Welcome back to Environmental Handbook for Non-Scientific Minds.
The first chapter explored how green gas house emissions cause global warming. Now we turn to how these rising temperatures impact global weather patterns. But why does weather fluctuate to begin with? All weather originates with the sun: as the earth rotates at a tilt, heat is distributed unequally across its surface. The contrast in temperatures creates variations in air pressure, which in turn produce winds, storms, tornados, and such. The oceans also warm unevenly, and the ensuing currents interact with the atmosphere to create weather patterns like El Niño.
It is through this interplay of factors that global warming creates both more intense droughts and heavier rainfall, more snow and greater heatwaves, and in general more erratic and extreme weather. And while weather fluctuates from hour to hour, the patterns over time constitute climate.
The climate is inseparable from the shape of the earth’s landscapes and the life forms therein. Pat Wyman succinctly explains:
Because so many systems are tied to climate, climate change can affect many related aspects of where and how people, plants and animals live, such as food production, availability and use of water, and health risks.
For example, a change in the usual timing of rains or temperatures can affect when plants bloom and set fruit, when insects hatch or when streams are their fullest. This can affect historically synchronized pollination of crops, food for migrating birds, spawning of fish, water supplies for drinking and irrigation, forest health, and more.
For this reason, it would be more accurate and perhaps more illuminating to the uninformed if instead of simply “climate change” we said climate change / habitat change / food change / species change / disease change / lake change / ocean change / population change / tree change / soil change / city change / prairie change / plant change / ecosystem change / air change / everything change.
The National Climate Assessment sums up, “Landscapes and seascapes are changing rapidly, and species, including many iconic species, may disappear from regions where they have been prevalent or become extinct, altering some regions so much that their mix of plant and animal life will become almost unrecognizable.”
As mentioned in the first chapter, the climate has changed more drastically than most scientists predicted from our current .8 degree Celsius rise in average temperatures. To review of some of the summer’s surprises see Eric Holtaus’ recent article in Rolling Stone.
Marine species are annually moving closer to the poles by seven kilometers each year, in search of the climates they can survive in, and land species at a rate of less than one kilometer per year. Some species are migrating to higher altitudes, while others have nowhere to go because they are already at the upper limits of their habitat. Migration times are also shifting, throwing animals off cycle for mating and finding food.
The golden toad is one casualty, thought to have perished from climate change induced drought and related stresses. It was last seen in 1989. Animals endangered by climate change and other human impacts include: whooping cranes, akikiki birds, sea otters, polar bears, emperor penguins, Grevy’s zebras, Oaxaca Hummingbirds, sea turtles, seahorses, Kihansi spray toads, giant pandas, African elephants, and Kaputar pink slugs. And ever so many more. Currently 41 percent of amphibians, 26 percent of mammal species, and 13 percent of birds are at risk of extinction. It is hard to know precisely, as humans never identified all of the species to begin with, and many are surely disappearing without ever having been named. (The number of species on earth is estimated to be anywhere from two million to 50 million.)
The EPA summarizes some changes:
Boreal forests are invading tundra, reducing habitat for the many unique species that depend on the tundra ecosystem, such as caribou, arctic fox, and snowy owl. … As rivers and streams warm, warmwater fish are expanding into areas previously inhabited by coldwater species. Coldwater fish, including many highly valued trout species, are losing their habitats. As waters warm, the area of feasible, cooler habitats to which species can migrate is reduced.
The warming oceans will be explored in greater detail when we examine the state of the earth’s waters. For now, suffice it to say the composition of the oceans is changing rapidly, and the wellbeing of their species is reflected throughout all other systems on the planet.
The golden toad was last seen in 1989.
Because plants need carbon dioxide, some short-thinking minds have speculated they will flourish in global warming. And some corrupt minds have used this to promote carbon emissions. In researching this topic, I quickly came to concur with Phil Plait about the “pretty amazingly bad global warming denial online [even in mainstream sources]. It ranges from mildly cherry-picked data to such baldly transparent garbage that you have to wonder if the person who wrote it can possibly, actually believe what they are saying is true.”
As Plait says, “Looking at a few plants growing better due to more carbon dioxide is like ignoring that you killed a patient while curing their hangnail.” Here are a few symptoms:
1. Increased carbon dioxide is changing the chemical processes in the leaves of plants, and therefore the nutrition of plant eaters. For instance, making some common crops less rich in protein and minerals.
2. Global warming decreases the cooling effect of plants, which in turn generates more warming.
Just as sweat cools humans, plants expel water through tiny pores in their leaves called stomata. A tree can release tens of gallons of water on a summer day, efficiently cooling its environment. Those same pores absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, and they shrink when carbon dioxide levels are high. In some regions (including North America and Asia) over 25 percent of land warming is attributed to shrinking plant stomata.
3. This may be partly offset by carbon dioxide stimulating plant growth. But while it is true leaf cover has expanded in arid areas, the relationship is infinitely more complex. A recent study reported too much carbon dioxide actually stunts plant growth by inhibiting nitrogen absorption. An earlier Stanford study found that elevated carbon dioxide reduces plant growth when combined with other climate change factors. Co-author Christopher Field remarks, “Most studies have looked at the effects of carbon dioxide on plants in pots or on very simple ecosystems and concluded that plants are going to grow faster in the future. We got exactly the same results when we applied carbon dioxide alone, but when we factored in realistic treatments — warming, changes in nitrogen deposition, changes in precipitation — growth was actually suppressed.”
When scientists at Northern Arizona University simulated global warming, they similarly found grasslands “thrive in the early stages of a warming environment but begin to deteriorate quickly.” They “caution against extrapolating from short-term experiments, or experiments in a greenhouse, where experimenters cannot measure the feedbacks from changes in the plant community and from nutrient cycles.”
This knowledge makes it particularly odd to read displays of jubilation over the finding plants absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than previously thought, when we know this may damage their own integrity. Just 15 months later, jubilation turned to dismay that the same carbon dioxide causing Amazon trees to grow faster was speeding up their death as well. In 2013 the L.A. Times actually reported, “Finally, some good news about the effects of climate change. It may have triggered a growth spurt in two of California’s iconic tree species: coast redwoods and giant sequoias.” The article includes the astonishing assertion, “The forests are not experiencing detrimental impacts of climate change.” And less than two years later, amidst the widespread death of trees in drought-striken regions of California, it is now being reported California redwoods and tall old-growth forests are particularly vulnerable to global warming.
It is a symptom of the same culture that produces climate change that many westerners are continually surprised to “discover” the complexity of plants, and that subtle (and not so subtle) changes are reflected through an entire ecosphere we have never approached wholly grasping. In such a culture a journalist can posit, “If the tropical rain forests of the planet are helping to mitigate some of the effects of human forcing of the climate (sic), the world should take a much greater interest … in protecting [them].” If it needs stating–and apparently it does–plants are profoundly intelligent creatures that predate humans by over one billion years and exist as more than glorified air purifiers for our emissions.
Like animals, plants are migrating in altitude and longitude to follow cooler temperatures. And similarly, plant rhythms change with global warming. When a plant is prompted to flower earlier, it is more vulnerable to late frosts. This change also impacts the competition between plants, the lives of pollinators and herbivores, and by extension everything else. As you may be observing, it is difficult to separate out one climate change thread when it is invariably interwoven with a million others, each with their own nuance.
Increasing droughts and rains, more intense fires and storms, and changes in animal populations will all interact with vegetation and trees in complex ways impossible to fully predict. Some things are known:
- Milder winters and longer summers feed tree-killing insects, while prolonged drought weakens trees. This combination may be responsible for the mass die-off of 70,000 square miles of Rocky Mountain conifers. source
- The United States is seeing expanding oak hickory forests, shrinking maple beech forests, and disappearing spruce fir forests. source
- Warmer temperatures are drying out forests and grasslands, increasing the frequency and intensity of fires, and thus releasing more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. source
- Global warming triggers meadows to shift from flowering to woody vegetation, creating another warming feedback loop via changes in soil composition. source
- Areas of arctic tundra are now hospitable to towering shrubs. Where once snow reflected the sun’s energy, more is being absorbed, creating yet another warming feedback loop. source
Endangered plants include the western prairie fringed orchid, Georgia aster, Ouachita Mountain goldenrod, Arizona agave, Haleakalā silversword, Minnesota dwarf trout lily, common juniper tree, and maple-leaf oak tree. A 2002 study estimates between 22 and 47 percent of the world’s plants are endangered, three times more than previously thought.
Lastly, let us not be remiss in overlooking fungi, as some rudely thrashing through the forest have been known to do. In the inter-net, it seems a person must hunt for fungi/climate research as carefully as they would seek out morels in the underbrush.
But first, let us remember fungi do not only grow out of the soil as beguiling mushrooms, but live everywhere. The human body, down to the last hair, is covered with whole ecosystems of them. Andrew Cowan writes, “Fungi are fundamental to the success and health of almost every ecosystem on earth, both terrestrial and aquatic, and essential to the sustainability of biodiversity. …[They are also] perhaps the most unappreciated, undervalued, and unexplained organisms on earth.” When David Hawksworth estimated in 1991 that there were 1.5 million species of fungi on earth it was considered an exaggeration; some researchers now believe there are over 13 million.
Now back to the soil. Fungal ecologist Lynne Boddy explains how fungi work like forest magicians, alone capable of breaking down complex molecules (like in wood) and returning the nutrients. They also feed 90 percent of the world’s plants, by attaching directly to the roots and industriously passing on water and nutrients, in exchange for sugars. Fungi can grow massive below the forest floor, larger than whales. They also live directly inside plants, in what Andrew Cohan poetically describes as “an inconspicuous embroidery of threadlike filaments.”
Like with plants, the media might have you believing we should only care about fungi relative to how they dispose of our carbon emissions. Let us dash that illusion by remembering one day fungi will be breaking down the bodies of media producers everywhere. Fungi themselves are quite sensitive to climate change, and Alan Gange notes “The potential exists for significant alteration of fungal community structure in woodlands, with significant effects on decomposition rates, nutrient cycling, and the structure of woodland ecosystems.” Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences reports that “climate change is dramatically altering the growing patterns of mushrooms, toadstools and other fungi.” Any change in fungi communities then impacts the diversity of their ecosystems.
One crucial question is if symbiotic soil fungi will migrate with their sister plants, and the answer is largely unknown. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard notes that, “Predictions about where trees will grow in the future have been based primarily on climate models, but there are other factors, like the soil environment, that may limit whether a tree species will be able to move into a new area.”
It is known fungi inform trees of coming stressors and send the necessary nutrients, even communicating between trees via their underground networks. But climate change can also foster the conditions for deadly fungal diseases, as is happening to coffee trees in Central America. Henk Visscher of Utrecht University explains that when a forest is depleted by environmental stresses, fungal diseases can result in massive tree deaths. Climate change makes mammals more vulnerable to fungal diseases too.
As mentioned, the media primarily focuses on the relationship between fungi and carbon, and this dynamic is scanty understood. It is known much of the earth’s carbon dioxide is stored and slowly released from the soil. Only recently has it been realized the amount of carbon stored and released depends on the type of fungi present in a given area. Some writers persist in imagining there could be some climate change magic bullet, perhaps even a type of fungi. Yet the most likely scenario is that global warming will speed up the rate at which fungi decompose soil, hence releasing more carbon dioxide. This may be more pronounced in northern climates, which have more carbon dioxide in the soil to begin with. The increasing understanding of fungi and soil carbon should at least lead to more accurate global warming models.
Human Animals in Particular
We now turn to our own species. Poor nations, island nations, and oppressed groups within all nations are being most impacted by climate change. As Sarah Milner-Barry points out, “It is a particularly unpleasant reality of climate change—that those societies that have emitted the most greenhouse gases are not going to be the ones to bear the brunt of its destabilizing effects.” Laura Tierney states:
Indigenous people, who often rely on subsistence agriculture, are suffering even more because their health is so closely linked to the health of the environment. Rising temperatures are no longer conducive to growing agricultural crops, and flooding often ruins possible crop yields. Indigenous tribes in Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and the Arctic are being prevented from living according to their traditions because their lives are at risk due to an increasing shortage of natural resources and an endangered landscape. Even native people in developed countries are often separated from the dominant society, such as in the United States or Australia, and may not have access to the resources of the industrialized world. Minorities in the United States, too, face the brunt of the climate crisis because they are at a higher risk for the health problems associated with smog and global warming.
Particular concerns for humans include infrastructure damage, displacement, food security and rising food prices, multi-system failures, increased allergens and respiratory disease, violence against women and intra-group violence, and global security. At the conclusion of our atmospheric studies we will look at air pollution, and in a coming week freshwater supplies.
40 percent of adults worldwide have never heard of climate change (correlating to education access), and nearly half of Americans are in denial either that it is happening or that it is human-caused.
Climate Projections for the U.S.
Average precipitation in the U.S. has been increasing in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southern Great Plains, with the Southeast and Southwest experiencing both increases and decreases. In recent years the number of intense heat waves has nearly tripled from the long-term average.
Mountain ecosystems are particularly sensitive, and the higher elevations of the Rockies in Montana, Wyoming, and Northern Idaho have experienced three times the global average temperature increase in the last century. It is projected Montana’s Glacier National Park will have no glaciers remaining within 30 years. The length of the frost-free season is increasing across the country, most strongly in the Northwest and Southwest. The EPA projects the snow season will continue to shorten, Atlantic hurricanes intensify, and the North become wetter and South drier.
But is it human caused?
You may have heard it argued that yes, the earth is warming and climate changing, but this is within the “natural range” of fluctuation. The question is if these changes are anthropogenic, or human made. Capitalist interests churn out propaganda suggesting there is legitimate debate over this question, but there is not.
There are natural forces that effect the climate, like volcanic eruptions and changes in the sun’s intensity. But the Royal Academy explains that if only these factors are considered, climate simulations show scant warming, or even a little cooling, over the 20th century. The models only match observed changes when they factor in human influence.
Scientists have been able to model how carbon dioxide warms the atmosphere, and this is now backed up with observation as well. Meanwhile scientists directly measure greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Since 1958, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has been charting carbon dioxide levels (measured as parts per million molecules). The first reading was 313 ppm; by 2013 it had reached 400 ppm. Researcher Ralph Keeling said of the 400 ppm mark, “Two or three million years ago was the last time we had concentrations in this range, so we’re moving into territory that’s almost outside the scope of human existence on the planet at this point.” (The level was 280 ppm for most of human history.)
And while this concentration has not been seen for millions of years, the speed of change is completely unprecedented. Michael Mann sums up, “It took nature hundreds of hundreds of millions of years to change carbon dioxide concentrations through natural processes such as natural carbon burial and volcanic outgassing. So, yes, 100 million years ago during the early Cretaceous period, carbon dioxide concentrations were higher than today, and the earth was warmer than today. Nature buried all of that carbon over a timeframe of 100,000 years. What we are doing is unburying it. But not over 100 million years. We’re unburying it and burning it over a timescale of 100 years, a million times faster. There is no precedent in earth history for such an abrupt increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”
The rapidity of change is reflected in other metrics. Extinctions, for instance, generally occur at a rate of one to five species per year. But we are currently at 1,000 to 10,000 times this rate, with dozens of species becoming extinct daily in what is now called the sixth great extinction. The Center for Biological Diversity explains, “Unlike past mass extinctions, caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us.” The unprecedented speed of these changes makes it particularly difficult to project what the earth will look like in coming decades.
What is certain is that the body of knowledge is enough–quite more than enough–to act upon. Oceanography professor Laura Tenenbaum reflected when carbon levels reached the 400 ppm mark:
As a college professor who lectures on climate change, I will have to find a way to look into those 70 sets of eyes that have learned all semester long to trust me and somehow explain to those students, my students – who still believe in their young minds that success mostly depends on good grades and hard work, who believe in fairness, evenhandedness, and opportunity – how much we as people have altered our environment, and that they will end up facing the consequences of our inability to act.
More recently climate researcher Susanne Moser said bluntly, “What we’re beginning to understand is that there’s no way out. We need transformational change. We don’t need more studies.” This leaves us at the limits of all of the highly informed, rightfully cited, and peer judged papers. While many researchers have heroically catalogued what is happening and why, they cannot finally tell us what to do. Correct action can only arise from the collective imagination and courage of those who have first shaken off the lethargy of denial.
Previous Chapters in Environmental Handbook for Non-Scientific Minds:
Image 1: from page 73 of The Doldenhorn and Weisse Frau. Ascended for the First Time with 11 Coloured Engravings from Sketches by P. Gosset and E. V. Fellenberg, 4 Woodcuts and a Coloured Map by J. R. Stengel, 1863, via The British Library on Flickr
Image 2: from page 76 of Mountain Ascents in Westmoreland and Cumberland by John Barrow, 1886, via The British Library on Flickr
Image 3: Planet Earth Book
Image 4: from page 12 of The Earth and its Inhabitants. The European Section of the Universal Geography by Élisée Reclus, edited by E. G. Ravenstein, 1878, via The British Library on Flickr
Image 5: from page 288 of La Terre: Description des Phénomènes de la Vie du Globe by Élisée Reclus, 1870, via The British Library on Flickr
Image 6: from page 92 of Protestant Popery by Nicholas Amherst, 1718, via The British Library on Flickr
Image 7: from page 208 of Seas and Skies in Many Latitudes; or, Wanderings in Search of Weather … Maps and Illustrations by Ralph Abercromby, 1888, via The British Library on flickr
Image 8: from page 50 of The Lake Country by W.J. Linton, 1864, via The British Library on flickr
Image 9: from page 361 of Pariserliv i Firserne … Med talrige Illustrationer by Richard Kaufmann, 1885, via The British Library on Flickr