On global warming, we have 12 years left until the point of no return

Most of us will still be alive then. Maybe.

On global warming, we have 12 years left until the point of no return
Koushik Das via Unsplash
  • It's statistically possible to make enough changes to stave it off, but politically it looks unlikely if attitudes at the top do not change.
  • We're already seeing effects from a 1-degree (C) change.
  • What can we do? There are a few things...

The problem, as I see it, is that there isn't the political will to make the serious changes we need to in order to stave this off.

Stave what off, you ask?

It's the point—an increase of 1.5 degrees C or 2.7 degrees F—at which the things that we take for granted, like arctic ice and even the ability to live anywhere near the equator, disappear. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) just issued a report on this that is, well, terrifying.

The report is written by 91 authors and 40 review editors, and it features 133 contributing authors, 6,000 scientific references, and was subject to over 42,000 expert and government review comments before publication.

Members of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meet in South Korea in October 2018.

Photo: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

If we don't reverse the current trends in a huge way, then extreme drought, floods, wildfires, food shortages for millions of people across the globe will be the norm for everybody. Well, except, perhaps, for those living at one of the poles.

"One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1 degree C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes," said Panmao Zhai, co-chair of IPCC Working Group I.

The report tells us we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and net zero—that is, NO increase in greenhouse gas emissions—by 2050.

If we don't? All of what's in the paragraph above, as well as:

  • Coral reefs? Gone.
  • Extreme weather events? So commonplace, we'll forget what it used to be like. (Hellooooo, Michael.)
  • A rise in sea levels of anywhere between 33 to hundreds of feet.
  • The seemingly impossible prospect of humans and other creatures being unable to live anywhere near the equator, because the extreme heat will not be able to support life. (Well, except for those creatures who have adapted to do just that)

Reduction in Arctic Ice, 1980-2018

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center/BBC

We're two-thirds of the way there now, and in 12 years, that is the tipping point at which we cannot affect anything anymore. In other words, that's when it goes beyond a 1.5 degree increase in global average temperatures and the "feedback loop" that is the Earth will deteriorate to a point where we will have no way to stop the process.

In fact, with the course we are currently on, it's going to be double that temperature; we've already seen an increase of 1 degree since pre-industrialization, and there's really nothing slowing it down.

"The window on keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees C is closing rapidly and the current emissions pledges made by signatories to the Paris Agreement do not add up to us achieving that goal," stated Andrew King, a climate science expert at the University of Melbourne.

Reduction in Arctic Sea Ice, since 1980

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center/BBC

The last time I researched this, 2050 was the year that they pegged. Moving that up by 20 years—effectively, the same as moving the atomic scientists' Doomsday Clock ahead by two minutes—makes it seem all that more pressing.

But given the political climate of the world right now, it looks extremely unlikely that we'll do anything about it.

So is it time to invest in beachfront property in Antarctica?

Since 99% of us can't do that, here are some ideas on what you can do, from the UN report.

The report says there must be rapid and significant changes in four big global systems: Energy, land use, cities, and industry. But it adds that the world cannot meet its target without changes by individuals, urging people to:

  1. Buy less meat, milk, cheese and butter and more locally sourced, seasonal food—and throw less of it away
  2. Drive electric cars, but walk or cycle short distances
  3. Take trains and buses instead of planes
  4. Use videoconferencing instead of business travel
  5. Use a washing line instead of a tumble dryer
  6. Thoroughly insulate homes
  7. Demand low carbon in every consumer product.

From "Summary for Policy Makers"

Credit: IPCC

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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