Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
How will the world end? A giant meteor? Zombie apocalypse? Death Star target practice!? One scientist thinks our planet's death knell is going to be climate change, on an epic, terrifying scale...but, fortunately, not the kind we need to worry about.
The "runaway greenhouse"—which is thought to have happened on Venus in the past—is basically a climate change worst-case scenario: We reach a critical point where the atmosphere is so thick with greenhouse gases that no sunlight can escape back into space, the planet heats uncontrollably, the oceans evaporate completely, and things get, well, pretty uncomfortable, to put it mildly.
"Everything is really quite dead at that point," Colin Goldblatt, a planetary scientist at Canada's University of Victoria, says in a chipper English accent. Goldblatt has been working to understand whether a runaway greenhouse could ever happen on Earth. Scientists have long believed that even with extreme greenhouse gas concentrations, our sun simply doesn't heat the planet enough to trigger this effect. But using a series of custom computer programs that model incoming sunlight, greenhouse gas concentration, radiation absorbed by water vapor, and a host of other physical factors, Goldblatt has revised that threshold down, and in a paper published today in Nature Geoscience says that a runaway greenhouse could kick off with the amount of sunlight we get today.
"What we're seeing now is that if you pump the atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, you could make the planet so hot it would never be habitable again," he says. Taken to its conclusion, he explains, the runaway greenhouse would produce a new atmosphere with global temperatures around 2,420 degrees Fahrenheit, which would make even the Northeast heat wave of the last couple weeks feel like a vacation into a meat freezer.
So is it time to forget about rising sea levels and start to look for a new planet to inhabit before ours boils into the next Venus? Not quite. Goldblatt expects this kind of transformation to take place in about a billion years, regardless of human activity. The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide needed to tip the scales—about 30,000 parts per million, according to Goldblatt—is far beyond what humans are capable of contributing. Indeed, that's about 10 times what CO2 levels would be even if we quickly burned through all the remaining fossil fuels. (Right now we're at about 400 ppm, which is already bad.)
"There's no evidence that human action could cause this," Goldblatt says.
What's it like to stand by as your house is ripped from its foundations and hoisted six feet in the air? "It's a dream come true," says Sue Graf, who owns a getaway cottage in Gloucester County, Virginia. "It's surreal. It's exciting," she says. "This is the eighth summer of worrying about flooding with all the storms. We finally don't have to worry about that any more." So we rigged the house with cameras for the event. Watch above as Expert House Movers—a company that has been raising houses with the help of FEMA grants for about four years—excavate Sue's house, and elevate it onto a new foundation.
In Part Two, below, watch Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard explain why this historic stretch of the Virginia coastline, some of the first areas in America to be settled by Europeans, is so susceptible to sea level rise. "It's becoming very real here," says Skip Stiles, the executive director of Wetlands Watch. "If you want to see what's going to happen to your East coast city, come here, because we're getting it now. This is America's coastal future here."
Noah Oppenheim's plan was simple: Rig a young lobster underneath a waterproof, infrared camera; drop the contraption overboard off the coast of Maine; and see who comes along for a bite to eat. The takers, he expected, would be fish: cod, herring, and other "groundfish" found in these waters that are known to love a good lobster dinner. Similar experiments conducted in the 1990s showed that apart from being snatched up in one of the thousands of traps that sprinkle the sea floor here—tools of this region's signature trade—fish predation was the principle cause of lobster death. Instead, Oppenheim, a marine biology graduate student at the University of Maine, captured footage that looks like it comes straight from the reel of a 1950s B-grade horror movie: rampant lobster cannibalism.
Warming waters can cause lobsters to grow larger and produce more offspring, and the last decade has been the warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine. That, combined with overfishing of lobster predators and an excess of bait left in lobster traps (see info box below), has driven the Maine lobster harvest to thoroughly smash records that stretch back to 1880. One of the side effects of this boom, Oppenheim says, is cannibalism: There are countless lobsters down there with nothing much to eat them and not much for them to eat, besides each other.
Lobsters are known to chomp each other in captivity (those rubber bands you see on their pincers are more for their own protection that the lobstermen's), but Oppenheim says this is the first time this degree of cannibalism has been documented in the wild (oh, yes, we've got the footage; check out the video above). From his remote research station on rocky Hurricane Island, floating in the lobster-grabbing chaos off nearby fog-shrouded Vinalhaven Island (one of Maine's top lobstering locales), Oppenheim has seen that young lobsters left overnight under his camera are over 90 percent more likely to be eaten by another lobster than by anything else.
While the lobster boom is clearly a terror for the lobsters themselves, it's no picnic for the people here whose families have made their livings off lobster since before the Revolutionary War. Lobster prices are down to lows not seen since the Great Depression, taking a serious pinch out of profit margins already made slim by high labor and fuel costs. Even more unsettling is the prospect that the boom could go bust: Southern New England saw a similar peak in the late 1990s, followed by a crash that left local lobstermen reeling for years. Maine's lobster experts worry that their state is next.
Even more unsettling is the prospect that the boom could go bust.
A crash here could have devastating results. Starting in the late 1980s, lobsters began to dominate Maine's seafood catch: In 1987, they made up 8.6 percent of the total haul; by last year, that number had climbed to more than 40 percent. In part, the industry's dependence is due to the fact that, increasingly, there's an abundance of lobsters and a deficit of anything else. But at the same time, the state's fishing permit system favors single-species licenses, so many lobstermen are locked into that product, a change from earlier decades where fishermen changed their prey from season to season.
In order to survive, experts say, Mainers will need to get creative with their tastes. For that, maybe they can take a cue from the lobsters themselves.
"Whenever we sit down to write our stuff, we always say, 'Man, this is the stupidest shit'—but then when it all comes together, it works!" On that note, Michael Thurber ends his break and heads back into Terminus Recording Studios, which is something of a landmark in the Manhattan Theater District. Paul McCartney and Liza Minnelli have recorded here. It's in the same building where Tupac Shakur was shot five times.
It's also where Thurber's crew, CDZA (Collective Cadenza), creates musical videos with a meta twist. "The Beatles Argument," for instance, features a lovers' quarrel sung almost entirely in Beatles lyrics.
"Hip Hop Shopping Spree," a three-minute rap medley, is accompanied by a calculation of the cumulative retail value of the songs' product placements—almost $57 million. One video samples the history of misheard lyrics, from Carl Orff to Pink. Another chronicles the history of wooing and seducing men in song, ranging from Aretha Franklin ("A Natural Woman," 1967) to Riskay ("Smell Yo Dick," 2008).
And another takes the theme song from the '90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and translates it into foreign languages and then back to English using Google Translate; the broken lyrics are performed to violins and a rhythm section.
Natural reefs like this one in Florida protect billions of dollars in real estate, the study shows.
Among the hundreds of recommendations listed in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $20 billion plan to protect New York from climate change is a call to stock up on oysters. Not the kind you'd want to knock back with a nice pilsner on a Friday afternoon: The idea is to build large underwater oyster reefs around the harbor that could prevent coastal erosion and absorb storm surges. "Soft" infrastructure like this—reefs, wetlands, dunes, and other "natural" systems—is gaining in popularity over "hard" levees and sea walls as an effective way to insulate cities from sea level rise.
Turns out, some of the best of these defenses might already be in place: Yesterday the journal Nature published the first-ever nationwide maps that reveal just how much existing coastal habitats are going to save our butts from rising seas and wild storms. Remove reefs, coastal forests, marshes, kelp beds, and other coastal habitats, the study finds, and twice as much coastline and 1.4 million more people will be highly exposed to climate risks.
Stanford marine ecologist Katie Arkema and her colleagues pulled a vast trove of data—Census Bureau population stats; property values from real estate site Zillow; wave and wind exposure data from NOAA; published climate models; and maps of coastal ecosystems from the scientific literature—and mixed them together to visualize where these natural systems offer the most, or least, protection.
The map below shows where the greatest risk from sea level rise and storm surge will be in 2100, based on models from the 2013 National Climate Assessment. Red areas represent not just places where sea levels are projected to rise the most, but also factor in the presence of protective offshore habitats; the type of shoreline (beach, cliff, etc.); and the spot's exposure to wind, waves, and other weather. Coastal southern Florida, for example, which is generally expected to get inundated by sea level rise, actually appears yellow, because of its abundant ocean-absorbing wetlands. Except Miami, that is: That city, the little red dot at the bottom right corner of the state, is still screwed. But things could be worse. The inset bar graph shows how many more people would be in high-risk red areas if those natural barriers were removed; in Florida, roughly an additional 300,000 people would be exposed, in New York another 300,000.