Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Great Pause Week 37: Thanksgiving

"Storytelling elevates our group skill set, but sometimes myths evolve over time and become more lurid, fanciful, or real-sounding."

“They … brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things… They willingly traded everything they owned… They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… . They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

Bradford was only following in the tradition of Columbus, whose barbarism appalled even the Pope. A law unto himself, there was no Pope or King to sanction the Massachusetts Governor.

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.


Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Great Pause Week 36: Vaccinating Viral Affluenza

"Can a global population of 8 to 10 billion people be fed, sheltered, kept healthy, and still have iPhones?"

Haudenosaunee, Two-Road Wampum, early 18th Century

Whether humans will be able to reverse catastrophic climate change in time to avert their own extinction depends upon many unknowns and a few unknowables. Like Operation Warp Speed to discover a coronavirus vaccine, studies and clinical trials have helped us to better understand what will or won’t work. We know that tree planting alone won’t suffice. We know that everyone switching to grass-fed beef wouldn’t save us either. We know that there are no magic bullets in solar radiation management or direct air carbon capture systems. Decarbonizing energy and transportation are necessary but insufficient. If we add it all together — do everything we can — we still have some major, possibly insurmountable, hurdles and the biggest one may be our addiction to the “progress” we made to become an affluent, wasteful, globalized consumer culture.

That sort of “progress” is merely an illusion. Along the way we two-legged ones lost what the Haudenosaunee call “the original instructions.”

Take progressive agriculture. Only under intensive management (i.e., irrigation, fertilization, biodomes, greenhouse production) can cropland productivity be made to exceed the natural potential of the same land, and only for short sprints. (DeFries 2002). The amount of photosynthetic productivity, hence food that can be grown, on large-scale cropland is consistently less than is produced by the natural vegetation it replaced, independent of landcover type or region (Haberl 2007). The difference, of course, is that the former requires the scaffolding of banks, price controls, taxpayer subsidies, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, heavy equipment and all the international trade that goes into it, and liquid (fossil) fuels and lubricants. The latter requires land and the labor to hunt and gather, although much less labor than the former.

There is a science fiction meme we often read in books or see in films — a distant world designed to take food production away from nature and place it into climate-controlled laboratories so as to remove the guesswork. Think AeroFarms, Soylent Green, or Aismov’s ecumenopolis of Trantor. Trantor is a fictional headquarters planet of the Galactic Empire: 

Its surface of 194,000,000 km2 (75,000,000 sq mi, approx. 40% of Earth’s surface area), implying a radius of around 4000 km (somewhere in between the Earth and Mars), was, with the exception of the Imperial Palace, entirely enclosed in artificial domes. It consisted of an enormous metropolis (an ecumenopolis) that stretched deep underground, and was home to a population of 45,000,000,000 (45 billion) human inhabitants at its height (although Second Foundation mentions a figure ten times that of administrators alone), a population density of 232 per square kilometer (600 per square mile, similar to the current population density of Germany or Connecticut). Its population was devoted almost entirely to either administration of the Empire or to maintenance of the planet itself, including energy provided by “heatsinks” (geothermal core taps) and production of food via underground farming and yeasts, as described in Prelude to Foundation

In non-fictitious science, the potential for increasing productivity beyond that provided by natural vegetation has always been short-term and energy-intensive. Moreover, mechanized production quickly upsets balances of atmospheric nitrogen, freshwater and marine algae, and nutrient cycling. It disrupts the structure and natural succession of the biotic community, mutualism and resistance to parasites and invaders, and the resilience of a farm system confronted by weather weirding and wildfire catastrophe. (Odum, 1985) 

Take away abundant cheap energy from non-renewable sources and the ability to maintain an ecological house of cards disintegrates. Switching to renewables to power farm machinery doesn’t change this. 

It is useless to waste time and money designing or building genetically modified monoculture tree plantations to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Growing mixed age, mixed species, climate adaptive polycultures with natural rates of regeneration is the best way to optimize drawdown over the long term. Designing and testing ways for humans to inhabit such systems in reciprocal, regenerative, socially viable ways will be the delightful opportunity of the 21st century.

Which brings us back to the arguments made by opponents in the early days of organic farming pioneers Albert Howard, Eve Balfour and J.R.Rodale, or by the same sort of arguments evoked to rail against solar power — “ these woo-woo newcomers can’t possibly match the production output that a modern industrial society requires. How will they feed (or supply energy to) 8 billion people?”

The opponents were probably right, at least in one sense, but the neglected externalities in their short-term computations undermine their argument. Externalized were the negative effects of addiction to growth (to return interest on capital); social degradation, toxic pollution, plummeting biodiversity, soil loss, and climate chaos.

Mother Nature knows best.

So how do we maintain or further the science and technology gains we have made since we emerged from our caves when the ice melted? Can a global population of 8 to 10 billion people be fed, sheltered, kept healthy, and still have iPhones?

I think there is a scenario where that could work. Stephen Gaskin used to call it “technicolor Amish.” But we need some more context.

My first encounter with this subject came from the campus lectures of Dr. Barry Commoner circa 1968–70. Commoner claimed that the culprit for the growing environmental crisis was neither population growth nor rising affluence. His 1971 bestseller, The Closing Circle, claimed that 95 percent of the blame lay in “faulty” technology, ie: bad design. He laid out this formula:

pollution = (population) x (production/capita) x (pollution/production)

Commoner thought, as many of us did in the 1970s, that 100% renewable energy via wind and solar would fix the problem. A rebuttal of that thesis by John Holdren and Paul Ehrlich, “Impact of Population Growth” was published in Science in March, 1971. Stanford professors Holdren and Ehrlich took the position that population, affluence, technology, and socio-economic variables interact and that neglect of any of them, or of their interactions, is dangerous. In an article for The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1972, they modified Commoner’s formula to IPAT:

I (impact) = P (population) x A (affluence) x T (technology) 


I + delta I = (P + delta P) x (A + delta A) x (T + delta T) 

which accounted for evolving trends seen in the variables. Delta values would include, for instance, politico-socio-technological vectors such as viral affluenza, Ponzinomics, peak everything, and addiction to growth. 

To get back into sync with the planet’s boundaries, IPAT must have at least one component that has a minus sign. A and T could conceivably continue to rise if P were far enough to minus. A and T could also rise if their environmental costs declined to minus. Regeneration, where it can still be found, is a reverse (positive) impact. If A or T were to go minus that would likely compel P downward. Minus T does not imply minus A, nor does minus A imply minus T or P but those are all possible outcomes. What is important to remember is that it is always a zero sum game because we live on a finite planet.

In 1971, Holdren and Ehrlich gutted Commoner’s idea that technology was all that mattered:

“In fixing the blame for environmental deterioration on faulty technology alone, Commoner’s position is uncomplicated, socially comfortable and, hence, seductive. But there is little point in deluding the public on these matters; the truth is that we must grapple simultaneously with overpopulation, excessive affluence, and faulty technology.” 

Responding to a recent research note by Holdren, who went on to become President Obama’s Science Advisor, Rainforest Alliance founder Randy Hayes offered this set of 2020 imperatives:

  1. Degrow the Economy 6%/year: Begin the public cultural, social, and economic discussions and formal planning necessary to reduce fossil energy and material consumption (economic throughput) by up to about 70 percent globally (80 in higher-income and 50 in lower-income countries respectively) [Rees 2019]. This is consistent with achieving the IPCC (2018) goal of almost 50 percent fewer carbon emissions by 2030 and requires 6 percent per year reductions beginning immediately. [My own estimate is 11% per year from 2020–2030.]
  2. Overconsumption Reduction: A one-Earth lifestyle for today’s population requires that humans (living like contemporary North America) learn to thrive with about 80% less strain on the biological capacity of productive land [von Weizsäcker 2009]. Steady state, circular economies with low-impact lifestyles can be and need to be achieved. [The Global Ecovillage Network has demonstrated the Hayes idea is not only feasible but a more enjoyable lifestyle. Tens of thousands of working examples in every possible social demographic now prove the point with real-world experience.]
  3. Numbers Reduction: Recognize that Earth is over-populated even at 2020 average material consumption. Implement a global fertility strategy to humanistically reduce the population to the 2–3 billion people that might be able to live in material comfort on this already much-damaged planet. [This third recommendation has been tried more or less successfully by several countries but has become a political football. Many regard the very idea of limiting family size as oppressive.]

I am struck by how human intransigence when given these realities and offered the peaceful transition path of decroissance (de-growth) bears similarities to the general response to the Covid pandemic, especially in Western countries such as the USA, UK, and Spain. Many prefer economic normalcy over life itself. We would rather die, or inflict death upon others, than simplify our lives and take the medicine, or wear masks.

Shortsighted civilization design has given us profound creature comforts —even the lowest status citizen can aspire to greater affluence and leisure than the kings and pharaohs of ancient times. Many view that as a natural endowment. Or, perhaps because our species is superior to all others. Or, perhaps because its superiority means it can break the rules. But perhaps our good fortune is because we have never truly faced consequences of the kind now accruing, and ignored.

A safe pathway out of this still remains open for a time. We just have to recover the original instructions.


Ehrlich, Paul R. and John P. Holdren. 26 March 1971. “Impact of population growth”, Science, vol. 171, pp 1212–1217.
Ehrlich, Paul R. and John P. Holdren. May 1972. “One-dimensional ecology”, Bull. Atomic Scientists, pp 16,18–27. 
DeFries R. 2002. Past and future sensitivity of primary production to human modification of the landscape. Geophysical Research Letters 29. doi:10.1029/2001GL013620.
Haberl H, Erb K-H, Krausmann F, Gaube V, Bondeau A, Plutzar C, Gingrich S, Lucht W, Fisher-Kowalski M. 2007. Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 12942–12947. 
McPherson, Guy R. The Means by Which COVID-19 Could Cause Extinction of All Life on Earth. Environ Anal Eco Stud. 7(2). DOI: 10.31031/EAES.2020.07.0
Odum, E.P., 1985. Trends expected in stressed ecosystems. Bioscience, 35(7), pp.419–422.
Rees, William E. March 2019. “End Game: The economy as eco-catastrophe and what needs to change” Real-World Economics Review.


Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Great Pause Week 35: Why Climate Solutions Will Fail… or Not

"70 million USAnians voted for Krusty the maniacal clown instead of Mr. Rogers. Is it that we genetically crave that kind of entertainment?"

Image after Victoria Van, Tiger Times student newspaper in Texarkana

Last week I took a look at the McPherson Paradox and explained why it failed the real-world test of the Covid Pandemic. Some may believe that my conclusion was that McPherson’s general theory of near term human extinction (NTHE) was discredited, so I want to take time this week to explain why that is not the case.

While McPherson’s conclusions about the clathrate gun and global dimming are reasonably to be called into question, I believe his conclusions about the social dimension of the problem are fundamentally sound and support his overall NTHE thesis, if not his timeline.

The ongoing rate of temperature rise indicates that the climate of Earth will resemble that of the Pliocene Epoch as early as 2030, even ignoring the aerosol masking effect and many self-reinforcing feedback loops. The mid-Pliocene was more than 2 °C warmer than contemporary Earth. The rate of change foreseen by Burke et al. is occurring rapidly enough to assure the inability of vertebrates and mammals to adapt, thus leading to extinction of humans and most other life on Earth well before 2030. I am not suggesting there will be humans on Earth in 2030. Rather, it seems unlikely there will be any life on Earth at, or shortly after, that time.

— Prof. Guy McPherson, Environ Anal Eco Stud. 7(2). DOI: 10.31031/EAES.2020.07.000656

The reason I believe this has much to do with our recent election in the United States, where some 70 million USAnians voted, without coersion or duress, to return President Cobblepot and his Gotham crime family to the White House. Fortunately for the planet, he needed more than 75 million votes to best his opponent and did not get that last 5 million. It also has to do with the response to the Covid Pandemic that we see acted out in the streets of many countries. 

I posted something to Facebook last week about how N95 masks work to electrostaticly trap virus particles and received an angry screed from a dear friend in Bolivia. The screed elicited many more comments and from that colloquy it is possible to illustrate why I think the response to the pandemic is but a foreshadow of our NTHE trajectory.

My friend wrote:

I do not believe that there is a pandemic, but a scamdemic that is incarcerating healthy people in their homes, making them sick, poor, and eager to commit suicide. I believe that governments are complicit and that they are taking peoples’ rights and freedoms in the name of this plandemic and through the everyday spreading of fear among the population. If you read what they are doing in Spain, following the EU, they will control the spread of any article or news talking against C19. 
… it is all a big f….* hoax. The base for their numbers is mainly the PCR test, which can only show traces of RNA of any of the 7 coronaviruses we know, 4 of them being the common flu. This is the trigger for a complete takeover and the start of the Great Reset and The World Economic Forum’s agenda.

Another friend in Thailand wrote to tell me he was providing me “factual data, expert opinion and comprehensive analysis.” He then gave a summary of thirty facts that “strongly contradict the official narrative and raises serious questions about the need for, and effectiveness of such drastic reactions as those that have been imposed by most governments around the world.”

I will be the first to acknowledge that the forced limitation of face-to-face contact has caused tens of millions to become involuntarily unemployed, along with the closure of many markets and devastation of many industries, especially in the independent small business sector. Retail merchandising, travel, hospitality, entertainment, restaurants, bars, gyms, and personal services (hair salons, massage) have been especially hard hit. A huge proportion of small enterprise is closing and will never be able to reopen. Remaining retail sectors are increasingly going online and virtual platform businesses and networks are thriving — companies like Google, Amazon, E-bay, PayPal, Facebook, Apple, and Uber.

Race, ethnicity, social status and caste play a huge role in whom among us can work from home or behind a plexiglass shield. Many protective measures exempt those who work as janitors, maids, meat-packers, prison guards, or checkout counter clerks. We don’t very carefully protect Uber drivers, Amazon packing line workers, or postal clerks and letter carriers. Your risk of dying from Covid depends not only on what your job is, but whether it carries health benefits, is indoors, and involves large amounts of random personal contact. We have known since the Plague of Justinian that those who can afford to flee to a private villa and just wait it out with their servants have a better chance of survival. Some things never change.

I think the two communications from my friends fairly summarize the disconnect many people feel with national and international attempts to bring the pandemic to heel. Many see it as merely the latest example of governments’ intrusive overreach towards some unobtainable security goal. These friends don’t trust the vaccination program for the same reason they don’t trust government assurances of peace through war or energy security through atomic power — too many lies.

So let us imagine the new US administration sets up a White House Office on Climate Change. Asked to make recommendations, the science is clear but the politics is a third rail. Science tells them to even have a 50–50 chance of bringing Earth back to the safe habitable zone in time to avert human extinction, CO2 emissions need to be reduced by 11% per year — halved every decade. From a starting point now of 40 GtCO2/y (global emissions of 40 billion tons per year of carbon dioxide and its equivalents of other trace greenhouse gases), we need to get to 20 by 2030, 10 by 2040, 0 by 2050. Then, because we waited too long to start the process, we need to withdraw legacy carbon at the same rate as growth, inverted — minus 10 by 2060, minus 20 by 2070, minus 30 by 2080 and so on, until we stabilize at a pre-industrial concentration, successfully withdrawing approximately 1.5 trillion tons from the atmosphere.

If my friends — and the many citizens of like mind in many countries — chafe under the heavy hand of their government in mandating masks, travel restrictions, home quarantines and vaccination, what might we imagine would be their response to halving their use of transportation, electrical appliances, land, and more — every decade? Imagine half the number of energy draining server farms by 2030, and half that again by 2040. Imagine half the semesters abroad programs, half the trips to the mall, half the cargo ships carrying goods from China, and then halve that again, and again.

I think it is reasonable to conclude, as both McPherson and I do, that people won’t cooperate. They’ll toss out the tight-fisted, socialist scoundrels and elect people who promise to return 20th-century greatness again. And so our grandchildren shall all perish from the heat and the storms. And so will many, or even most, other life forms on Earth.

I could leave this essay to end here, but I won’t. There is still a way out. It is only a faint glimmer of hope, a flicker of light, but it is there. We could change our minds, roll up our sleeves, and work this out together.

 Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.


Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Great Pause Week 34: Dragon Dimming

"Pandemic lockdowns curtailed jet travel, closed shops and schools, and reduced global dimming by more than 20%. So what happened then?"

 There was a famous experiment on May 21, 1946 that cost the Manhattan Project physicist Louis Slotin his life. In 2016, Alex Wellerstein revisited it for The New Yorker

Slotin’s procedure was simple. He would lower a half-shell of beryllium, called the tamper, over the core, stopping just before it was snugly seated. The tamper would reflect back the neutrons that were shooting off the plutonium, jump-starting a weak and short-lived nuclear chain reaction, on which the physicists could then gather data. Slotin held the tamper in his left hand. In his right hand, he held a long screwdriver, which he planned to wedge between the two components, keeping them apart. As he began the slow and painstaking process of lowering the tamper, one of his colleagues, Raemer Schreiber, turned away to focus on other work, expecting that the experiment would be uninteresting until several more moments had passed. But suddenly he heard a sound behind him: Slotin’s screwdriver had slipped, and the tamper had dropped fully over the core. When Schreiber turned around, he saw a flash of blue light and felt a wave of heat on his face.

Subsequent calculations put the total number of fission reactions at about three quadrillion. This radioactivity excited the electrons in the air, which, as they slipped back into an unexcited state, emitted high-energy photons — a blue flash. Slotin swept the tamper aside to end the reaction, but it was already too late. He had been machine-gunned by a billion atomic bullets and a wave ray outside the visible spectrum. His bone marrow was already reacting like microwave popcorn. The man who assembled the heart of the Trinity device died nine days later, at the age of thirty-five.

In 2020, humans tickled the dragon’s tail in a different way. A paper published in Nature Communications in 2019 calculated that as little as a 20% reduction in industrial activity will drive a 1°C spike in temperature within days or weeks by removing the cooling effect of aerosol pollution (global dimming). The estimate, taken from improved satellite instruments, doubled the risk cited in the most recent IPCC report (AR5) so was greeted with skepticism. Then came Covid.

Pandemic lockdowns in the Spring of 2020 curtailed jet travel, closed schools, stores and restaurants, brought birdsong back to cities, and converted previously busy superhighways to cannonball race tracks. It also reduced global dimming by more than 20%.

According to pre-pandemic knowledge as epitomized by the 2019 Nature Communications paper, losing global dimming should have brought an average global surface temperature rise of 0.5 to 1.1°C, and precipitation increases of 2.0 to 4.6 percent, along with an uptick in extreme weather. This would all happen within weeks to months, not years to decades. 

Alarmingly relevant, a research note from Hansen and Sato on October 14 reported a steeper than expected rise in global surface temperature for the past 5 years. After eliminating the usual suspects — greenhouse gases, solar gain, ocean warming, ice melt — they concluded “that the warming acceleration must be due to the one other large climate forcing, atmospheric aerosols” (specifically, their diminishment). In other words, dimming had already been underway due to pollution controls or economic downturn prior to Covid and warming was picking up as a result.

But then the October issue of Nature contained an article by 14 climate scientists who studied global dimming between early February and the end of June. Google mobility trends which track phone movements indicated that more than 80% of the population in the 114 countries in the dataset (4 billion people) reduced their travel by more than 50%. Home energy use increased 4% while air pollution from industry declined. The Nature paper reported that while reduced sulfur emissions weakened the cooling effect by 20%, which should have been a cause for concern, the drop in nitrogen emissions (NOx) reduced greenhouse warming as much as 30%, cancelling the SO2 effect and possibly making the Earth a little cooler than it otherwise might have been. Because of built-in lag times, they expect further reductions of upper atmospheric CO2 around 2 ppm in two years’ time. If we see that in the Mauna Loa data it should validate this finding. The paper went on to discuss the difference to climate change depending on whether the economic recovery to Covid-19 is driven by a green stimulus package or an increase in fossil fuel use.

The pandemic lockdown tickled the dragon’s tail only to discover fears of the McPherson Paradox (kicking the fossil habit speeds warming) are perhaps overblown.

We came away considerably better for this experiment than Louis Slotin did in 1946. Once the US election is decided, we can go full steam ahead with the Green New Deal.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Great Pause Week 33: Explosive Cyclogenesis

"Biophysical inertia, technological lock in, and the socioeconomic addictions we hear parroted in the speeches of our political candidates condemn us to this self-inflicted fate. "

From a thatched palapa here I have been watching the weirding of the weather—a viral phenomenon of a different sort. At this writing, Las Vegas has seen 198 consecutive days without rain. Parts of California have gone 204 days. In October temperatures across half of the USA dropped to 40 degrees below normal. Thousands of birds were found dead throughout the western United States due to the weather. The year also saw record wildfires and devastating droughts, landslides from heavy rains, and new dust bowls. In late October Colorado firefighters were battling the largest blaze in state history amidst swirling ash and… snow.

For the past four billion years, Earth has been producing unique lifeforms. Probably it will continue doing that until the rock on which we stand is drawn closer to the collapsing star it circles. Six times in that great span there have been extinction events. Life was pared back to something simpler. Eventually, conditions recovered and the process of evolutionary expansion resumed. We are in the sixth event now. We do not yet know if there will be any recovery this time. We still have agency and for better or worse our agency grows more powerful by the year.

Over the past 1.2 million years (a.k.a the Late Quaternary), Earth’s surface temperature rose and fell as ice ages waxed and waned. Not every cycle followed precisely the same pattern but they were broadly similar, until now. We won’t be experiencing the old cycle again for quite some time, probably millions of years. We have pushed the hot extreme to a new high mark and the cold extreme is unknown — likely much warmer; potentially a habitable cool; possibly not. We are conducting a large biogeophysical experiment with no predetermined outcome.

One summer evening a year or two ago, ecosystem regenerate John D. Liu leaned over our table in a cafe in Covent Garden to show me a ground-penetrating radar view of ancient watercourses in the Arabian Peninsula. Pointing to a geological lake bed at the edge of the Eastern Mediterranean, he described how all the freshwater drainage of the Peninsula had converged.

After a few thousand years tilling most fertility out of the lush savannas of the Levant and felling the cedars of Lebanon, formerly migratory, now stationary, bipedal mammals had begun changing the climate of Earth. The Arabian Peninsula and Fertile Crescent desertified, and when that happened, the winds flowing eastward across the Mediterranean reversed direction. Where once there had been reliable monsoons to re-wet the area from Ash Sharqia to the Zagros, now the winds drained down from the mountains of present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan and flowed towards the Atlantic. The wind change created a reinforcing feedback. Desertification accelerated. 

The Anthropocene had started. 

However, because the orbit and tilt of the Earth predisposed us to glaciation every hundred millennia, the tools of early humans merely countered natural cooling trends. We stabilized into a geological epoch, the Holocene, that would be the envy of Goldilocks. Not too hot, not too cold, just perfect for the expansion of a warm-blooded, fecund, mammalian species.

The reforestation of Europe brought about by the Mongol Invasion from 1220 CE (~700 megatons of CO2 drawdown) and of the Americas in the Columbian Encounter (~10 gigatons of CO2 drawdown) were minor perturbations compared to the Industrial Revolution. Now we melt ice in the Arctic and change the net reflectivity (albedo) of the planet. The darker ocean stores more heat, and that in turn changes the way the polar vortex — the circulation of air contra to the spin of the planet — moves. The stream meanders. The October blizzards and freezes just experienced across half of North America were a southward dip of the vortex. Drought and wildfires break out when the river of air swings north.

In late October I sat quietly at the desk in my one room palapa watching the approach of Zeta via I had only just returned to the island from the mandatory evacuation for Hurricanes Gamma/Delta but remained for Zeta because there was simply not enough time to evacuate safely, given how quickly it developed. Zeta was the seventh Atlantic storm since July to hit the meteorologists’ definition for rapid intensification. The term coined by climatologists is “explosive cyclogenesis.”

But really, Zeta’s cyclogenesis started 130,000 years ago in the Western Levant, when we sedimented in that giant lake, using irrigation and the plow. Today the wind that blows across the Sahara carries tiny bits of sand, some of them the memories of ancient fortresses, temples and granaries. Those grains become seed kernels of raindrops, clouds that drift west along the Tropic of Cancer until they encounter warmer water in the mid-ocean doldrums and assume a counterclockwise cyclonic motion in the Eastern Caribbean. That is how most Atlantic Hurricanes reach my island.

Sometimes the waters of the Central Atlantic become so warm that hurricanes will form spontaneously without taking days and weeks to cross an ocean. On October 15, 2005, an unusually large, monsoon-like circulation organized itself into a tropical cyclone east-southeast of Grand Cayman, in the Western Caribbean. In the span of just 24 hours, Hurricane Wilma intensified from a 60-knot gale to a 160-knot category 5 hurricane, a then unprecedented event and the origin of “explosive cyclogenesis.” When Wilma made landfall on October 22 it dumped 62 inches of rain on Mexican coastal cities and collapsed many beachfront hotels.

In 1988, I asked M.I.T. meteorologist Kerry Emanuel, whose interests tilted towards hurricane events, whether climate change would increase the frequency, not just the power, of 21st century hurricanes. He didn’t think so. I thought he was wrong but kept it to myself. 

On November 1,  Eta, the 28th named storm of 2020, tripled in strength in just over a day, explosively intensifying from 40-mph gusts Sunday morning to sustained winds of 120 mph Monday and 150 mph on Tuesday—only 5 mph shy of Category 5. A couple weeks ago, Gamma produced Category 1 winds and even as the rain fell, we learned about Delta taking shape and undergoing explosive cyclogenesis to Category 4, tracking directly in Gamma’s wake. With almost no advance warning, I had less than a day to secure everything and get off the island before Delta arrived. When I returned a week later, I cleared pieces of some distant neighbors’ roofing tiles from the path to my door, counted the dead amongst plants and wildlife, and removed spoiled food from the fridge to the soggy compost. Then explosive cyclogenesis replayed, not once, but twice more. Eta tied the 2005 record for named storms and the season runs until Nov. 30.

Last year I elevated my floor above the then-risen Atlantic waterline and this year I changed my roof from thatch to biochar ferrocement. There are other improvements needed, but at least, for now, I seem to be keeping pace. In UN-speak its called “adaptation.”

Away in the Arctic, things appear to be speeding up. I experienced Gamma, Delta and then Zeta, but Epsilon swung north before it reached my part of the ocean. Epsilon “transitioned” to a North Atlantic “extratropical cyclone” before reigniting into a zombie hurricane.

Arctic Sea ice is not refreezing in October for the first time since measurements began. The warming of the Arctic slows the jet stream and lets it meander. On October 26, Epsilon’s remnants in the North Atlantic merged with an extratropical storm south of Iceland, absorbing each other into something unfathomably humongous that pounded Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Scotland with 9–12 meter (30–38 feet) waves. Fortunately for much of Northern Europe, wind shear broke Epsilon apart before it went any farther.

The broad channel of arctic air imaged by satellite folded into the two merging cores

Possibly one or more “sting jets” could develop. A sting jet is a relatively localized jet of rapidly descending cold air inside a deep extratropical cyclone. It affects a small region, compared to the size of the cyclone, and lasts only several hours, but can wield tornado-strength winds in excess of 160 km/h. 

Fortunately for much of Northern Europe, a steering high from the Azores will push Zombie Epsilon north until wind shear breaks it apart.

Banksy, Show Me The Monet

Banksy, Show Me The Monet

Even if, with carbon dioxide removal, we could return to 220 parts per million CO2, we are at the beginning of new climatic conditions and a profoundly different biosphere. Biophysical inertia, technological lock in, and the socioeconomic addictions we hear parroted in the speeches of our political candidates condemn us to this self-inflicted fate. A few decades ago we might have stopped the slide, but it is too late now. We’ve passed numerous forks in the road — Kyoto; Copenhagen; Rio + 20 — and chosen to go the wrong way, each detour taking us further off course and locking in delayed consequences. We are unwilling to strangle the parrot.

Antarctic sea ice loss is now irreversible because of heat accumulation in the Southern Ocean. Felled forest conversion to grassland augurs warmer soils, increasing microbial respiration, releasing CO2 and methane at greater rates. Ocean methane hydrates bubbling to the surface decompose a million years of microbial and abiogenic exhalations in every summer season. Peat and permafrost carbon that require millennia to regenerate can burn away in hours. Fires release more carbon from soils than from burnt trees and it won’t be replaced in a few seasons, or even a few centuries.

As the Arctic heats up, it raises sea levels in Miami and Bangladesh and every other coastal city in the world, and it increases the odds of wildfires in California and the west. In a sense, the massive changes that are taking place in the Arctic are remaking the weather in America and northern Europe, with profound implications for everyone who lives there, whether they know it or not. 

 — Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone, 2018 

The future all these signs portend was represented in Figs. 1 and 2 of the PNAS paper by Steffen, Rockstrom, Richardson, et al, Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene (2018). Beyond a planetary stability threshold, intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks control the dice. At 2°C the dice get loaded by tipping elements that raise the temperature further, increasing the likelihood of further tipping elements joining in. The game switches from dice to dominoes. Even if the Paris target of a 1.5 °C to 2.0 °C rise in temperature is met, a cascade of feedbacks can push Earth onto a “Hothouse” pathway. 

There are, even now, ways back, and cascades that accelerate the return. There are good people showing the way, including John D. Liu. Ecosystems can be regenerated. The tools nature provides are still functioning. But we will need to perform repairs while adapting to changed conditions. I write this having just experienced a third explosive cyclogenesis in the Western Caribbean in a single month. I’m adapting.

For human civilization as a whole, we will not have a lot more time to make changes.


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