In Arctic, Ancient Diseases Reanimate and Highways Melt as Temperatures Hit "Frenzy" of RecordsSunday, 21 August 2016 00:00 By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | News Analysis
Support from readers provides Truthout with vital funds to keep investigating what mainstream media won't cover. Fund more stories like this by donating now!
By the time I'd reached the end of my 10 years of reportage on the impacts of the US occupation of Iraq in 2013, it was impossible for me to find an Iraqi who did not have a family member, relative or friend who had been killed either by US troops, an act of non-state sponsored terrorism or random violence spun off one of the aforementioned.
Now, having spent the entire summer in Alaska, I've yet to have a conversation with national park rangers, glaciologists or simply avid outdoors-people that has not included a story of disbelief, amazement and often shock over the impacts of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) across their beloved state.
Whether it is rivers causing massive erosion after being turbo-charged by rapidly melting glaciers, dramatically warmer temperatures throughout the year, or the increasingly rapid melting and retreat of the glaciers themselves, everyone who is out there, seeing the impacts firsthand, has a grave experience to share.
As just one small example, less than an hour's drive from Anchorage, I visited an area where I'd climbed in the past. An old climbing partner had suggested I visit Byron Peak, which is situated not far from both Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound, to witness how much Byron Glacier had retreated since I'd last been there.
To reach the ridge of the mountain I had previously chosen as a climbing route, I had to hike up onto and over the base of the Byron Glacier, which, in 1999, had covered the entire head of the valley.
Now, less than 20 years later, when I got my first view of how dramatically the glacier had retreated, I stopped dead in my tracks. It felt as though I'd been punched in the stomach and I found myself wiping away a tear while I came to terms with the dramatic evidence before me.
What is left of the Byron Glacier is now in full, rapid retreat up towards its source. It has become a micro-example of the macro of Alaska, whose glaciers are losing in excess of 75 billion tons of ice annually, according to NASA.
All is not well in the northlands.
This is because across today's Alaska, temperature records are falling as fast as bird populations are plummeting.
July was the warmest month ever recorded in the state's largest city, Anchorage. Temperatures from the southeastern portion of the state all the way up to the town of Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean broke records; the airport at Deadhorse hit a stunning 85 degrees.
Rick Thoman, a climate science and services manager with the National Weather Service in Alaska, told the media that one of the drivers of the unusually warm temperatures across the state is abnormally warm sea surface temperatures, and added, "In the Bering Sea, especially south of St. Lawrence Island or so, they're really outrageously warm compared to normal."
A recent study showed that the rapidly warming climate across Alaska is causing the loss of large swaths of habitat for several species of shorebirds that migrate to the Arctic on an annual basis. The study showed that two thirds of the species that migrate to Alaska will be impacted, with some of them losing up to 90 percent of their habitat. The warming climate is also causing the birds' food source, insects, to hatch early, leaving a shortage of food for the birds and their offspring, which is further contributing to declining populations.
Even Alaskan highways are feeling the heat.
The famous Alaskan Highway, which has drawn adventure seekers northwards for decades, arcs across British Columbia and the Yukon before making its way across central Alaska to its end point at Delta Junction. But as the permafrost underneath the highway continues to melt at an ever-quickening pace, large fissures, cracks and bulges are causing it to break apart.
"It's the single biggest geotechnical problem we have," Jeff Currey with Alaska's Department of Transportation told a reporter. "The Romans built roads 2,000 years ago that people are still using. On the other hand, we have built roads that within a year or two, without any maintenance, look like a roller coaster because they are built over thaw-unstable permafrost."
It's not just adventure seekers who will be impacted by the deteriorating highway, as it's a critical pathway that is used heavily for transporting food, supplies and medicine to rural Alaskan villages. In an ironic twist of justice, the melting highway is also used by oil companies to transport heavy equipment to what has been the lifeblood of the state's economy since oil was discovered on Alaska's North Slope.
And the signs of ACD across the rest of the Arctic are equally shocking.
In northwestern Greenland, a cold-war era US toxic waste dump of radioactive waste, along with biological and chemical waste, is at risk of becoming exposed as the ice there continues to melt rapidly. Obviously, the government's decision to bury the dangerous waste underneath more than 100 feet of ice did not consider that the ice sheet would become one of the largest contributors to sea level rise during the Anthropocene age.
"If the ice melts, the camp's infrastructure, including any remaining biological, chemical and radioactive wastes could re-enter the environment and potentially disrupt nearby ecosystems," the University of Zurich, which documented these developments in a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, stated to the media about their study.
Over in Siberia, thawing permafrost caused an anthrax outbreak that led to dozens of people being hospitalized and at least one child dying. Two thousand reindeer have been affected thus far and the Russian government has airlifted several families out of the area. The cause of the outbreak? The thawing of a reindeer carcass that had been infected with anthrax decades in the past.
The outbreak occurred on the Yamal Peninsula where, as Truthout previously reported, massive amounts of methane trapped in the permafrost has exploded out of the ground, leaving large craters.
In response to the re-animated bacteria, Russia sent troops trained for biological warfare to quarantine the area.
This type of disease outbreak in the Arctic was previously the stuff of science fiction, but no longer. Climate scientists fear it may well be a harbinger of what is to come as the Arctic continues to warm at a record-breaking pace. Given that there is no way to know what other kinds of deadly bacterium remain frozen in the Arctic's permafrost, we will find out only as the ice melts the bacteria, which will then re-animate as it did in Russia.
All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It truly is just a token of what is to come, as global temperatures continue to escalate.
2015 set a "frenzy" of climate records, according to the Scientific American journal, from the hottest global temperature ever recorded to the single largest increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Yet, 2016 is already on pace to break those records, as the first half of this year has already "blown away" previous temperature highs, according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA).
NASA recently released datathat showed July to be the single hottest month ever in recorded history, beating out the previous hottest month ever recorded, which was July 2015.
We must take an honest, sober look at where the planet is, and what this means for us as a species, along with all other living things on Earth.
2016 is on track to become the hottest year ever recorded. The previous hottest year ever recorded was 2015. The hottest year ever recorded before that was 2014. Every single one of the last 14 months has set a record for the hottest global monthly temperature for that month. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000.
We are amidst a record-setting global coral bleaching event, wildfires continue to set records for frequency, duration, area and heat, and sea ice in the Arctic covered an area last winter that was the smallest since record-keeping began and is currently near the lowest volume ever recorded.
Earth has officially entered the sixth mass extinction and there is nothing to indicate that a global government-coordinated response to cease fossil fuel emissions will occur anytime soon.
As we ponder these facts, this month's dispatch surveys more of the details of what is happening on Earth now, as ACD continues apace.
There is now a scientific study that proves that ACD increases the risk of war. New research by German academics found a statistical link between ACD-fueled extreme weather events and outbreaks of widespread violence.
Meanwhile in Japan, a recent report underscores how ACD is threatening that country's agriculture in very damaging ways.
"If the gravest predictions turn out to be true," reads the report, "by the end of this century, the world could view what are now fairly common products at the Japanese dinner table as either rare luxury items or something that people used to eat, but no longer."
Back in the US, sadly, a recent study revealed how the iconic Douglas fir tree is seeing its growth stunted from warmer temperatures and increasing water stress driven by ACD.
More disconcerting news comes from the Audubon Society, which released a recent report showing that in the Puget Sound area of Washington State, Glaucous-winged seagulls have resorted to cannibalism for nourishment, due ACD-warmed seas making their natural foods ever more scarce.
ACD-fueled drought in Paraguay is one of the driving forces that has caused a major river to run completely dry. The government has declared an emergency and admitted that the entire country is in the midst of an "ecological crisis," as massive numbers of wildlife deaths have littered hundreds of miles of dry riverbed.
Increasingly warm seas are fueling an unprecedented increase in jellyfish around the globe. The numbers are high enough that utility grids are being sabotaged by swarms of millions of jellyfish that clog up water-intake areas, as scientists ponder robot shredders and other possible last-resort solutions.
A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed a "remarkable increase" in the incidence of waterborne illnesses linked to increasing global temperatures, while in Florida, a thick green slime that covered vast swaths of beaches may well become the norm. The slime, which is actually toxic green algaeproliferated by increasingly warm waters, is expected to become a regular occurrence and is predicted to worsen as temperatures continue to increase.
Ever-warming ocean waters continue to prolong an ongoing global coral-bleaching event. In Guam, reefs have been bleaching for the last four years. Coral ecologist Laurie Raymundo with the University of Guam said that prior to 2013, Guam's coral had escaped much of the bleaching that was occurring around the rest of the world. However, Raymundo said, "In 2013, 2014 and 2015, we have gotten hammered, and we're getting hammered again. For the past four years we've had bleaching episodes, and we have not had them to this extent in recent history."
Raymundo estimates that more than half of Guam's coral died between 2013 and 2014, and about 85 percent of the total coral there has bleached. After a recent scuba dive to inspect Guam's coral, Raymundo wrote of the ecological destruction she witnessed: "I consider myself to be fairly objective and logical about science. But sometimes that approach fails me. Today, for the first time in the 50 years I've been in the water, I cried for an hour, right into my mask, as I witnessed the extent to which our lovely Tumon Bay corals were bleaching and dying."
Meanwhile, sea levels continue to rise. The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report recently warning that large areas of US military bases along the Eastern seaboard will be swamped by 2050. The report estimates that tidal flooding and storm surges will increase by a staggering 2,600 percent annually in areas where several bases are located.
Another report from real estate experts predicts that if sea levels rise as much as some climate scientists predict (six feet) by the year 2100, nearly 300 US cities will lose at least half of their homes and 36 cities will be entirely lost to the seas.
As far as sea level goes, bad news for folks living on islands comes from a recent report showing that the last remaining wooly mammoths in North America died off from lack of fresh water when rising seas killed plants they ate and contaminated fresh drinking water. These phenomena will play out for coastal residents as sea levels continue to increase, right along with storm and tidal surges.
In India, the monsoon has become far more intense than normal due to a warmer atmosphere's ability to contain larger amounts of moisture. This was apparent in late July when flooding in northeast India hit more than 1.2 million people and submerged massive areas of farmland.
Meanwhile, in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards recently declared a state of emergency as flooding he called "unprecedented" and "historic" killed at least seven people and caused more than 20,000 people to be rescued. In fact, even the governor and his family were forced out of the Governor's Mansion as chest-deep water filled the basement and caused the electricity to be shut off.
Of the ongoing rescue operations throughout his own parish, Gov. Edwards commented somberly, "We haven't been rescuing people. We've been rescuing subdivisions."
At the other end of the water spectrum, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization warned of being in a "race against time" for at least 23 million drought-stricken farmers in Africa where the southern part of the continent Africa continues to be plagued by massive droughts as ACD progresses. According to the UN, more than 60 million people worldwide, two-thirds of whom are in eastern and southern Africa, already face chronic food shortages due to ongoing droughts.
In Greenland, Ice Sheet continues to melt quickly. NASA recently produced a maprevealing how large areas of Greenland are melting heavily from below. This is alongside ongoing observations of how the surface of the ice is continuing to melt at an accelerating rate.
Roughly a little more than half of the base of Greenland Ice Sheet is now thawed and the NASA report states, "Knowing whether Greenland's ice lies on wet, slippery ground or is anchored to dry, frozen bedrock is essential for predicting how this ice will flow in the future." Given that statement, as ACD intensifies with each passing day, so will the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
In Portugal, unusually high temperatures and weeks of dry weather are fueling wildfires that have burned out of control and killed at least four people. Temperatures that are more typical in the Sahara desert far to the south have plagued much of Portugal, so instead of temperatures being around normal levels in the low 80sF, they have seen highs of 104F.
In drought-plagued California, at least 3,750 fires have erupted across the state since January, a much higher number than normal, not surprisingly. These fires have burned up more than 200,000 acres.
One of them forced the closure of the iconic Highway 1 for a brief time and dozens of homes and other buildings have burned amidst the blazes that are still being fought by thousands of firefighters. According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho, 35 major wildfires have burned over 500,000 acres across the US West thus far.
Warm temperature records continue to be set across the planet.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is looking into the accuracy of a temperature of 54C (129.2F) recorded in Mitrabah, Kuwait in July. If the recording is accurate, it will set a new highest temperature record for the Eastern Hemisphere and Asia. That same month, the rest of the Middle East and much of Northern Africa were scorched by a large heat wave, with Basra, Iraq experiencing a sweltering 53.9C.
Amid scorching temperatures, electricity consumption (namely for air-conditioning) in Taiwan set a record in July. The next day, it set another record. More air-conditioning means, of course, far more CO2 emissions being spewed into the atmosphere -- a recent study has shown that the increase is in the billions of tons, given hotter temperatures around the globe.
July also saw a widespread heat wave across the vast majority of the US, with some areas reaching 115F, according to the National Weather Service. At one point, on July 22, nearly 124 million people (nearly half of the country) were under an Excessive Heat Warning, Excessive Heat Watch or Heat Advisory, according to the WMO.
New illustrations of how quickly temperatures are spiraling out of control have been released recently and are quite sobering to watch. I recommend you watch them, though, to get a sense of the sheer magnitude at which this crisis is hitting.
Denial and Reality
There is never a shortage of instances of ACD denial.
As far as the US election goes, Donald Trump's ACD denial has reached new heights, even for the Republican Party.
Not only does he call ACD a "hoax," he has gone on to state he will rescind President Obama's ACD rules, pull the US out of the climate accords agreed upon in Paris last December, call for more drilling of fossil fuels and, of course, implement fewer environmental regulations, if he is elected president.
Although his opponent, Hillary Clinton, acknowledges the reality of ACD and has incorporated some of the rhetoric of the Bernie Sanders campaign into her platform, she is calling for the building of more roads and airports, which would, of course, only set the stage for even greater amounts of CO2 to be emitted. This is in addition to the fact that she chose Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate.
Kaine supports offshore drilling, as well as the fast-tracking of natural gas export terminals. While he was governor of Virginia, he supported one of the last coal plantsthat was built in the US.
Even if Clinton is elected, the abrupt, mandatory, wide-scale emergency actions necessary to cease most CO2 emissions immediately -- a vital first step towards attempting to mitigate ACD -- are simply not on the table.
Meanwhile, recent polls indicate that a growing majority (66 percent) of US citizens believe ACD is real. At the same time, the number of people polled who believe there is no solid evidence of ACD is now at a record low of 15 percent, down from 24 percent just one year ago, according to recent polling.
Also on the reality front, the State of the Climate report, an authoritative annual summary of the global climate, was recently published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The report details how warm ocean and air temperatures are breaking records, sea levels are reaching all-time highs and CO2 has surpassed a key milestone, as the world continues to be pushed at breakneck speeds into an environment of the kind humans have never experienced.
Meanwhile, leading climate scientists recently warned that the Earth is already extremely close to reaching the 1.5C upper limit of planetary warming, only eight months after that target was set during the Paris climate talks at the end of 2015.
The belief in the Paris climate talks was that by limiting planetary warming to below 1.5C, there would be the chance to prevent the melting of polar ice, limit the destruction of coral reefs and have a chance at preventing extreme levels of sea level increase.
However, it is all too apparent that these phenomena are already well underway and increasing in intensity.