2018: A Year of Deadly Climate Disasters and an 'Ear Splitting Wake-Up Call'
2018 is set to rank as the fourth warmest year on record—and the fourth year in a row reflecting a full degree Celsius (1.8° Fahrenheit) temperature rise from the late 1800s, climate scientists say.
This was the year that introduced us to fire tornadoes, bomb cyclones and in Death Valley, a five-day streak of 125°F temperatures, part of the hottest month ever documented at a U.S. weather station.
2018 also brought the world's highest-ever low temperature, as nighttime temperatures fell to a sizzling 109°F in Quiryat, Oman, on June 28, smashing a 2011 record-high low.
A startling 95 percent of the oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice is now gone—and we're losing Arctic ice at a rate of 14,000 tons per second, according to recent research, three times as fast as roughly three decades ago.
It was a year notable both for its overwhelming, climate-fueled impacts as well as its gut-wrenching predictions for what climate change still has in store for us if we fail to act. So much happened, frankly, that it's been hard to keep it all straight.
Actively eroding coastal permafrost bluff on Barter Island, located on the northern coast of Alaska, July 3, 2018 Shawn Harrison, U.S. Geological Survey
The year delivered increasingly powerful warnings from scientists and international agencies about the need to shift away from fossil fuels and slash greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S., 2018 saw a presidential administration and Republican-controlled Congress packed with politicians and administrators who refuse to recognize the scientific consensus that the climate is changing because of fossil fuel pollution and other human activities.
(How strong is that consensus? We've known for years that the probability that greenhouse gas pollution is causing climate change is more than 95 percent—and that's according to a panel of 1,300 scientific experts from all over the world who were brought together by the United Nations.)
In fact, in 2018, the Trump administration's own U.S. Environmental Protection Agency published a 1,656 page National Climate Assessment, which warns of hundreds of billions of dollars in damage on the horizon from climate change.
The Trump administration sought to bury that report—but it couldn't bury a UN report, published in October, which warned that we have 12 years to slash greenhouse gas emissions worldwide if we're to stave off the worst impacts of a changing climate.
"This report by the world's leading climate scientists is an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world," UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote in a statement. "It confirms that climate change is running faster than we are—and we are running out of time."
The new @IPCC_ch report is a wake-up call to the world: it confirms that climate change is running faster than we a… https://t.co/FRjtlAsCmv— António Guterres (@António Guterres)1539041730.0
Greenhouse gas emissions had climbed to a record high in 2017, after a three-year period where carbon emissions held relatively steady. Levels of methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, also broke records in 2017, following a relatively steady period of recorded global levels from 1999 to 2006.
"We are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes," added Panmao Zhai, who helped prepare the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for the UN.
Indeed, 2018 brought some of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history—many of them linked to climate change, scientists have said.
In November, Paradise, California suffered a horrific wildfire that killed at least 85, destroyed 14,000 homes and seared images of traffic jams on roads surrounded by walls of fire into the minds of millions, as those fleeing posted terrifying videos of their escapes online.
Escaping the 'Camp Fire' in Butte County youtu.be
In southern California, the Woolsey Fire near Malibu killed three and burned 1,600 buildings, including homes belonging to Neil Young, Miley Cyrus and other celebrities, and leaving a dark scar visible from outer space in NASA images.
"California is vulnerable—not because of poor forest management as DT (our so-called president) would have us think," Neil Young wrote in a statement calling for action on climate change after his home was destroyed. "We are vulnerable because of Climate Change; the extreme weather events and our extended drought is part of it."
The Camp Fire was the most deadly wildfire in the U.S. in a century, spurred by a long-running drought and the spread of tree-killing bark beetles into newly warming regions—which together left 129 million dead trees in the parched state.
Dead trees along a mountain road in the Sequoia National Forest in November 2016U.S. Forest Service
But while some in Paradise plan to rebuild, to literally raise their town from ashes, a less-noticed piece of the U.S. was more permanently wiped off the map. An 11-acre Hawaiian island virtually disappeared below the waves, the victim of sea level rise and Hurricane Walaka.
California was hardly the only place to experience extraordinary wildfires in 2018. The Mallard Fire in Texas in May grew so hot that it formed its own pyrocumulous clouds, or fire clouds, which caused a supercell thunderstorm and one-inch hail north of Wheeler, Texas.
And in July, wildfires burned inside the Arctic Circle following an unprecedented drought, with locals in Sweden comparing the glow from the blaze to the Northern Lights. Horrific wildfires also burned across Greece in July, killing 100 people and forcing hundreds more to flee into the sea to escape the fire.
A #firenado came dangerously close to these emergency vehicles as they battle the Carr fire near Redding, Californi… https://t.co/Ldkky1Sh3a— CNN Weather Center (@CNN Weather Center)1532695429.0
The year began with the Montecito mudslides on Jan. 9, which killed 27 Californians and destroyed 130 homes, after a 200-year rainstorm dumped a half inch of rain in just five minutes onto steep slopes which were stripped barren of vegetation by the Thomas wildfire, which in early January became—at the time—the largest wildfire in California's history. That one-two punch bore the fingerprints of a changing climate.
"It wasn't just the drought; it wasn't just the fire; it wasn't just the rain. It was the compound effect," Leah Stokes, a climate policy researcher at UC Santa Barbara, told The Independent in January, discussing the Montecito disaster. "Climate change causes all kinds of abnormal events—you can really think of it as 'climate disruption' or 'global weirding.'"
Flooding and Hurricanes
2018 saw an unusually high number of violent storms, particularly in the Pacific, which saw "the most intense hurricane season ever recorded," according to Popular Science, including 10 storms that reached Category 4 or 5.
Climate scientists proposed the creation of a "Category 6" for hurricanes more powerful than any yet seen. "Scientifically, [six] would be a better description of the strength of 200 mph (320km/h) storms, and it would also better communicate the well-established finding now that climate change is making the strongest storms even stronger," climatologist Michael Mann told CBS News.
The Atlantic coast was hit by two of the most devastating storms to hit the continental U.S., following a 2017 in whic three Category Four storms, Harvey, Irma and Maria, smashed all records for hurricane damage and did over $300 billion in damage.
A year after Maria, Puerto Rico was still recovering, and the official death toll was recognized this year as 3,057 people—after Governor Ricardo Rossello accepted a report raising the number of recognized deaths from 64.
This year's worst Atlantic hurricanes, Michael and Florence, left much of the southern U.S. underwater at points.
Michael, America's strongest-ever October hurricane, carried sustained winds of 155 miles an hour and struck the Florida panhandle, flattening towns like Mexico Beach.
HURRICANE MICHAEL'S WRATH: Stunning drone footage shows the cleanup in Mexico Beach, Florida, after the storm ravag… https://t.co/uoPGUCly1d— CBS News (@CBS News)1539551429.0
Florence, meanwhile, spurred officials to call for the evacuation of more than 1 million people, then left parts of the Carolinas flooded for weeks, after it slowed to a crawl and deluged more than 8 trillion gallons of water into the region.
"When people say the wildfires, hurricanes and heatwaves they're experiencing are unlike anything they've seen before," Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement in November, "there's a reason for that and it's called climate change."
Even before Florence hit, one study found that the storm would be 50 miles wider, and dump 50 percent more rain, because of the impacts of burning fossil fuels and other greenhouse gas pollution.
Heatwaves and Noreasters
The year started with a prolonged run of winter storms in the Northeastern U.S., including winter storms dubbed Riley, Quinn, Skylar and Toby, which some researchers warned may have been tied to climate change—showing just how inapt the term "global warming" can be. When the jet stream began to wobble, it allowed cold air that would normally be trapped over the Arctic to make its way down to the continental U.S.—making the weather warmer up north and colder farther south.
The cold spell was so pronounced in New York and southern Canada that Niagara Falls froze on New Year's Day.
That freezing weather was followed by a summer heatwave that prompted heat warnings for 100 million Americans in the summer, and caused 93 deaths in Montreal.
More than 30,000 people were hospitalized in Japan for heatstroke as summer temps soared there as well.
And while droughts hit hard in Germany, drying up the Rhine river, Baltimore, Maryland has seen nearly 70 inches of rain. A flash flood in Ellicott City, Maryland, swept away cars as roadways abruptly became rivers.
Flash flooding hits Ellicott City, Maryland youtu.be
"The evidence, if we needed any more, continues to stack up. The record-high heatwaves, record-low Arctic sea ice, above average tropical cyclones and deadly wildfires are an alarm bell impossible to ignore," Jens Mattias Clausen, who represented Greenpeace at the UN COP24 climate talks in Poland, told The Guardian this month. "It's no longer our future that is in peril; our today is at risk."
9 #Renewable Energy Highlights of 2018 https://t.co/roGl0U14Jq https://t.co/RfjHi9UkmK— Clean Coalition (@Clean Coalition)1545966304.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>