Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
2012 was the eighth or ninth warmest year on record, depending on which dataset you look at, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual State of the Climate report, released today. That is just one of many extreme statistics identified in the survey, which pulls together the most recent information from hundreds of researchers worldwide on everything from temperature to sea level to Arctic ice. Taken together, the report's authors say, the data paint an unmistakable picture of a warming planet.
"In 2012, certainly not every variable we looked at broke a record," Thomas Karl, the director of NOAA's climate data center, said. "I think what we've learned is one has to take a broad look at the climate system."
The heat map above, from the report, shows how 2012 temperatures compare to the average baseline of 1981-2010. While Alaska, parts of Asia, and elsewhere saw a cooler-than-average year, it was the hottest year on record in the contiguous United States (and, relatedly, an insanely expensive year for natural disasters), and temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as the rest of the world. In June, Arctic sea ice minimums reached record lows, and over a two-day period in July more of the Greenland ice sheet was melting at once—97 percent—than ever seen before.
Another landmark was sea level rise: 2012 saw the highest global sea levels ever recorded, the peak of a trend that has seen seas rising just above a tenth of an inch per year over the last two decades. Interestingly, in the last couple years, melting ice (the black line in the graph at right) accounts for twice as much sea level rise as does thermal expansion of warming water (red line). And the sea wasn't just high, it was hot, too: Heat trapped in the top half-mile of the ocean remained near record highs. At the ocean surface, temperatures were among the 11 warmest on record, despite mostly flatlining since 2000 partly as a result of La Niña conditions that cool the sea.
Carbon emissions for the year were also their highest ever: In 2012, the world released roughly 9.7 quadrillion grams of carbon into the atmosphere, about one-tenth the weight of every living thing on Earth, pushing the atmospheric concentration higher, at least in some places, than at any time in human history. Other key greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide, also climbed from the previous year.
Sadly, all these shocking numbers weren't much of a shocker to the report's 384 authors from around the globe, NOAA's Karl said; they merely offer the latest bundle of proof that climate change is happening: "We see ongoing trends continuing."
This week the exiled head of the Syrian opposition movement said he would meet representatives of President Bashar al-Assad in Geneva, a promising turn for a conflict that has left 100,000 dead, including many civilians, since spring 2011. It has been a long, bitter battle, but for many Syrians one root of the violence stretches back to several years before al-Assad's troops began picking off anti-government protestors. Beginning in 2006, a prolonged, severe drought decimated farmland, spiked food prices, and forced millions of Syrians into poverty—helping to spark the unrest that eventually exploded into civil war.
The Syrian conflict is just one recent example of the connection between climate and conflict, a field that is increasingly piquing the interest of criminologists, economists, historians, and political scientists. Studies have begun to crop up in leading journals examining this connection in everything from the collapse of the Mayan civilization to modern police training in the Netherlands. A survey published today in Science takes a first-ever 30,000-foot view of this research, looking for trends that tie these examples together through fresh analysis of raw data from 60 quantitative studies. It offers evidence that unusually high temperatures could lead to tens of thousands more cases of "interpersonal" violence—murder, rape, assault, etc.—and more than a 50 percent increase in "intergroup" violence, i.e. war, in some places.
"This is what keeps me awake at night," lead author Solomon Hsiang, an environmental policy post-doc at Princeton, said. "The linkage between human conflict and climate changes was really pervasive."
Any cop could tell you that hot days can make people snap—last summer veteran police boss William Bratton argued that a warm winter contributed to a rash of murders in Chicago. But Hsiang and his colleagues wanted to see how this pattern held up across the globe, at different times and with different kinds of conflict, to gauge just how much the climate can lead to violence.
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.