I don’t like scary movies. Science fiction flicks are okay, when I’m in a certain mood for such things. In the last few years, I’ve watched movies like Snowpiercer, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 from a much different perspective and I have to admit that those three movies are, for me, more terrifying than any horror movie my teenagers are watching. I’ve written about Snowpiercer before (you can read that post here) and the lessons taken from it were raw and much too close for comfort (surviving a modern Ice Age which is brought about by attempts to counter global warming using geoengineering).
In the movie The Day After Tomorrow, an abrupt shift into an Ice Age is caused by global warming. The movie 2012 was also about abrupt geologic changes on Earth, except those circumstances were caused by a sudden displacement of the Earth’s crust thanks to solar radiation. I’ve hesitated to write about the possibility, indeed, the scientific reality, of 2 out of three of those Hollywood-worthy scenarios mainly because I realize that readers are already terrified enough (as am I). Not only do I really hate scaring people (including myself), but it’s easy to just become so depressed and full of dread that you just can’t bear to pay attention anymore.
Unfortunately, I’ve “succeeded” in preventing myself from “looking away” (in the words of Naomi Klein) to the point that it sometimes prevents me from planning too far into the future. I’m being quite literal here. I started this blog almost 2 years ago, and I figured I’d be able to get some kind of grant, either through the federal government (I became a contractor at the same time), or get some funding through a non-profit. The problem is that I (apparently) write about controversial and sometimes radical notions. I don’t think I’m “radical,” but my 18 year old, nose-pierced, only-black wearing daughter, who is herself a much-published writer, thinks my writing is radical, so, go figure. Government and establishment-types won’t touch my points-of-view, so maybe she’s right. If I want to earn a living doing anything even remotely like this, I have to learn to play nice. But I can’t. There’s too much at stake. The more I know, the less likely I can just give up. Believe me when I say that if I could take the “red pill,” or the “blue pill” (a la The Matrix), I’d choose blissful ignorance in a split second. Unfortunately (again), you can’t “un-see” or “un-know” some things, no matter how hard you try.
Having said that, I increasingly feel like I’m not really being honest with my readers if I hold back information. Deep down, I can’t help but think that we’ve come so damn far, as a species, to have evolved to where we are today (imperfect, but still amazing). No matter how short-sighted and ridiculous we humans often are as a species, I believe we deserve fighting for. Having become our planet’s super predators (not a pretty thing, by the way) we’ve even begin to look beyond Earth for places to live (and probably destroy). And there have been “bottlenecks” along the way which almost wiped us out, such as a time in the late Pleistocene. There is speculation in the scientific community about why we humans only have tiny variations in our DNA (as opposed to the robust diversity of other species). There is evidence to suggest that:
“…the human population was reduced to a small number of breeding pairs, no more than 10,000, and possibly as few as 1,000, resulting in a very small residual gene pool. Various reasons for this hypothetical bottleneck have been postulated, one being the Toba catastrophe theory.”
Toba is a super volcano in Indonesia which erupted around 70,000 years ago. “1,000 breeding pairs?” Holy crap. That was a close one. But I digress…
Why it’s really more like “climate change” than “global warming”
There is a conveyor belt which regulates the Earth’s climate, which is also sometimes referred to as thermohaline circulation, similar to (but not quite as encompassing as…) something called meridional overturning circulation (MOC). You can read a Wikipedia description of these critically important parts of our planet’s climate system here.
Our planet’s relatively stable climate, which has allowed us to advance to this point and which we are shoving out of its comfortable predictability, is incredibly complicated. It’s truly a “system,” not just one thing. Nothing better exemplifies, for me at least, how interconnected it is, and indeed, how complex it is, than what’s happening to the Arctic and the Greenland ice sheet, which are melting away right before our eyes. To help you see how it’s all connected, here is a short NASA video:
Here’s another NASA video:
For simplicity’s sake, the conveyor belt part of what regulates our planet’s climate can be broken down and explained in two ways (at the very least). One is density, and the other is wind, but they both are relevant to one thing, which is turbulent mixing. Without thermohaline circulation, much of Europe’s climate wouldn’t be so mild, the Gulf Stream would be non-existent, and, as has happened in the Earth’s past, we’d be in another Ice Age. I’m over simplifying, but I’ll provide links at the bottom of this post for further reading and explanation.
Salt water is denser than fresh water
First, the density “part.” The process of thermohaline circulation is largely dependent on a consistent amount, or “recipe,” of fresh water and salt water. If you think about density and “thickness” or heaviness, of water, and the layers that keep that conveyor belt “moving” correctly, think about this: The Greenland ice sheet is melting away at an accelerated rate, as is the sea ice in the Arctic, solely because we are heating up the planet. And Greenland’s ice sheet is colossal. It’s roughly 1,500 miles long, 465 miles wide, and 1.6 miles thick – making up 8% of our planet’s fresh water supply. Forget for a moment how much sea level rise is about to take place as Greenland melts (you can wave “bye bye” to coastal cities). If you keep watering down the salinity (saltiness) of the thermohaline circulation (by melting glaciers and ice masses), you are dumping way too much fresh water into the “mix,” and this may very well bring the conveyor belt to a screeching stop. It has happened several times before in our planet’s history, most recently around 12,000 years ago when a (sort of) natural damn broke in North America at Lake Agassiz which released a torrent of fresh water into the Atlantic, with the same end result (stopping thermohaline circulation by releasing too much fresh water). This period of suddenly freezing temperatures is called the Younger Dryas. It was not a good thing.
It is NO coincidence, people, that we humans have come so far in the last 10,000 years of peaceful and stable climate following the Younger Dryas. And if you think that your ancestors of 10,000 years ago needed a predictable and warm environment to flourish, our survival as a species is no less precarious. So that’s the density “part.”
Without ice and glaciers to stop them, waves and wind get really strong
Thermohaline circulation and the turbulent mixing which keeps the conveyor belt “working” is also dependent, and tied to, winds and tides. Guess what becomes MUCH stronger, less predictable, and less stoppable when there is no ice to oppose it’s powerful force? Yep. Winds and tides. As one of my favorite climate scientists, Stefan Rahmstorf says:
“There are two distinct forcing mechanisms, but not two separate circulations. Change the wind stress, and the thermohaline circulation will change; alter thermohaline forcing, and the wind driven currents will also change.”
And it only gets worse and more unpredictable:
“It is because of thermohaline forcing that wind-driven currents are relegated to the upper ocean-in unstratified water they would extend to the bottom.”
What does this all even mean? It means a lot, and none of it is good for humanity. A recent NASA article about Greenland’s importance has a good explanation about jet streams and atmospheric circulation:
“Global heat transfer: The loss of the Greenland ice mass would affect global atmospheric heat movement. Any heat transfer is driven by a temperature difference. The greater that difference, the faster heat flows. As the polar regions warm, the temperature difference between the equator and the poles is reduced, altering global atmospheric circulation patterns by reducing the force that drives equatorial heat energy toward the poles. Much of the world’s current pattern of rainfall would be altered.”
The Day After Tomorrow connection
If the planet heats up and we continue to melt the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland ice sheet, we water down and potentially abruptly stop the thermohaline circulation, quite possibly putting us into a new, and very ugly, Ice Age. There is evidence that this may be happening.
Those who are paid by the fossil fuel industry to deny and mock climate science will often throw out the accusation that climate scientists don’t know whether we’re heating up the planet or freezing it. What they are referring to, of course, is what happens when we interfere with thermohaline circulation by adding too much fresh water. This is what, I strongly believe, proves that they know full well what they’re talking about to the point of conspiring to do harm to each and every one of us. One of ExxonMobil’s well paid deniers is Marc Morano. He just loves to work this angle:
In fact, if you think about it, they are much better informed about climate science than the general public, who would (logically) be thinking that a hot planet cannot possibly lead to a new Ice Age. By bringing up abrupt climate changes leading to an Ice Age, climate deniers confirm that they fully understand what they’re talking about. In my mind, it makes them criminally complicit in the destruction of our planet’s habitability.
The 2012 connection
Scientists are, by their very nature, loathe to make predictions. And, for better or worse, research tends to explain something after it happens, and not before. None of this really helps the rest of us, to be honest. Making the whole situation much more disjointed and much less predictable is the fact that scientists have become increasingly specialized. A scientist will not only study the climate, but they’ll winnow it down to, for example, studying sea ice, and then, it will become even more specialized from there. Glaciologist? Would that be alpine glaciology, continental glaciology, or, perhaps, astroglaciology? Don’t forget atmospheric scientists, or paleoclimatologists, geologists, geophysicists, volcanologists, etc. And by “etc.,” I mean too many types of scientist to a) count and b) categorize. The scientists are fragmented, cloistered, and hesitant to connect dots outside their self-appointed “specialty.”
But who is looking at the “big picture?” It certainly isn’t our policymakers, who are too busy cashing their checks from the fossil fuel industry to be paying any attention. In the year 2016, the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough information, but that we have too much information and zero action. For the average person, it’s too much to process. We can’t “swoop out” far enough to get a macro perspective of what’s going on with our planet. This is going to be the end of us, figuratively and literally.
While the fossil fuel industry-funded climate denial machine forces scientists to state and then re-state every single thing, double and triple check every measurement, calculate and then re-calculate every data set, forever keeping them on the defensive, our beautiful planet is withering and dying right before our eyes. One thing the scientific community seems capable of agreeing on, despite which discipline they’re in, is that we have left the Holocene period and we are now in the Anthropocene period, whose hallmark is the Sixth Mass Extinction. And this one is entirely caused by our actions. So, at least there’s that.
In the movie 2012, the Earth’s crust begins to show signs of “disconnecting” and slipping from its core because of extreme solar storms. This, in turn, led to all kinds of hell breaking loose and some arks being built in an attempt to save at least some members of our species. To be clear, humanity does not bring this mess upon itself in the movie 2012, so why do I even mention it? Not so much for the backstory (or the arks) but because we are quite purposefully messing with the actual and literal stability of the Earth. I know it’s hard to believe that puny humans can achieve such colossal feats, but it is happening. It’s not that the climate is changing, because climate always changes, it’s that it’s happening so insanely fast (geologically speaking) that nothing, and no species, can adapt this quickly. By heating up the planet and melting all the ice, we are quite literally altering the gravitational fields and the rotational “wobble” of our planet. And the idea of “crustal displacement” may sound nutty, but it’s not so far beyond the pale that Einstein didn’t sit up and take note of work done by scientist Charles Hapgood in the 1950’s, even writing a forward for his book.
About that wobble…
So changing the “wobble” of our planet. Hmm. Who thinks that’s a good idea? Who thinks it sounds like a trivial matter? And, who wants to just sit around and wait to find out what happens next?
I’m just saying that once we get too far down the rabbit hole of messing with how our planet “works,” solar system-wise, magnetosphere-wise, orbit-wise, and gravity-wise, no scientific research is going to catch up to whatever becomes our new reality and make it okay. The magnetism of the planet is changing, and guess what? When you start messing with the very hardware of planet Earth, as opposed to the “software,” like the atmosphere, our oceans, and the biodiversity, no one knows where we’re headed. No one. I’m not kidding when I say that Roland Emmerich is as good at predicting what’s going to happen next as Stephen Hawking.
The screenshot (below) is from NASA’s climate change page. I’m so glad that they find the question “interesting,” because I personally find it a little terrifying:
Scientists won’t venture a guess. Politicians have their heads so far up their asses that they’ll need a map to find their way out. And the general prison population (that’s the rest of us) remain blissfully unaware. I’m going to go out on a limb, and it’s not entirely unscientific, by the way, and say that we are messing with the potential for a) increased volcanic activity aka super volcanoes, b) increased earthquakes, c) stuff moving and slipping and being disjointed and generally unfixable. Quite possibly very unpleasant. And I’m not just talking about no Internet service for a while. Or everyone having to stand on “one side” of the planet to balance everything out and “right this ship,” because that’s not going to work. Neither will truly crackpot plans to geoengineer our climate by doing things like blocking the Sun, or launching umbrellas into orbit, or dumping tons of crap into the oceans in hopes they’ll suddenly suck up all the extra carbon dioxide we’ve pumped into the atmosphere. I’m not even kidding. Those are all real “plans.” There are people, and not just a few fringe lunatics, who are actively trying to concoct just such “solutions.” I’d call them “final solutions” for most living things on Earth. There’s even at least one “think” tank, partially funded by Bill Gates, (see Update below) which wants to be the “decider” about which continent doesn’t get to have any sunlight (Spoiler alert: it’s you, Africa).
IF there are future generations of humans, I guarantee, with 100% certainty, that they will curse each and every one of us alive today for tanking the whole thing. And by the “whole thing,” I mean any kind of future whatsoever.
UPDATE: So as not to be perceived as a big liar or rumor monger, I have to let you know that I just looked at the SRMGI website and it has been totally overhauled, with almost any reference to Bill Gates scrubbed. Almost.
A little history/perspective: I began reading about SRMGI’s dubious “work,” and began semi-harrassing them, in 2014. At one point, I may have, ahem, even crashed their website (as some of you may remember) by applying (in “volume”) to be one of their Stakeholders. I eventually had to use various Disney aliases (Pocahontas, Daffy Duck, Goofy, etc.) when I ran out of real names.
It was more than a little unsettling to be able to overwhelm their website from my kitchen table given their a) funding source, and b) the degree to which they wanted to control Earth’s climate system, right? But, oh, how they’ve grown up! Maybe they’re a little more careful these days. Anyway, one of SRMGI’s cohorts is Fred Krupp from EDF. On EDF’s website, you can still find some references to Gates’ involvement with SRMGI. Since it will probably end up being taken down, here is a screenshot:
And, for the time being, or until they realize it’s still available, here is a link which can be found via the SRMGI website which further explains the Gates connection. I have no idea why Bill Gates, who personally, as opposed to through his foundation, helped fund and start SRMGI several years ago, would want to distance himself from what they do, unless he’s realized that it’s fucking insanity and crazy dangerous, or, in a more cynical assumption, he’s somehow capitalizing on it.
We may never know. We probably won’t know unless/until it’s too late.
It’s a big problem and a total mess we’ve created. But I do know what’s needed to really give us a fighting chance. If you go to the Tag Cloud to the right side of this website and click “Solutions!” you can see what (I think) it’s going to take to save ourselves.
Theories on crustal displacement and polar shifts, date/author unknown.
Ocean Circulation Conveyor Belt Helps Balance Climate, NASA, June 23, 2004.
Melting ice sheets changing the way the Earth wobbles on its axis, says NASA, The Guardian, April 9, 2016 (this has a good video, too).
Pole Shift Hypothesis, Wikipedia.
Gigantic Gravity Waves to Mix Summer With Winter? Wrecked Jet Stream Now Runs Pole-to-Pole, RobertScribbler.com, June 28, 2016.
The Thermohaline Circulation: The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt, NASA.
Climate research: How meltwater from the ice sheets disturbed the climate 10,000 years ago, ScienceDaily.com, July 19, 2016.
Here’s how the world could end – and what we can do about it, ScienceMag.com, July 14, 2016 (information about super volcanoes towards the end of the article).
Thank you for the thoughtful response and helpful links.
To elaborate on what I was asking about, which I recognize I could have described more clearly and think you understood regardless, is:
1. There is a relatively fixed output of energy from our sun that interacts with our planet
2. The physical composition of our atmosphere and planet surface determines how much energy is retained and therefore capable of doing work – such as melting ice, which is a process that is not easily detectable based on temperature change because melting happens at a cool and fixed temperature.
3. Anthropogenic CO2 is affecting the composition and properties of our atmosphere, which leads to greater energy retention and accelerated ice melt.
4. Once the ice is gone the greater availability of retained energy, which can no longer be buffered by melting ice, I suspect might start heating up the land, water and air – probably to a highly undesirable level.
Your info on the release of methane (and trapped CO2) is a good point as melting exacerbates the problem stemming from how the atmosphere’s composition is affected. Add water vapor, from the heating of oceans and lakes, and there may be a whole new set of consequences like you suggest.
A runaway greenhouse effect – sure, I can see how that makes sense and could potentially unfold under the right conditions. Thanks for the reply!
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I love how smart you are and how creatively you write. Very awesome post.
I’ve often wondered that if anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are affecting the atmosphere in a manner that leads to the acceleration of polar ice melt, and if the melting process buffers the planet’s overall temperature, then doesn’t that mean that once all the ice is gone the planet will heat up rapidly?
For example, if I fill a pot 50:50 by weight with ice and water, the temperature will be zero degrees Celsius or 32 degrees F. If I place that pot on the stove, stir constantly and set the element on “high”, the ice begins to melt. The temperature, however, remains fixed at the melting point until the ice is gone. Only once the ice is gone does the temperature of the water begin to heat up, and if the same amount of heat continues to enter that system, then the water will eventually boil.
I’m not saying that the oceans will boil, however, I suspect that if heat is entering our planet in a manner that melts the ice caps completely the heating process is not going to stop just because the ice is gone. The heat will continue – the element is still on. A wobbly planet and rising sea levels, although valid concerns to investigate, would be the least of our worries under such a scenario.
What are your thoughts on that?
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Thank you, Daren! If I understand what you’re saying (and I’m not sure I do), then, there is no easy answer to whether or not the oceans would boil away. I think you’re referring to a runaway greenhouse effect a la Venus, right? Check out this article about such an effect in Scientific American, especially when you see what they are saying about (how we didn’t have such an effect during) the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). But that’s only partially reassuring because the PETM was many millions of years ago. Land usage has changed drastically (changing carbon sinks and albedo), and there has been a lot of time for a significant buildup of methane in the (precariously frozen) permafrost. Such a sudden burst if it all melts, emitting so damn much methane, which is more potent than CO2, would, I suspect be catastrophic. And even if the ice is all melted, and the permafrost is also melted with a massive methane release, what compounds the whole mess is not the carbon dioxide and methane so much as the water vapor, which is also a greenhouse gas. At that point, I can’t imagine how we wouldn’t have a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect and lose our atmosphere (like Venus), becoming a sterile, essentially dead planet. Probably somewhere between total ice melt and the ultimate release of all that methane via the permafrost, all kinds of other “shit” will hit the fan, I think.
I’ll look for your feedback (pun somewhat intended) to what I’m saying, just so that I’ve understood your question.
P.S. And to your point about the “heat entering our planet,” I’d say that that’s not correctly “phrased.” It’s really a situation where the heat and moisture is trapped within our atmosphere via the (suffocating) build up of carbon dioxide and other gases. It’s like a jar, or maybe a terrarium, with a lid tightly screwed on and left in the Sun. It’s going to heat up, fog up, and start sort of dripping down on itself with no escape potential. The more vapor and greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere (creating that energy imbalance) without any kind of “escape valve” which might be like punching some holes in the metal lid on the jar, the more desperate and hot it gets. Does that make sense?
Also, this is an excellent piece on one of NASA’s websites about our energy imbalance (by James Hansen): http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/briefs/hansen_16/
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