Summer 2016 has seen some of the scariest observable effects of climate change yet
In 1848, two ships — the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus — sank while trying to navigate through the Northwest Passage. It was brutal: a 900-mile-long sea route punctuated with heavy sea ice that connects the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans through an arctic maze. Neither ship made it. All 129 men on the expedition died.
Last month, the Crystal Serenity, a 14-deck, 820-foot cruise ship, sailed from Anchorage, Alaska to New York City using that same pass, but without the icy obstacles. What was formerly the perilous end of a crew of British Royal Navy sailors is now, for the first time ever, a luxury cruise route.
And it couldn't have happened if a rapidly warming planet hadn't melted away the danger. That's good news for the people who own cruise ships, or have the $30,000 to $156,000 necessary to book passage on such cruise ships — but it's terrible news for the rest of us.
In the last few months, we've witnessed record-breaking temperatures, extreme flooding and an unprecedented mammalian extinction. And unfortunately, that doesn't indicate an anomalous summer. It means we're witnessing the tangible and quantifiable results of global warming.
We reached out to an earth scientist, a biologist and a geologist who agreed that over the past three months the effects of climate change have accelerated, and they've left their mark in three notable ways.
Climate change claimed its first mammalian species.
A June report from researchers at an Australian government environmental group deduced that the Bramble Cay melomys, a tiny rodent found exclusively on an island in the Great Barrier Reef, hadn't been detected since 2009. After an exhaustive search of an island that, during high tide, was only 6.2 acres — down from 9.8 acres in 1998 — the researchers officially declared the species extinct. They pegged "dramatic habitat loss" due to "human-induced climate change" as the cause, marking the first time a mammal died off due to climate change.
Mark Urban, an associate professor from the University of Connecticut's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, said he was shaken when he heard about the report. "The first thing that came to my head was, 'It's happening. This is what we predicted and now we're seeing it occur,'" he said in a phone interview Tuesday. "It's not great news, but maybe this is exactly ... what we need to understand the immediacy of the risk."
"The first thing that came to my head was 'It's happening. This is what we predicted and now we're seeing it occur."
Last year, Urban published a study titled "Accelerating extinction risk from climate change," which looked at over 130 separate studies to figure out what kind of threat the warming planet poses to different species. His findings were what one might expect: Small species living on small islands, like the melomys, or on "sky islands," like the tops of mountains, were at greatest risk of extinction since they probably couldn't survive relocation. It spells disaster for a slew of other small mammals like the American pika, a mountain rock bunny that lives in the Sierra mountains.
If changes aren't made to slow the progress of climate change, said Urban, one in six species will be at risk of going extinct. "The surprise here is the accelerated risk ... if we just keep doing what we're doing," he said. "It's critical we don't get there."
Arctic sea ice levels are now the lowest they've ever been.
In August, scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center released evidence that sea ice levels in the Arctic are extremely low compared to what they were 10 years ago. "Now, we're kind of used to these low levels of sea ice," NASA sea ice scientist Walt Meier said in a press release released by the agency. "It's the new normal."
While species extinction and rampant flooding are the things we can witness with our own eyes, the scariest things are happening somewhere few of us will ever go — but are having an impact all of us can feel all the same. Melting sea ice is the effect that, as the planet warms up, the ice at the top of the planet melts. This isn't news; we've been hearing about the melting polar ice caps for years. But it's gotten so bad that scientists are saying it's entirely changed the ecosystem up north.
"We're seeing the greening of the arctic," Charles Miller, principal investigator for the Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a phone interview Tuesday. "Because of climate change effects at these latitudes, we're seeing increase in plant growth."
Through the course of his team's research in Alaska, Miller has seen temperatures reach absurdly high levels. Last July, the town of Deadhorse, Alaska, set the all-time record high temperature for a town on the Arctic Ocean: 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
"That part of the world should be frozen most of the year," Miller said.
When the northernmost parts of the planet start to emulate beach weather, bigger problems arise, like the melting of permafrost, a usually reliable layer of always-frozen ground. "Permafrost can be harder than concrete — you need special machinery to get through it," Miller said. When the permafrost melts, that infrastructure, which has been solidly frozen for tens of thousands of years, collapses. Land elevation drops. And construction, whether that's pipelines, buildings or entire communities, is compromised.
Because of that phenomenon, the village of Kivalina, Alaska, is practically being devoured by northern waters as its permafrost base thaws beneath it, the sea level inching closer to residents' doorsteps. "They regularly do aerial fly-overs because of the permafrost failure," Miller said. "They're worried the village will literally erode into the water."
The failure of permafrost isn't the only problem with a warming arctic. According to Miller, there are 1,500 billion metric tons of organic carbon frozen in the arctic soil — enough that, as it thaws out, the arctic region could turn into the carbon-emission equivalent of a continent-sized exhaust pipe.
"It's possible the carbon could become mobilized," Miller said. "With the same amount of greenhouse gases we've seen with fossil fuels like coal and oil, there might be natural feedback from permafrost that contributes tens of billions of tons of carbon over the coming centuries."
If tens of billions of tons of organic carbon are released from the frost, it could all end up in the atmosphere — becoming a gigantic and unstoppable source of greenhouse gases.
Climate change has turned extreme flooding into a regular occurrence.
In mid-July, 13 people died when roughly two feet of water pummeled southern Louisiana. A storm like that should, statistically, only have an annual exceedance probability of less than 0.2% — meaning it should only happen once every 500 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The storm was, instead, the eighth of its kind in about 12 months, the latest in a string of storms in Texas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia and Maryland.
Storms in general are getting stronger and more frequent, according to Beth Christensen, Director of Adelphi University's Environmental Studies Program. Higher storm frequency doesn't necessarily mean your town's going to flood — unless the air is full of moisture. Unfortunately, in New Orleans, it was.
"We are in record territory," the National Weather Service said in a statement, after an agency-launched weather balloon recorded astronomical levels of atmospheric moisture.
According to Christensen, there's a strong correlation between higher global temperatures and more intense rain. When you have high heat, you get more evaporation from bodies of water. When you have more evaporation, you have more moisture in the atmosphere, meaning more humidity — or air full of water vapor. So when the storm falls, according to NOAA, that water vapor turns the rain fat and heavy.
"Add this tendency to flood to the higher sea levels resulting from, one, increased melting of ice in the high latitudes, and two, volumetric increases associated with the warmer water, and we can expect more of these events, not fewer, in the future," Christensen said.
Heavy flooding doesn't only knock out power and beat up homes. It hit India's tea crops hard, decreasing production by 7.22% in July, according to the Economic Times. Recently, floods in Jamaica ruined up to $8 million in coffee beans set for export. And in August, flash floods in China destroyed several vineyards, resulting in an "overnight loss" of about 4 million yuan, or around $600,000.
"We can document that these events are anthropogenic," she said, meaning derived from manmade environmental pollution. "This is our new reality."
So is the planet past salvation? Even though there's an "every little bit helps" mentality when it comes to fighting against increased carbon emissions, we're in larger initiative territory if we're going to save the planet: taking cues from countries like Costa Rica, which didn't burn a single fossil fuel to power its electrical grid for two months; converting the U.S.' own power grid to a more efficient, computer-controlled, "smart" technology; and following through on the Paris Agreement, the legally-binding agreement signed by more than 170 countries in April, pledging actions to restrict the planet's temperature rise to under 3.6-degrees Farenheit, widely considered the danger zone. It wouldn't be easy, fast or cheap. But if the last year is any indication, we can no longer afford to be armchair observers in a rapidly changing global event.
"We need to search for alternatives to carbon-based energy systems like fossil fuels," Miller said. "It's having a noticeable impact on the Earth as an entire system."
"It's not enough to think these things are localized," he concluded. "Every action we take has a global impact."