Climate Crisis: Visualizing the Effects of Climate Change

future-summer-heat-20140709-001Climate Change means more than just on average hotter temperatures year round. There are also numerous consequences for sea levels, glaciers, weather patterns, weather stability, crop growth, fisheries, wildlife, forest fires, disease, parasites, rivers and fresh water tables. Explaining it can be a challenge, which is why visual tools like tables, maps and charts are so very useful.

Unfortunately, these too can seem bland and technocratic, and fail to capture the true extent and critical nature of Climate Change. Luckily, this past summer, a season that has been marked by uncharacteristically cool and hot temperatures, two particularly useful visual aids have been produced that seek to remedy this. By combining data-driven predictions with aids that are both personal and global in outlook, they bring the consequences of Climate Change home.

1001-blistering-summersThe first is known as 1001 Blistering Future Summers, a tool produced by the Princeton-based research and journalist organization Climate Central. This interactive map illustrates much hotter summers will become by the end of the century if nothing is done to stem global warming. Users simply type in the name of their hometown and the map compares current temperatures in their town to how high they will be and finds the geographic equivalent.

On average, according to Climate Central, daytime summer temperatures will be 4 to 6° Celsius (7 to 10° Fahrenheit) warmer across U.S. cities. That translates to most cities in the U.S. feeling like Florida or Texas feel in the summer today. For example, in the future, Boston will feel like North Miami Beach. And Las Vegas, where temperatures are projected to an average of 111 degrees, will feel more like Saudi Arabia.

dynamics_ccAs you can imagine, changes like these will have drastic effects that go far beyond scorching summers and inflated AC bills. Furthermore, when one considers the changes in a global context, and they will be disproportionately felt, they become even more disconcerting. And that is where the series of maps, collectively known as the “human dynamics of climate change”, come into play.

Developed by the U.K. Met Office (the official British weather forecast service) with the U.K. Foreign Office and several universities, they start with a “present-day” picture map – which shows trade in various commodities (wheat, maize, etc), important areas for fishing, routes for shipping and air freight, and regions with high degrees of water stress and political fragility.

dynamics_ccwThen the maps get into specific issues, based on climate forecasts for 2100 that assume that nothing will be done to stop global warming. You can see, for example, how higher temperatures could increase demand for irrigation water; how parts of the world could see increases and decreases in water run-off into rivers; how different areas are set for more flooding; and how the warmest days in Europe, parts of Asia, and North America are projected to be 6°C warmer.

The poster also has summaries for each region of the world. North Africa, for instance, “is projected to see some of the largest increases in the number of drought days and decreases in average annual water run-off.” North America, meanwhile, is forecast to see an increase in the number of drought days, increasing temperatures on its warmest days, and, depending on the region, both increases and decreases in river flooding.

climate-changeThe overall impression is one of flux, with changing temperatures also resulting in vast changes to systems that human beings heavily rely on. This is the most frightening aspect of Climate Change, since it will mean that governments around the world will be forced to cooperate extensively to adapt to changes and make do with less. And in most cases, the odds of this aren’t good.

For instance,the Indu River, a major waterway that provides Pakistan and India with extensive irrigation, originates in Pakistan. Should this country choose to board the river to get more use out of its waters, India would certainly attempt to intervene to prevent the loss of precious water flowing to their farmers down river. This scenario would very easily escalate into full-scale war, with nuclear arsenals coming into play.

climate_changetideThe Yangtze, China’s greatest river, similarly originates in territory that the country considers unstable – i.e. the Tibetan Plateau. Should water from this river prove scarcer in the future, control and repression surrounding its source is likely to increase. And when one considers that the Arab Spring was in large part motivated by food price spikes in 2010 – itself the result of Climate Change – the potential for incendiary action becomes increasingly clear.

And Europe is also likely experience significant changes due to the melting of the Greenland’s glaciers. With runoff from these glaciers bleeding into the North Atlantic, the Gulf Stream will be disrupted, resulting in Europe experiencing a string of very cold winters and dry summers. This in turn is likely to have a drastic effect on Europe’s food production, with predictable social and economic consequences.

Getting people to understand this is difficult, since most crises don’t seem real until they are upon us. However, the more we can drive home the consequences by putting into a personal, relatable format – not to mention a big-picture format – the more we can expect people to make informed choices and changes.

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Climate Crisis: Bigger Storm Waves and Glacier Collapse

glacier collapseClimate Change is a multifaceted issue, which is due to the fact that there is no single consequence that takes precedence over the others. However, one undeniable consequence is the effect rising sea levels will have, thanks to rising temperatures and melting polar ice caps. Unfortunately, a new paper from Eric Rignot at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory  claims that some glaciers in West Antarctica “have passed the point of no return”.

A section of glaciers along West Antarctica’s coastline on the Amundsen Sea was previously predicted to be solid enough to last thousands of years. However, the JPL report finds that the ice will continue to slip into the water and melt much faster than expected. These massive glaciers are releasing tremendous amounts of water each year, nearly the equivalent of the entire Greenland Ice Sheet. When they are gone, they will have increased sea-level by about 1.2 meters (4 feet).

NOAA_sea_level_trend_1993_2010Rignot and his team came to this conclusion after analyzing three critical factors of glacier stability: slope of the terrain, flow rate, and the amount of the glacier floating in the water. Flow rate was the topic of a paper Rignot’s team published previously in Geophysical Research Letters where they determined the flow rate of these Antarctic glaciers has increased over the last few decades. The current paper discusses the slope and how much of the glacier is actually floating on seawater.

The conclusion he and his team came to were quite dire. As he summarized it in a recent press conference:

The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable. The fact that the retreat is happening simultaneously over a large sector suggests it was triggered by a common cause, such as an increase in the amount of ocean heat beneath the floating sections of the glaciers. At this point, the end of this sector appears to be inevitable.

rising_sea_levelsAnother recent study, which appeared last month in the journal Nature, addressed another major problem threatening the polar ice caps. This study, which was compiled by researchers from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and The University of Newcastle, found that ocean waves that are whipped up by storms hundreds or even thousands of miles away from Earth’s poles, could play a bigger role in breaking up polar sea ice and thus contributing to its melt more than had been thought.

According to the study, these waves penetrate further into the fields of sea ice around Antarctica than current models suggest, and that bigger waves might be more common near the ice edges at both poles as climate change alters wind patterns. Incorporating this information into models could help scientists better predict the patterns of retreat and expansion seen in the sea ice in both Antarctica and the Arctic — patterns that are at least partly related to the effects of climate change — the researchers say.

glacier_collapseSea ice, as its name would suggest, frozen ocean water is, and therefore differs from icebergs, glaciers and their floating tongues called ice shelves – all of which originate on land. Sea ice grows in the winter months, and wanes as summer’s warmth causes it to melt. The amount of ice present can influence the movement of ocean currents — on average, about 9.7 million square miles of the ocean is covered with sea ice, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

Researchers in Australia and New Zealand wanted to see how the action of big waves — defined as those with a height of at least 3 meters (about 10 feet) — might play a role in influencing the patterns of retreat and expansion, and if they could help improve the reliability of sea ice models. Prior to this study, no one had measured the propagation of large waves through sea ice before because the sea ice is in some of the most remote regions on the planet, and icebreaker ships must be used to plow through the thick ice.

Live blog on Artic sea ice : Sea Ice MinimumTo conduct their research, Alison Kohout – of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the lead author on the study – went on a two-month ocean voyage with her colleagues to drop five buoys onto the sea ice that could measure the waves as they passed. It is thought that the ice behaves elastically as the waves pass through, bending with the wave peaks and troughs, weakening, and eventually breaking.

What the team found was that the big waves weren’t losing energy as quickly as smaller waves, allowing them to penetrate much deeper into the ice field and break up the ice there. That exposes more of the ice to the ocean, potentially causing more rapid melting and pushing back the edge of the sea ice. The researchers also compared observed positions of the sea ice edge with modeled wave heights in the Southern Ocean from 1997 to 2009 and found a good match between the waves and the patterns of retreat and expansions.

NASA_arctic-antarctic-2012Essentially, more big waves matched increased rates of sea ice retreat and vice versa. And while they believe that this might be able to help researchers understand this regional variability around Antarctica, Kohout and other researchers agree that more work needs to be done to fully understand how waves might be influencing sea ice. Kohout and her colleagues are planning another expedition in a couple of years. and it is hoped that subsequent studies will help identify the relationship with larger ice floes as well as the Arctic.

One thing remains clear though: as we move into the second and third decade of the 21st century, a much clearer picture of how anthropogenic climate change is effecting our environment and creating feedback mechanisms is likely to resolve itself. One can only hope that this is the result of in-depth research and not from the worst coming to pass! It is also clear that it is at the poles of the planet, where virtually no human beings exist, that the clearest signs of human agency are at work.

And be sure to check out this video from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that illustrates the decline of glaciers in Western Antarctica:



Environment Alert: Atmospheric CO2 Reaches Record High

airpollutionIt’s no secret that humanity, like all terrestrial organisms, has a symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s environment. And whereas the fortunes of entire civilizations and species once depended upon the natural warming and cooling cycle, for the past few centuries, human agency has an increasingly deterministic effect on this cycle. In fact, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, just 250 years ago, human industry increased the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent.

And now, it seems that humanity has reached a rather ignominious and worrisome milestone. Working at the Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric research facility, scientists announced Friday that for the first time in millions of years, the level of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million on average over the course of a full 24-hour day. The last time there were these kinds of CO2 levels was approximately 3 million years ago, and that has many worried.

co2_levelsFor some time now, climatological scientists have warned of the dangers of reaching this limit, mainly because of the ecological effects it would have. The Kyoto Protocol, an attempt during the late-90s to curb fossil fuel emissions on behalf of the industrialized nations of world, specifically set this concentration as a target that was not to be surpassed. However, with nations such as Canada, the US and China expressing criticism or pulling out entirely, it was clear for some time that this target would not be met.

And as mentioned already, the planet has not seen these kind of CO2 levels since the Pliocene Era, a time of warmer temperatures, less polar ice, and sea levels as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than current levels. If conditions of this nature are permitted to return, the human race could be looking at some very serious problems in the near future.

trafficFor starters, much of the world’s population and heavy industry is built along coastlines. With sea levels reaching an additional 60-80 feet, several million people will be displaced over the course of the next few decades. What’s worse, inland areas that have river systems connected to the sea are likely to experience severe flooding, leading to more displacement and property damage.

Those areas that find themselves far from the coast are likely to experience the opposite effects, increased heat and dryness due to increased temperatures and the loss of cloud cover and precipitation. This in turn will result in widespread drought, wildfires, and a downturn in food production. And let’s not forget that rising temperatures also mean the spread of disease and parasites, ones that are typically confined to the tropical areas of the world.

china smog 2013 TV bldgIf any of this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because that is precisely what has been happening for the past few decades, and with increasing frequency. Record hot summers, food shortages in several parts of the world, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, the West Nile Virus, Avian Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, rising sea levels – these are all symptoms of a world where increasing output of Greenhouse Gases mean increasing temperatures and ecological effects.

But of course, before anyone feels like the situation is hopeless, this news does come with a silver lining. For one, the confirmation that we have now reached 400 ppm is likely to spur governments into greater action. Clearly, our current means are not working for us, and cannot be counted on to see us into the future. What’s more, a number of clean energy concerns are well under way, providing us with viable and cost effective alternatives.


The growth in solar energy in just the last few years has been staggering, and carbon capture technology has been growing by leaps and bounds. What’s more, upstarts and clean energy labs no longer need government support, though public pressure has yeilded several positive returns in that area. Even so, crowd-funding is ensuring that growth and innovation that would not be possible a few years ago is now happening, so we can expect the current rate of progress to continue here as well.

And of course, geoengineering remains a viable possibility for buying our planet some time. In addition to clean energy (putting less CO2 in the air), and carbon capture (removing the CO2 there), there are also a number of possibilities for Global Dimming – the opposite of Global Warming – to slow down the process of transformation until we can get our act together. These include evaporating oceanic water to lower sea levels and ensure more cloud cover, triggering algae blooms to metabolize more CO2, and dumping sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the air to combat the warming effect.

But in the end, nothing short of serious and immediate changes will ensure that decades and centuries from now, the ecological balance – upon which all species depend – is maintained. Regardless of whether you think of humanity as the masters or the children of this planet, it’s clear we’ve done a pretty shitty job in both capacities! It’s time for a change, or the greatest natural resource in our corner of the universe, Earth itself, is likely to die out!