The day the current stopped

As a general rule, the most successful man in life is the man who has the best information

 

 

 

Anybody who’s ever planted cedar bushes knows how drought-sensitive the little suckers are. A dry season or two will render a healthy-green sentinel of evergreen dividing you from your neighbor to an ugly stretch of dead or dying rusty-brown relics of their former selves. 

 

These days more and more sickly cedar trees are being spotted around Vancouver and southwestern BC. Biologists say the phenomenon began in the fall of 2018 and is a sign of climate change. The tell-tale marks of stress and death, when the leaves turn an orange color, are due to recurring summer droughts. The trees didn’t get enough water during the exceptionally dry summers of 2015, 2017 and 2018. 

 

Not only are British Columbia’s summers getting hotter and drier, the winters are milder. A lack of annual cold days is blamed for the reason pine beetles now survive the winters when they would normally die off, leaving the bugs free to chew through thousands of hectares of forest when the weather warms up. 

 

A more pleasant effect of the changing climate: People on Vancouver Island are able to grow Mediterranean fruits like olives and lemons outside of greenhouses. 

 

Sadly though, the consequences are mostly negative. Last summer was British Columbia’s worst fire season, and this year, the first fires came early. A combination of long-term warming and an El Nino year meant scores of firefighters were dispatched to fight wildfires in May. Almost 5,000 Albertans had to be evacuated from the town of Wabasca north of Edmonton, an unusually large fire around Prince George raged for two weeks, and a 20-square-kilometer blaze northwest of La Locke, Saskatchewan had residents on edge. 

 

The fires in Western Canada were extinguished but the hot weather continued into June, sparking warnings of droughts and water shortages

 

Over in Europe, an early-summer heat wave blanketed most of the continent. 

 

According to the EU’s satellite agency, Copernicus Climate Change Service, last month was officially the hottest June ever recorded

 

Records were blasted through in France (45C), Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. It reached 39 in Turin, Italy, 39 in Zarazoga, Spain, and 39 also in Avignon, France, a city normally known for its gentle Mediterranean climate. Meteorologists blamed the dangerously high temperatures on a weakening of the jet stream, pushing super-heated air from Africa up to Europe.

 

Is this the new normal? Certainly it appears so. According to Statistica, in 2017 the earth’s surface was 0.84C warmer than the 20th century average, with the last few years registering consistently as among the hottest on record. Ho-hum. 

 

 

As society continues on, business as usual, oblivious to the warning signs and likely hard-wired to be un-moved by events happening far into the future, a UN report came out last year saying humanity has 12 years to go before it reaches a climate tipping point. Allowing the planet to warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the line drawn in the sand at the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, will cause irreversibly negative effects. 

 

Even half a degree higher, 2C, would mean extremely hot days in the northern hemisphere, more frequent and more intense forest fires, habitat loss for plants and corals, and lost habitats for insects, vital for pollinating crops, the report said. 

 

In this article we’re returning to that old chestnut, climate change (human-caused or natural, it doesn’t matter, the effects are real), researching the most recent findings, and painting a picture of what is alarmingly becoming a darker, dystopian future on planet earth. In this report we are focusing on three “climate canaries,” the polar vortex, the North Atlantic Current and thawing permafrost. 

 

Warming cities 

 

Yet another warning about the adverse effects of global warming was issued recently, in a study by the ecological research firm Crowther Lab. The Switzerland-based researchers focused on 520 cities around the world, seeking an answer to how the climate crisis, as it’s increasingly being called, will affect them. The results were published in the journal ‘Plos One’. 

 

The most concerning finding was that residents of 1 in 5 cities including Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur will experience climate conditions never before seen in major cities. Water shortages will affect many cities that are now in temperate climates, including European cities where temperatures will soar up to 3.5C in summer and 4.7C in winter. Along with more frequent droughts, persistent flooding is also expected to be a major problem - something we are already seeing annually in North America. 

 

Another interesting result of the research was how many cities will begin to resemble their warmer, even tropical counterparts. For example by 2050, Madrid will feel like Marrakech. London will have a similar climate to Barcelona, possibly causing Brits to reconsider annual sojourns to Spain. Closer to home, the report has Seattle feeling like San Franciso and New York comparable to Virginia Beach. 

 

 

An earlier report, ‘Climate Projections on Vancouver’, has the rainy city looking more like San Diego in coming decades, leaving crops to flourish virtually year-round in the Fraser Valley, lowering heating bills, and dispensing of frost and ice for good. On the down side, Vancouver Sun reported, the region can expect soaring air conditioning bills, and the usual pitfalls of hot, dry summers - increased smog and forest fire smoke, droughts followed by severe rainfalls, and an influx of invasive species threatening forests and agriculture. 

 

Most people, especially older residents who have lived in a place a long time and notice the changes, are aware of gradual climate shifts. 2050 seems a long way away and hard for most of us to get our heads around. But already, we see clear evidence of climate change, in weird weather. 

 

It starts with the ice 

 

We understand that climate change causes odd weather patterns, due to the wandering jet stream. Read more at What’s with all the weird weather?

 

Because the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, the jet stream is thrown off course, with increasing frequency of meandering pockets of air, which create stormy weather. 

 

 

The polar vortex is a seasonal atmospheric phenomenon whereby high winds swirl around an extremely cold pocket of Arctic or Antarctic air. The winds are like a barrier that contains the cold air, but when the vortex weakens, the cold air “escapes” from the vortex and travels south, bringing with it a cold blast of Arctic weather. 

 

The scientific evidence suggests the same phenomenon was likely responsible for the extreme heat in Europe. In June the regular pattern of the jet stream changed, which resulted in warm, dry air being pulled north from Africa, and settling above Europe. 

 

The bigger question is, what does the wandering jet stream mean, and should we be concerned, even if we’re not affected by unseasonably strange, bad weather? 

 

The short answer is yes, because it shows the consequences of climate change are coming sooner than we think. It all starts with warming poles, and melting Arctic ice. 

 

recent scientific report found that Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Even worse is what’s happening in the Arctic, where the temperature has risen 2.3 degrees C compared to 70 years ago. Add another degree of warming during winter, states the report from Environment and Climate Change Canada. 

 

Greenland saw 61 hours of above-freezing temperatures in the first two months of 2018 - much higher than normal. In June 2019, 40% of the large northern landmass was melting, causing a loss of 2 billion tons of ice in a single day. That sounds bad, but it was actually worse in 2012, when the entire Greenland ice sheet saw melting, the first time that has happened in recorded history. 

 

As ice melts during the summer, the Arctic Ocean warms. That heat gets radiated back to the atmosphere in winter, which reduces the intensity of the northern polar vortex winds. The polar vortex gets disrupted, allowing cold air in the center of the swirling cyclone above the pole to migrate south, resulting in meteorological aberrations like snowfalls in Florida. 

 

While occasional breakdowns of the polar vortex are nothing to be concerned about, they are becoming more common. A study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found that a weakening polar vortex has become more common during the past four decades, and that a weaker polar vortex, brought on by a melting Arctic, explained 60% of the cooling in Eurasia since 1990. 

 

The scary part of all this is the spectre of the polar vortex collapsing. This would mean a total disruption of normal atmospheric warming and cooling. Without halos of swirling Arctic and Antarctic winds serving to cool the poles, they would be left to heat up, accelerating global warming. 

 

Disappearing permafrost 

 

Along with calving glaciers, shrinking ice caps and disappearing sea ice, evidence of Arctic warming can also be seen in the thawing of permafrost. Over the past 30 years, the Arctic has warmed more than any other region on earth.

 

A scientific team from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, found that permafrost at outposts in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted. 

 

As the Arctic tundra thaws, it exposes carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 30 times more powerful than CO2, in terms of its ability to trap heat. This creates a feedback loop, which accelerates warming.  

 

Re-appearing diseases 

 

There may be other unpleasant surprises in the permafrost that could become exposed, like sleeping zombies, when the weather warms. 

 

An article in Scientific American suggests that thawing permafrost could expose populations to micro-organisms and bacteria that have been frozen for thousands of years. Such organisms are potentially harmful to humans, and we already have an example. A 12-year-old boy living in Siberia died from exposure to anthrax, that made its way into the food supply after melting permafrost released the deadly disease into nearby water and soil. Twenty other people were diagnosed with it, 100 were hospitalized and over 2,300 reindeer died from infections. 

 

Scientific American quotes a French microbiology professor saying that, while a lot of micro-organisms can’t survive extreme cold, some can last for over a century. The professor and a colleague published their findings on two still infectious viruses from a chunk of 30,000-year-old Siberian permafrost. Although Pithovirus sibericum and Mollivirus sibericum can infect only amoebas, the discovery is an indication that viruses that infect humans—such as smallpox and the Spanish flu—could potentially be preserved in permafrost.

 

Circulating currents 

 

Crucial to an understanding of global warming are the changes to the North Atlantic Current, a vast movement of water that extends the Gulf Stream north-east, starting around the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. The current flows east before sharply veering north, transporting warm tropical waters from the Gulf Stream like a giant conveyor belt to northern latitudes and eventually the Arctic Ocean. The current bounces off Greenland and Iceland, then heads back south, carrying cold water with it. 

 

In places where the warm, salty water near the surface meets cold, less salty water at depths, the water is pushed down in huge, rotating columns called chimneys, some of which churn almost to the bottom of the ocean, 2.5 km from surface. 

 

Little is known about these mysterious structures except that there are less of them, and that their reduction corresponds with loss of ice (a survey done in 2004 found two chimneys in the Greenland Sea, whereas previous surveys found many more chimneys).

 

Meanwhile another current, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), exchanges warm water from the equator with cold water from the Arctic, transporting warm and cold water to the North and South Poles. 

 

Watch the circulation of the currents in this video

 

Without climatic disruptions, the currents work to move water around the globe, along with nutrients key to the survival of marine species. The Gulf Stream, one of four currents known as the North Atlantic Gyre, even played a role in the exploration of the New World, with European explorers catching the winds in their sails from the Gulf Stream as they searched for new lands. 

 

 

However in recent times climate scientists have been raising concerns that rising temperatures could throw a wrench into the conveyor-like currents system. Sensors stationed along the North Atlantic show that the volume of water moving northward has been sluggish, potentially affecting sea levels and weather.

 

But the more disruptive scenario involves the AMOC. Scientific American states:  

 

As global temperatures rise with the levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, the AMOC could be disrupted by an influx of freshwater from increasing precipitation in the North Atlantic and the melting of sea ice and glaciers on land. The added freshwater lowers the water density in the zone where deepwater forms, backing up and weakening the overall flow of the AMOC like a clogged sink. That slowdown means less heat is transported northward, leading to cooler ocean temperatures in a region below Greenland, and warmer temperatures off the US east coast. That warming leads to higher sea levels along the coast and raises sea temperatures where economically valuable cold-loving species like cod and lobster live.

 

The slowing of the AMOC could also mean colder winters across the eastern US, and increases the likelihood of summer heat waves across Europe. Two recent studies show that the amount of water surging through the AMOC has slowed to a 1,600-year low. This doomsday scenario formed the plot line of the movie ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, where the current stopped and resulted in an ice age. 

 

There is scientific evidence to suggest the current did shut down during the last ice age. The prevailing theory of what caused an abrupt freezing involves a large influx of fresh water from a very large lake, called Lake Agassiz (now the Great Lakes), into the Atlantic Ocean likely via the St. Lawrence Seaway, which stopped the North Atlantic Current in its tracks, plunging Europe and much of the northern hemisphere into a relatively short ice age.

 

For example there is geological evidence of a sharp decline in temperature between the Pleistocene epoch and the current Holocene epoch.

 

The Younger Dryas is a term sometimes employed to explain the natural cycles of global warming and cooling. It refers to an interruption in the heating of the climate that occurred after the last global ice age that started receding about 20,000 years ago.

 

Within decades temperatures dropped 2 to 6 degrees C, causing the advance of glaciers and dry conditions. The Younger Dryas is named after the alpine flower whose leaves are found in lake sediments of Scandinavian lakes. Scientists discovered that vegetation during a previous warmer period was replaced by that normally found in a cold climate, such as the Dryas octopetala wildflower. The mini-ice age is thought to have lasted between 1,000 and 1,300 years, and like it started, also ended abruptly, within 40 to 50 years. 

 

Another intriguing theory that supplements the Younger Dryas explanation of the sudden onset of an ice age involves a comet striking the earth. The website Science details the story of a geologist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen, who gathered proof of a 31-kilometer wide impact crater under a kilometer-thick sheet of ice known as the Hiawatha Glacier, in Greenland. Some researchers on his discovery team believe the massive impact on the ice sheet would have sent meltwater surging into the Atlantic Ocean, thereby disrupting the conveyor belt of ocean currents - just as the spilling of the contents of Lake Agassiz did.

 

 

Could it happen again? 

 

Applying the Younger Dryas theory to current global warming, and all the evidence we have of it, including melting sea ice, glaciers and permafrost, rising sea levels, disruptions to the polar vortex, freak storms, heat waves, forest fires, etc., it’s interesting to speculate what could happen. 

 

We know that during the Younger Dryas, a long period of global warming after the last major ice age suddenly ended and resulted in “global cooling”. Is that what’s in store for planet earth, if we compare our current warming trend? If so, Europe won’t be so worried about heat waves, but instead, could be looking at a frozen landscape more resembling ‘A Game of Thrones’. 

 

Then again, the climatic conditions of today are totaly different than 12,000 years ago. How will the depletion of Arctic sea ice, warming oceans, melting permafrost causing huge volumes of methane to escape into the atmosphere, collapsing polar vortices, when tossed into the equation of a warming planet, that may or may not be human-caused or just due to natural causes, affect our future climate? It’s really hard to say, and very difficult to predict, which areas will be most and least affected by climate change. We truly are moving into uncharted territory. 

 

Climate Armageddon

 

What we do know is that all of these factors that make up climate change, when they are mashed together, over time, create feedback loops that will, without a doubt, accelerate the warming of the planet. 

 

A feedback loop is what happens when one change causes another change to occur, worsening the first change. 

 

A well-known feedback loop is the disappearance of snow and ice at the poles. This exposes dark ocean to sunlight, warming the oceans. As the planet keeps warming, more ice disappears, exposing more water, further raising ocean temperatures, and sea levels. 

 

A new study finds the Arctic Ocean will be free of ice in summer within the next 20 years.

 

As explained earlier, melting Arctic ice is the key to the weakening of the jet stream, which cause pockets of warm or cold air to escape into lower or higher latitudes, causing weird and wacky weather patterns like snow in the Sahara and scorching-hot summers in temperate places like England and southern France. 

 

If polar ice keeps disappearing and the air currents that move hot and cold air around the earth, nicely moderating its temperatures, stop working, we are in for extreme weather, all year round. 

 

Greenland’s glaciers hold the equivalent of 6 meters of water should they melt into the ocean. The melting of Greenland would affect the North Atlantic Current and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. The amount of freshwater pouring into the ocean from glacial melt would effectively stop the normal circulation of water round the globe, causing a sudden deep freeze.

 

Sea levels would rise up to seven meters, inundating big cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, the entire state of Florida and vast swaths of Indochina. 

 

The melting of the Antarctic ice sheet is even scarier. That would cause a sea rise of 80 meters, or up to five meters in the next 100 years if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet starts calving.

 

The carbon cycle is another dangerous feedback loop. The poles are warming at a much faster rate than the rest of earth. This means the most dramatic effects of climate change are being felt in the Arctic and Antarctic. One of the most potent examples of this is melting permafrost. As the Arctic tundra thaws, it exposes methane, a greenhouse gas that is about 30 times more powerful than CO2, in terms of its ability to trap heat.

 

Let’s run a little doomsday scenario. 

 

Imagine, now you have melting ice to the point where the Arctic Ocean is ice-free all year round. There are no more glaciers in the Arctic. The freshet each year is very short because the only snow and ice in the mountains is from the last season. 

 

Many of the world’s coastal cities have been flooded by rising sea levels. Coastal aquifers are ruined by saltwater intrusion, causing widespread water shortages. Vast dead zones appear in the ocean after pollutants wash into the seas from industrial areas like refineries that were inundated. There is no-one to clean up the mess. 

 

Anyone who has the means, escapes from the coasts into the interior. But there they find that fresh water is scarce due to depleted glaciers, lakes and streams. Droughts are common in summer and there are problems around food security. Prices of staples like wheat, corn and rice skyrocket. 


The planet has warmed over 2 degrees C, due to the greenhouse effect. There is searing heat in the summer, along with energy-sapping humidity. There are constant forest fires burning, so forest fire smoke adds to the greenhouse effect. It’s not safe to go outside without a particulate mask. Outside activities cease. 

 

The stress of daily living fractures communities and hardens divisions. Conflicts over resources become common, and there are frequent raids and skirmishes between communities, all fighting over scarce resources. Everyone fears the next war, but they know it’s coming. The question at that point will be, is this a planet even worth fighting over? 

 

11 years to go and counting, before we reach that climate tipping point. Tick tock. 

 

Richard (Rick) Mills

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