The new year is traditionally a time for resolutions and possibilities. But in my post-holiday blues, I can’t help obsessing about an underreported story of 2012 that portends ominous outcomes for our future.
Among the most neglected stories of 2012, especially given that it was an election year, was the advance of global warming and the climate crisis. The best sources for clear scientific data about our changing environment are the National Climate Data Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Resources Defense Council, which promotes information and advocacy. Both organizations have extensive online data and resources.
The Data Center publishes extensive monthly data on air and sea surface temperatures, sea levels, arctic ice surface area and density (a measure of melting), droughts and wildfires, tropical storms and more. It sounds dry and nerdy but it really makes fascinating reading.
A snippet from the Data Center’s “State of the Climate” report stated that “globally-averaged temperature for November 2012 marked the fifth warmest November since record keeping began in 1880. November 2012 also marks the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.”
The Data Center reports 60 percent of the contiguous United States experienced moderate to extreme drought at the end of November. Although the year-to-date total of 55,505 wildfires was the least since record-keeping began in 2000, the size of those fires (in acreage affected) was the largest ever recorded. From January through November, all 48 contiguous states experienced above average temperatures and below average precipitation.
The National Snow and Ice Data Center reported last summer that the amount of sea ice in the Arctic fell to the lowest level on record. The amount of summer sea ice has declined more than 40 percent since satellites began measuring it in the late 1970s. By 2020, the Arctic may be completely free of ice in the summer months.
In the south, west Antarctica has warmed 4.4 degrees since just 1958, threatening the massive ice sheet there. Meanwhile, land ice, from the Greenland sheet to the Himalayan mountains, is also receding at an accelerating pace.
“It’s hard even for people like me to believe, to see that climate change is actually doing what our worst fears dictated,” Rutgers scientist Jennifer A. Francis told The New York Times. “It’s starting to give me the chills, to tell you the truth.”
A new report funded by the U.S. Geological Survey, “Impacts of Climate Change on Biodiversity, Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services,” has particularly troublesome news about the threat to plants and animals. Climate change is causing many species to shift their geological ranges, altering and even de-stabilizing whole ecosystem structures.
Some plants and animals are moving to higher elevations at rates two to three times greater than originally predicted. Marine life is altering patterns much faster than land species. The report says species “that are unable to shift their geographic distributions or have narrow environmental tolerances are at increased risk of extinction.”
Global warming and climate change are real. The evidence is bountiful and ever-growing. Despite this, little action is being taken to reverse the ominous trends. Global warming deniers are a powerful lobby, backed by fat cat oil and mining interests and, to a larger extent, the ethos of capitalist rapaciousness. I’ll write more on these in future columns.