricane season just two months away. Disasters have always
    been with us and surely always will be. But when they hit this hard and
    come this fast–when the emergency becomes commonplace–something has
    gone grievously wrong. That something is global warming.

    The image of Earth as organism–famously dubbed Gaia by
    environmentalist James Lovelock– has probably been overworked, but
    that’s not to say the planet can’t behave like a living thing, and
    these days, it’s a living thing fighting a fever. From heat waves to
    storms to floods to fires to massive glacial melts, the global climate
    seems to be crashing around us. Scientists have been calling this shot
    for decades. This is precisely what they have been warning would happen
    if we continued pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, trapping
    the heat that flows in from the sun and raising global temperatures.

    Environmentalists and lawmakers spent years shouting at one another
    about whether the grim forecasts were true, but in the past five years
    or so, the serious debate has quietly ended. Global warming, even most
    skeptics have concluded, is the real deal, and human activity has been
    causing it. If there was any consolation, it was that the glacial pace
    of nature would give us decades or even centuries to sort out the

    But glaciers, it turns out, can move with surprising speed, and so
    can nature. What few people reckoned on was that global climate systems
    are booby-trapped with tipping points and feedback loops, thresholds
    past which the slow creep of environmental decay gives way to sudden
    and self-perpetuating collapse. Pump enough CO2 into the sky, and that
    last part per million of greenhouse gas behaves like the 212th degree
    Fahrenheit that turns a pot of hot water into a plume of billowing
    steam. Melt enough Greenland ice, and you reach the point at which
    you’re not simply dripping meltwater into the sea but dumping whole
    glaciers. By one recent measure, several Greenland ice sheets have
    doubled their rate of slide, and just last week the journal Science
    published a study suggesting that by the end of the century, the world
    could be locked in to an eventual rise in sea levels of as much as 20
    ft. Nature, it seems, has finally got a bellyful of us.

    “Things are happening a lot faster than anyone predicted,” says Bill
    Chameides, chief scientist for the advocacy group Environmental Defense
    and a former professor of atmospheric chemistry. “The last 12 months
    have been alarming.” Adds Ruth Curry of the Woods Hole Oceanographic
    Institution in Massachusetts: “The ripple through the scientific
    community is palpable.”

    And it’s not just scientists who are taking notice. Even as nature
    crosses its tipping points, the public seems to have reached its own.
    For years, popular skepticism about climatological science stood in the
    way of addressing the problem, but the naysayers–many of whom were on
    the payroll of energy companies–have become an increasingly
    marginalized breed. In a new TIME/ ABC News/ Stanford University poll,
    85% of respondents agree that global warming probably is happening.
    Moreover, most respondents say they want some action taken. Of those
    polled, 87% believe the government should either encourage or require
    lowering of power-plant emissions, and 85% think something should be
    done to get cars to use less gasoline. Even Evangelical Christians,
    once one of the most reliable columns in the conservative base, are
    demanding action, most notably in February, when 86 Christian leaders
    formed the Evangelical Climate Initiative, demanding that Congress
    regulate greenhouse gases.

    A collection of new global-warming books is hitting the shelves in
    response to that awakening interest, followed closely by TV and
    theatrical documentaries. The most notable of them is An Inconvenient
    Truth, due out in May, a profile of former Vice President Al Gore and
    his climate-change work, which is generating a lot of prerelease buzz
    over an unlikely topic and an equally unlikely star. For all its lack
    of Hollywood flash, the film compensates by conveying both the hard
    science of global warming and Gore’s particular passion.

    Such public stirrings are at last getting the attention of
    politicians and business leaders, who may not always respond to science
    but have a keen nose for where votes and profits lie. State and local
    lawmakers have started taking action to curb emissions, and major
    corporations are doing the same. Wal-Mart has begun installing wind
    turbines on its stores to generate electricity and is talking about
    putting solar reflectors over its parking lots. HSBC, the world’s
    second largest bank, has pledged to neutralize its carbon output by
    investing in wind farms and other green projects. Even President Bush,
    hardly a favorite of greens, now acknowledges climate change and boasts
    of the steps he is taking to fight it. Most of those steps, however,
    involve research and voluntary emissions controls, not exactly the laws
    with teeth scientists are calling for.

    Is it too late to reverse the changes global warming has wrought?
    That’s still not clear. Reducing our emissions output year to year is
    hard enough. Getting it low enough so that the atmosphere can heal is a
    multigenerational commitment. “Ecosystems are usually able to maintain
    themselves,” says Terry Chapin, a biologist and professor of ecology at
    the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “But eventually they get pushed to
    the limit of tolerance.”


    As a tiny component of our atmosphere, carbon dioxide helped warm
    Earth to comfort levels we are all used to. But too much of it does an
    awful lot of damage. The gas represents just a few hundred parts per
    million (p.p.m.) in the overall air blanket, but they’re powerful parts
    because they allow sunlight to stream in but prevent much of the heat
    from radiating back out. During the last ice age, the atmosphere’s CO2
    concentration was just 180 p.p.m., putting Earth into a deep freeze.
    After the glaciers retreated but before the dawn of the modern era, the
    total had risen to a comfortable 280 p.p.m. In just the past century
    and a half, we have pushed the level to 381 p.p.m., and we’re feeling
    the effects. Of the 20 hottest years on record, 19 occurred in the
    1980s or later. According to NASA scientists, 2005 was one of the
    hottest years in more than a century.

    It’s at the North and South poles that those steambath conditions
    are felt particularly acutely, with glaciers and ice caps crumbling to
    slush. Once the thaw begins, a number of mechanisms kick in to keep it
    going. Greenland is a vivid example. Late last year, glaciologist Eric
    Rignot of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and Pannir
    Kanagaratnam, a research assistant professor at the University of
    Kansas, analyzed data from Canadian and European satellites and found
    that Greenland ice is not just melting but doing so more than twice as
    fast, with 53 cu. mi. draining away into the sea last year alone,
    compared with 22 cu. mi. in 1996. A cubic mile of water is about five
    times the amount Los Angeles uses in a year.

    Dumping that much water into the ocean is a very dangerous thing.
    Icebergs don’t raise sea levels when they melt because they’re
    floating, which means they have displaced all the water they’re ever
    going to. But ice on land, like Greenland’s, is a different matter.
    Pour that into oceans that are already rising (because warm water
    expands), and you deluge shorelines. By some estimates, the entire
    Greenland ice sheet would be enough to raise global sea levels 23 ft.,
    swallowing up large parts of coastal Florida and most of Bangladesh.
    The Antarctic holds enough ice to raise sea levels more than 215 ft.


    One of the reasons the loss of the planet’s ice cover is
    accelerating is that as the poles’ bright white surface shrinks, it
    changes the relationship of Earth and the sun. Polar ice is so
    reflective that 90% of the sunlight that strikes it simply bounces back
    into space, taking much of its energy with it. Ocean water does just
    the opposite, absorbing 90% of the energy it receives. The more energy
    it retains, the warmer it gets, with the result that each mile of ice
    that melts vanishes faster than the mile that preceded it.

    That is what scientists call a feedback loop, and it’s a nasty one,
    since once you uncap the Arctic Ocean, you unleash another beast: the
    comparatively warm layer of water about 600 ft. deep that circulates in
    and out of the Atlantic. “Remove the ice,” says Woods Hole’s Curry,
    “and the water starts talking to the atmosphere, releasing its heat.
    This is not a good thing.”

    A similar feedback loop is melting permafrost, usually defined as
    land that has been continuously frozen for two years or more. There’s a
    lot of earthly real estate that qualifies, and much of it has been
    frozen much longer than two years–since the end of the last ice age,
    or at least 8,000 years ago. Sealed inside that cryonic time capsule
    are layers of partially decayed organic matter, rich in carbon. In
    high-altitude regions of Alaska, Canada and Siberia, the soil is
    warming and decomposing, releasing gases that will turn into methane
    and CO2. That, in turn, could lead to more warming and permafrost thaw,
    says research scientist David Lawrence of the National Center for
    Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo. And how much carbon is
    socked away in Arctic soils? Lawrence puts the figure at 200 gigatons
    to 800 gigatons. The total human carbon output is only 7 gigatons a

    One result of all that is warmer oceans, and a result of warmer
    oceans can be, paradoxically, colder continents within a hotter globe.
    Ocean currents running between warm and cold regions serve as natural
    thermoregulators, distributing heat from the equator toward the poles.
    The Gulf Stream, carrying warmth up from the tropics, is what keeps
    Europe’s climate relatively mild. Whenever Europe is cut off from the
    Gulf Stream, temperatures plummet. At the end of the last ice age, the
    warm current was temporarily blocked, and temperatures in Europe fell
    as much as 10°F, locking the continent in glaciers.

    What usually keeps the Gulf Stream running is that warm water is
    lighter than cold water, so it floats on the surface. As it reaches
    Europe and releases its heat, the current grows denser and sinks,
    flowing back to the south and crossing under the northbound Gulf Stream
    until it reaches the tropics and starts to warm again. The cycle works
    splendidly, provided the water remains salty enough. But if it becomes
    diluted by freshwater, the salt concentration drops, and the water gets
    lighter, idling on top and stalling the current. Last December,
    researchers associated with Britain’s National Oceanography Center
    reported that one component of the system that drives the Gulf Stream
    has slowed about 30% since 1957. It’s the increased release of Arctic
    and Greenland meltwater that appears to be causing the problem,
    introducing a gush of freshwater that’s overwhelming the natural cycle.
    In a global-warming world, it’s unlikely that any amount of cooling
    that resulted from this would be sufficient to support glaciers, but it
    could make things awfully uncomfortable.

    “The big worry is that the whole climate of Europe will change,”
    says Adrian Luckman, senior lecturer in geography at the University of
    Wales, Swansea. “We in the U.K. are on the same latitude as Alaska. The
    reason we can live here is the Gulf Stream.”


    As fast as global warming is transforming the oceans and the ice
    caps, it’s having an even more immediate effect on land. People,
    animals and plants living in dry, mountainous regions like the western
    U.S. make it through summer thanks to snowpack that collects on peaks
    all winter and slowly melts off in warm months. Lately the early
    arrival of spring and the unusually blistering summers have caused the
    snowpack to melt too early, so that by the time it’s needed, it’s
    largely gone. Climatologist Philip Mote of the University of Washington
    has compared decades of snowpack levels in Washington, Oregon and
    California and found that they are a fraction of what they were in the
    1940s, and some snowpacks have vanished entirely.

    Global warming is tipping other regions of the world into drought in
    different ways. Higher temperatures bake moisture out of soil faster,
    causing dry regions that live at the margins to cross the line into
    full-blown crisis. Meanwhile, El Nino events–the warm pooling of
    Pacific waters that periodically drives worldwide climate patterns and
    has been occurring more frequently in global-warming years–further
    inhibit precipitation in dry areas of Africa and East Asia. According
    to a recent study by NCAR, the percentage of Earth’s surface suffering
    drought has more than doubled since the 1970s.


    Hot, dry land can be murder on flora and fauna, and both are taking
    a bad hit. Wildfires in such regions as Indonesia, the western U.S. and
    even inland Alaska have been increasing as timberlands and forest
    floors grow more parched. The blazes create a feedback loop of their
    own, pouring more carbon into the atmosphere and reducing the number of
    trees, which inhale CO2 and release oxygen.

    Those forests that don’t succumb to fire die in other, slower ways.
    Connie Millar, a paleoecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, studies
    the history of vegetation in the Sierra Nevada. Over the past 100
    years, she has found, the forests have shifted their tree lines as much
    as 100 ft. upslope, trying to escape the heat and drought of the
    lowlands. Such slow-motion evacuation may seem like a sensible
    strategy, but when you’re on a mountain, you can go only so far before
    you run out of room. “Sometimes we say the trees are going to heaven
    because they’re walking off the mountaintops,” Millar says.

    Across North America, warming-related changes are mowing down other
    flora too. Manzanita bushes in the West are dying back; some prickly
    pear cacti have lost their signature green and are instead a sickly
    pink; pine beetles in western Canada and the U.S. are chewing their way
    through tens of millions of acres of forest, thanks to warmer winters.
    The beetles may even breach the once insurmountable Rocky Mountain
    divide, opening up a path into the rich timbering lands of the American

    With habitats crashing, animals that live there are succumbing too.
    Environmental groups can tick off scores of species that have been
    determined to be at risk as a result of global warming. Last year,
    researchers in Costa Rica announced that two-thirds of 110 species of
    colorful harlequin frogs have vanished in the past 30 years, with the
    severity of each season’s die-off following in lockstep with the
    severity of that year’s warming.

    In Alaska, salmon populations are at risk as melting permafrost
    pours mud into rivers, burying the gravel the fish need for spawning.
    Small animals such as bushy-tailed wood rats, alpine chipmunks and
    pinon mice are being chased upslope by rising temperatures, following
    the path of the fleeing trees. And with sea ice vanishing, polar
    bears–prodigious swimmers but not inexhaustible ones–are starting to
    turn up drowned. “There will be no polar ice by 2060,” says Larry
    Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “Somewhere
    along that path, the polar bear drops out.”


    It is fitting, perhaps, that as the species causing all the
    problems, we’re suffering the destruction of our habitat too, and we
    have experienced that loss in terrible ways. Ocean waters have warmed
    by a full degree Fahrenheit since 1970, and warmer water is like rocket
    fuel for typhoons and hurricanes. Two studies last year found that in
    the past 35 years the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes worldwide
    has doubled while the wind speed and duration of all hurricanes has
    jumped 50%. Since atmospheric heat is not choosy about the water it
    warms, tropical storms could start turning up in some decidedly
    nontropical places. “There’s a school of thought that sea surface
    temperatures are warming up toward Canada,” says Greg Holland, senior
    scientist for NCAR in Boulder. “If so, you’re likely to get tropical
    cyclones there, but we honestly don’t know.”


    So much for environmental collapse happening in so many places at
    once has at last awakened much of the world, particularly the 141
    nations that have ratified the Kyoto treaty to reduce emissions–an
    imperfect accord, to be sure, but an accord all the same. The U.S.,
    however, which is home to less than 5% of Earth’s population but
    produces 25% of CO2 emissions, remains intransigent. Many
    environmentalists declared the Bush Administration hopeless from the
    start, and while that may have been premature, it’s undeniable that the
    White House’s environmental record–from the abandonment of Kyoto to
    the President’s broken campaign pledge to control carbon output to the
    relaxation of emission standards–has been dismal. George W. Bush’s
    recent rhetorical nods to America’s oil addiction and his praise of
    such alternative fuel sources as switchgrass have yet to be followed by
    real initiatives.

    The anger surrounding all that exploded recently when NASA
    researcher Jim Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space
    Studies and a longtime leader in climate-change research, complained
    that he had been harassed by White House appointees as he tried to
    sound the global-warming alarm. “The way democracy is supposed to work,
    the presumption is that the public is well informed,” he told TIME.
    “They’re trying to deny the science.” Up against such resistance, many
    environmental groups have resolved simply to wait out this
    Administration and hope for something better in 2009.

    The Republican-dominated Congress has not been much more
    encouraging. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman have twice been
    unable to get through the Senate even mild measures to limit carbon.
    Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman, both of New Mexico and both
    ranking members of the chamber’s Energy Committee, have made global
    warming a high-profile matter. A white paper issued in February will be
    the subject of an investigatory Senate conference next week. A House
    delegation recently traveled to Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand
    to visit researchers studying climate change. “Of the 10 of us, only
    three were believers,” says Representative Sherwood Boehlert of New
    York. “Every one of the others said this opened their eyes.”

    Boehlert himself has long fought the environmental fight, but if the
    best that can be said for most lawmakers is that they are finally
    recognizing the global-warming problem, there’s reason to wonder
    whether they will have the courage to reverse it. Increasingly, state
    and local governments are filling the void. The mayors of more than 200
    cities have signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement,
    pledging, among other things, that they will meet the Kyoto goal of
    reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in their cities to 1990 levels by
    2012. Nine eastern states have established the Regional Greenhouse Gas
    Initiative for the purpose of developing a cap-and-trade program that
    would set ceilings on industrial emissions and allow companies that
    overperform to sell pollution credits to those that underperform– the
    same smart, incentive-based strategy that got sulfur dioxide under
    control and reduced acid rain. And California passed the nation’s
    toughest automobile- emissions law last summer.

    “There are a whole series of things that demonstrate that people
    want to act and want their government to act,” says Fred Krupp,
    president of Environmental Defense. Krupp and others believe that we
    should probably accept that it’s too late to prevent CO2 concentrations
    from climbing to 450 p.p.m. (or 70 p.p.m. higher than where they are
    now). From there, however, we should be able to stabilize them and
    start to dial them back down.

    That goal should be attainable. Curbing global warming may be an
    order of magnitude harder than, say, eradicating smallpox or putting a
    man on the moon. But is it moral not to try? We did not so much march
    toward the environmental precipice as drunkenly reel there, snapping at
    the scientific scolds who told us we had a problem.

    The scolds, however, knew what they were talking about. In a solar
    system crowded with sister worlds that either emerged stillborn like
    Mercury and Venus or died in infancy like Mars, we’re finally coming to
    appreciate the knife-blade margins within which life can thrive. For
    more than a century we’ve been monkeying with those margins. It’s long
    past time we set them right.