The Eyeball Economy: How Advertising Co-Opts Independent Thought
In what Tristan Harris calls a "race to the bottom of the brain stem," media companies and advertisers will do almost anything to keep your eyes locked where they want them.
Tristan Harris is a design thinker, philosopher and entrepreneur.
Called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” by The Atlantic magazine, Tristan Harris was a Design Ethicist at Google and is now a leader in Time Well Spent, a movement to align technology with our humanity. Time Well Spent aims to heighten consumer awareness about how technology shapes our minds, empower consumers with better ways to use technology and change business incentives and design practices to align with humanity’s best interest.
Tristan is an avid researcher of what influences human behavior, beliefs and interpersonal dynamics, drawing on insights from sleight of hand magic and hypnosis to cults and behavioral economics. Currently he is developing a framework for ethical influence, especially as it relates to the moral responsibility of technology companies.
His work has been featured on PBS NewsHour, The Atlantic Magazine, ReCode, TED, 1843 Economist Magazine, Wired, NYTimes, Der Spiegel, NY Review of Books, Rue89 and more.
Previously, Tristan was CEO of Apture, which Google acquired in 2011. Apture enabled millions of users to get instant, on-the-fly explanations across a publisher network of a billion page views per month.
Tristan holds several patents from his work at Apple, Wikia, Apture and Google. He graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Computer Science, focused on Human Computer Interaction, while dabbling in behavioral economics, social psychology, behavior change and habit formation in Professor BJ Fogg’s Stanford Persuasive Technology lab. He was rated #16 in Inc Magazine’s Top 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30 in 2009.
You can read his most popular essay: How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds – from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist.
Tristan Harris: So we always had an attention economy, whether it was on radio or television there's always been a race for our attention and it's a zero sum game. If one TV station gets more of your attention the other TV station gets less.
But now because we're spending more and more time on screens and there's so many things competing for our attention we really feel it. And in the attention economy with social media and with the Internet and our screens, everything needs your attention. So a meditation app, the New York Times, Big Think or Facebook—they're still all competing for the same currency, which is attention.
And if one guy gets more attention someone else gets less. As an example, the CEO of Netflix recently said that the biggest competitors to Netflix weren't other video sites, he said the biggest competitors to Netflix were Facebook, YouTube and sleep, because at the end of the day it all comes from this limited supply of attention that we get.
And part of that is because of advertising. Because the business model of advertising says I don't just want some of your attention, I actually make more money the more attention I get from you. So I have an unbounded appetite for more of your attention.
And the problem is that as each factor in the attention economy, whether it's a meditation app or it's Snapchat or it's Facebook or Netflix, they start ratcheting up more and more persuasive design choices to stick us to the product for longer and to keep us coming back, to addict us even. And the problem is it becomes this race to the bottom, where the lower I go on the brainstem at getting you to click and stay, the lower someone else has to go.
So when YouTube ads auto play the next video Netflix has to auto play the next video too otherwise they lose out on their attention market share. And so in this zero sum game what we really need to talk about is how do we reorganize the attention economy so it actually aligns with what we want?
Almost like redesigning the urban plan of a city, it's not about leaving this polluted city, it's how can we reorganize the city so it's livable again? How do we create zoning laws so that Netflix competes with other entertainment? How do I help each of us get the best two hours of downtime? And that's different than meditation apps that are competing for how to help people wake up in the morning.
Imagine that those are different zones, both in app stores and on our phones so that it's really about helping us, competing to help us live our lives not competing just to get the most attention.
So, why should we be questioning advertising? This is such a huge deal. Because advertising has, up until this point, propped up much of the tech industry's economy. It's been the cheapest and easiest way to grow and scale a business because you can always figure out new ways of getting attention, and you can find new ways of getting more money per eyeball that spends time with you.
But the costs of it are really just too big, because in a world where I've got your eyeball (and I'm Facebook) and I've got actually a billion of these eyeballs, and I'm asking, “Who wants to pay me the most to put a message in front of this eyeball?”, and in a world where I give that person personal information that would tell them exactly how to persuade this person (and they can persuade them with anything that they want because they know exactly, as for example, with companies like Cambridge Analytica which knew exactly how to persuade you politically), I would be enabling whoever wants to pay me the most to manipulate and influence this person's mind.
And in a world that's more and more persuasive where we know more and more about what influences this person, the ability to simply sell to the highest better whoever wants to persuade them undermines something really fundamental about what of our institutions are based on.
A market is based on a person making a conscious choice to buy or transact. When you can undermine or manipulate the thoughts and attitudes and beliefs of that person then that's really not something we can stand on anymore.
In an election where people have their own thoughts, opinions, beliefs and ideas about a candidate or about a policy—or not even, just about how much they hate each other—and that can be manipulated, then the foundation of an election or a democracy is also questionable.
And so in a world that's more and more persuasive, where it's more about persuasion than it is about advertising, what is the ethically persuasive world that we want to live in? In a world that is on a one way track getting better and better at persuading our minds to believe, feel and have different opinions than we would have had—because it can personalize exactly and tailor exactly messages that would sway us—how do we live in that world when so much of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas and the ability to democratically talk to each other about what the right answer might be?
So we need to question the business model of advertising in the way that it affects that economy.
Attention is a limited resource. There's just 24 hours per human per day, and every advertiser wants it. The attention economy has always existed—penny papers competed with each other the same way streaming services do now—but today we feel it so much more because our devices are no longer plugged into walls; we can take them with us, to have entertainment and knowledge wherever we go. But if only it were just those two things. Tristan Harris, a design thinker and former ethicist at Google, explains how advertising has become increasingly persuasive and tailored in the age of big data. Companies sell users' attention and personal information to the highest bidder, who uses it to manipulate thoughts and beliefs—be it about products or politics—with very little transparency. This critically undermines our free will and democracy. "So many of our institutions depend on us having sovereign minds and sovereign ideas," Harris says. It's time to start rigorously questioning advertising's business model, and reorganize the attention economy to align with public wellbeing. To find out more about Tristan Harris, head to tristanharris.com.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
To understand ourselves and our place in the universe, "we should have humility but also self-respect," Frank Wilczek writes in a new book.
Debating is cognitively taxing but also important for the health of a democracy—provided it's face-to-face.
- New research at Yale identifies the brain regions that are affected when you're in disagreeable conversations.
- Talking with someone you agree with harmonizes brain regions and is less energetically taxing.
- The research involves face-to-face dialogues, not conversations on social media.
There are two kinds of identity politics. One is good. The other, very bad. | Jonathan Haidt<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6f0e52833af5d35adab591bb92d79f8e"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/l-_yIhW9Ias?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Unsurprisingly, harmonious synchronization of brain states occurred when volunteers agreed, similar to <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322764116_Creativity_and_Flow_in_Surgery_Music_and_Cooking_An_Interview_with_Neuroscientist_Charles_Limb" target="_blank">group flow</a>—the coordination of brain waves that hip-hop and jazz musicians (among others) experience when performing together. Coordination exceeds the social, into the neurological. As the team writes, "talking during agreement was characterized by increased activity in a social and attention network including right supramarginal gyrus, bilateral frontal eye-fields, and left frontopolar regions."</p><p>This contrasts with argumentative behavior, in which "the frontoparietal system including bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, left supramarginal gyrus, angular gyrus, and superior temporal gyrus showed increased activity while talking during disagreement."</p><p>Senior author Joy Hirsch notes that our brain is essentially a social processing network. The evolutionary success of humans is thanks to our ability to coordinate. Dissonance is exhausting. Overall, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210113090938.htm" target="_blank">she says</a>, "it just takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree," comparing arguments to a symphony orchestra playing different music. </p><p>As the team notes, language, visual, and social systems are all dynamically intertwined inside of our brain. For most of history, yelling at one another in comment sections was impossible. Arguments had to occur the old-fashioned way: while staring at the source of your discontent. </p>
People of the "left-wing" side yell at a Trump supporter during a "Demand Free Speech" rally on Freedom Plaza on July 6, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images<p>Leading us to an interesting question: do the same brain regions fire when you're screaming with your fingers on your Facebook feed? Given the lack of visual feedback from the person on the other side of the argument, likely not—as it is unlikely that many people would argue in the same manner when face-to-face with a person on the other side of a debate. We are generally more civil in real life than on a screen.</p><p>The researchers point out that seeing faces causes complex neurological reactions that must be interpreted in real-time. For example, gazing into someone's eyes requires higher-order processing that must be dealt with during the moment. Your brain coordinates to make sense of the words being spoken <em>and</em> pantomimes being witnessed. This combination of verbal and visual processes are "generally associated with high-level cognitive and linguistic functions."</p><p>While arguing is more exhausting, it also sharpens your senses—when a person is present, at least. Debating is a healthy function of society. Arguments force you to consider other viewpoints and potentially come to different conclusions. As with physical exercise, which makes you stronger even though it's energetically taxing, disagreement propels societies forward.</p>In this study, every participant was forced to <em>listen</em> to the other person. As this research was focused on live interactions, it adds to the literature of cognitive processing during live interactions and offers insights into the cognitive tax of anger. Even anger is a net positive when it forces both sides to think through their thoughts and feelings on a matter. As social animals, we need that tension in our lives in order to grow. Yelling into the void of a comments section? Not so helpful. <p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Howard et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56316-y#Fig3" target="_blank">paper</a> published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."</p>
Connecting modern people with history<p>It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hear-recreated-voice-otzi-iceman-180960570/" target="_blank">reconstruct the voice of Ötzi,</a> an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told <em><a href="https://www.livescience.com/amp/ancient-egypt-mummy-voice-reconstructed.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>.</em></p><p>As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told <em><a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/ancient-voice-scientists-recreate-sound-egyptian-mummy-68482015" target="_blank">The Associated Press</a>, </em>that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."</p><p>John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told <em>The Associated Press.</em> "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."</p>
In a joint briefing at the 101st American Meteorological Society Annual Meeting, NASA and NOAA revealed 2020's scorching climate data.
A dead heat<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ2MDU4Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzM0MzIwNH0.3NrKDBoOdpFL5IXF3cDbom-Dp2RlrzJgvAciXcb0GDE/img.jpg?width=980" id="69d06" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="886a2617e756181e6a11e20a00b65dff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1266" data-height="654" />
A graph showing the global mean temperatures from 1880–2020 (with the years 1951–1980 serving as the mean baseline).
Credit: NASA and NOAA<p>For <a href="https://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/" target="_blank">its 2020 analysis</a>, NASA gathered surface temperature measurements from more than 26,000 weather stations. This data was incorporated with data from satellites as well as sea-surface temperatures taken from ship and buoy instruments. Once tallied, NASA's data showed 2020 barely edged out 2016 as the warmest year on record, with average global temperatures 1.02°C (1.84°F) above the baseline mean (1951-1980).</p><p>In a separate analysis of the raw data, NOAA found 2020 to be slightly cooler than 2016. This distinction is the result of the different methodologies used in each—for example, NOAA uses a different baseline period (1901–2000) and does not infer temperatures in polar regions lacking observations. Together, these analyses put 2020 in a statistical dead heat with the sweltering 2016 and demonstrate the global-warming trend of the past four decades.</p><p>"The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend," <a href="http://email.prnewswire.com/ls/click?upn=OXp-2BEvHp8OzhyU1j9bSWuwMvMWelqIco5RbfBrouY-2BQCsSv6FnrhBjR9xReGqV57KGOs0rVc5GKMmgs-2FJKbOzjb0sJ6yjzUvrv2w75ulYk3EUck8pSjkzYhoy5ADXO0eOcn7LDjqsHyK2gp2NRf2UysMK-2F9SN4oYUmRylQcRtSUo6-2FcYeK-2B9naUetByXNCR2gF8u_FU3lc-2FvIcVOtjb4iEuBVjFYoW0IRF5dtM-2FDfzzkhmYHO5IVgq387-2BxdHEMunBZ1-2Fy0-2BJDgXnZEYvN604G1TWJfy4M4HKnIouyasgRyWEHIYmPTiDXeFrd9FqRmsl0JQfksEElkp2ITvgyFkkivWV3GiFH7z7tl1cTZ2rNh2c-2FbCRKQxkH4-2BChgYT6uWeYOvXusiC4cDsZkEBvw7lOEdPsPq78JT8F5x5gc5cMRaRJY-2FZ8q8peaKsS7Mfc5OQ6yjyEU5YUHR4QKJ1Fn-2FDuwJ5jk4Gm28sxJZNXX9IEO-2FOHlhyRcJbl6rMWcoeJZDEd-2BM8UJ5ZY-2FYqc1DHevd1Mz-2B1fQ-3D-3D" target="_blank">Gavin Schmidt</a>, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210115103020.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>. "Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important—the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken."</p><p>And they are. According to the analyses, 2020 was the warmest year on record for Asia and Europe, the second warmest for South America, the fourth warmest for Africa and Australia, and the tenth warmest for North America. </p><p>All told, 2020 was 1.19°C (2.14°F) above averages from the late-19<sup>th</sup> century, a period that provides a rough approximate for pre-industrial conditions. This temperature is closing in on the Paris Climate Agreement's preferred goal of <a href="https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreemen" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">limiting global warming to 1.5°C</a> of those pre-industrial conditions.</p>
2020's hotspot was—the Arctic?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ2MDU5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMTA5OTU1MH0.0ZCixGwhHbjmyO6By_eaMI-cXrM2-rsPq32J-pAVWPs/img.jpg?width=980" id="34c94" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="846b12bfa65c6d1b8d0a5b0d0214e091" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1106" data-height="672" />
A map of global mean temperatures in 2020 shows an scorching year for the Arctic.
(Photo: NASA and NOAA)<p>Heatwaves have become more common all over the world, but a region that really endured the heat in 2020 was the <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/arctic-meteorology/climate_change.html#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%2030%20years,climate%20change%20in%20the%20Arctic." target="_blank">Arctic</a>.</p><p>"The big story this year is Siberia; it was a hotspot," Russell Vose, chief of the analysis and synthesis branch of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information, said during the briefing. "In May, some places were 18°F above the average. There was a town in Siberia […] that reported a high temperature of 104°F. If that gets verified by the World Metrological Organization, it will the first there's been a weather station in the Arctic with a temperature above 100°F."</p><p>The Arctic is warming at three times the global mean, thanks to <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/arctic-meteorology/climate_change.html#:~:text=Over%20the%20past%2030%20years,climate%20change%20in%20the%20Arctic." target="_blank">a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification</a>. As the Arctic warms, it loses its sea ice, and this creates a feedback loop. The more Arctic sea ice loss, the more heat introduced into the oceans; the more heat introduced, the more sea ice loss. And the longer this trend continues, the more devastating the effects.</p><p>For example, since the 1980s, there's been a 50 percent decline in sea ice, and this loss has exposed more of the ocean to the sun's rays. That energy then gets trapped in the ocean as heat. As the <a href="https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-ocean-heat-content" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ocean heat content</a> rises, it threatens rising sea levels and the sustainability of natural ecosystems. In 2020 alone, 255 zeta joules of heat above the baseline were introduced into Earth's oceans. In (admittedly) dramatic terms, that's <a href="https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/01/14/twin-cities-scientist-heat-of-5-to-6-hiroshima-atom-bombs-per-second-into-earths-oceans" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the equivalent of introducing 5 to 6 Hiroshima atom bombs</a> worth of energy every second of every day.</p><p>Looking beyond the Arctic, the average snow cover for the Northern Hemisphere was also the lowest on record. Like the Arctic sea ices, such <a href="https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/snow/climate.html#:~:text=Snow's%20effect%20on%20climate,especially%20the%20western%20United%20States." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">snow cover</a> helps regulate Earth's surface temperatures. Its melt off in the spring and summer also provides the freshwater ecosystems rely on to survive and farmers need to grow crops, especially in <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/too-many-trees?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2" target="_self">the Western United States</a>.</p>
Natural disasters get a man-made bump<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTQ2MDU5NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUwMjE0Mn0.R_juvxCWUw-S9RDkAobjXeMn2qMHg-XVgsOHW74Uz-s/img.jpg?width=980" id="51830" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7b3e734e1d03eaec341dca40df0939f0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1123" data-height="672" />
A map of 2020's billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, which totaled approximately $95 billion in losses.
Credit: NASA and NOAA<p>2020 was also a record-breaking year for natural disasters. In the U.S. alone, there were 22 billion-dollar disasters, the most ever recorded. Combined, they resulted in a total of $95 billion in losses. The western wildfires alone consumed more than 10 million acres and destroyed large portions of Oregon, Colorado, and California.</p><p>The year also witnessed a record-setting Atlantic Hurricane season with more than 30 named storms, 13 of which were hurricanes. Typically, the World Meteorological Organization <a href="https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/aboutnames_history.shtml#:~:text=Instead%20a%20strict%20procedure%20has,is%20repeated%20every%20sixth%20year." target="_blank">names storms</a> from an annual list of 21 selected names—one for each letter of the alphabet, minus Q, U, X, Y, and Z. For only <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/18/914453403/so-2020-new-storm-forms-named-alpha-because-weve-run-out-of-letters" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the second time in history</a>, the Organization had to resort to naming storms after Greek letters because they ran out of alphabet.</p>