Quantcast
Popular

18 Signs That Show We've Reached the Tipping Point

By Bruce Melton

Our planet's systems have a tremendous capacity to absorb punishment before they begin to show signs of degradation. Earth's ecology self-heals like a cut on a finger. It assimilates pollution by chemical, physical and biological means—it changes pollutants into non-hazardous materials and proceeds upon its merry way as if there had been no pollution at all. Up to a point.

Acid rain is an excellent example of how our planet can self-heal. By the late 1960s, the U.S. was emitting so many sulfate and nitrate pollutants (smog) from burning fossil fuels, that sulfuric acid washed from the sky was killing forests and lakes. President Richard Nixon's Clean Air Act stopped about half of the sulfur from going into our atmosphere. This was enough to allow nature to take over again and our forests and lakes began to heal.

Global warming didn't really get started in a big way until the 1950s. Today, the warming rate is seven times greater than it was in the 1950s and the carbon emission rate is four times greater than in the '50s.

That same sulfur pollution that caused all the acid rain in the '60s and '70s is a global cooling pollutant that hides warming. With grossly increasing smog in Asia since about the turn of the century, the results have been that 30 percent of warming that should have occurred has been masked or covered up by global cooling sulfate smog.

It's also a very common misconception that some of the warming is natural. However, until about 100 years ago, our climate was cooling. The planet cooled about 5 degrees F in polar regions near Greenland (half or less globally) over the last 6,000 years. This research comes from mini-icecaps on Baffin Island where easily dateable rooted plants were revealed from melt. In the last 100 years, the temperature on Baffin has warmed about 7 degrees Fahrenheit; 2 degrees warmer than at any time in the last 120,000 years. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1950s.

The extremes we are experiencing now (temperature, rainfall, drought, etc.) will not increase at the same rate as the average temperature. The physics of thermodynamics say extremes will increase nonlinearly. Earth has lost its ability to buffer the warming. As we replace coal with non-fossil fuel alternatives, masking of warming by global cooling pollutants will also disappear, compounding the nonlinear rate of increasing extremes.

We live on a very complicated and dangerous planet that is worthy of great respect and awe. The past year's advances in climate science should urge us to put that respect and awe into practice, taking definitive action against global warming.

1. Extremes

The American Meteorological Society's latest report on weather extremes tells us: "Without exception, all the heat-related events studied in this year's report were found to have been made more intense or likely due to human-induced climate change and this was discernible even for those events strongly influenced by the 2015 El Niño."

Human-caused "anthropogenic" influence was documented in 23 of 28 major global geographic regions. The events included increasing average temperature, warming of winter extremes, decreasing humidity due to warming, increasing dryness, increasing heavy precipitation, increased sunshine, more extreme drought, more extreme tropical cyclones, increased wildfire burn area and intensity, decreased arctic sea ice, more high tide flooding and decreased snowpack.

2. Attempts at Climate Reform

President Obama's Clean Power Plan (CPP), which is the first policy to set a national limit on power plant-generated CO2 pollution, was one of the major developments of 2015. The CPP is almost identical to the U.S. Kyoto Protocol commitment (created in the mid-1990s) of reducing CO2 emissions but the CPP is 18 years behind Kyoto. In other words, the new regulations are no different than they were a generation ago and we have emitted almost as much additional carbon dioxide during the delay. Implementation of the CPP began in June 2015, six years after carbon dioxide was successfully declared a pollutant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In February 2016 however, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the CCP back to Federal Appeals Court to determine if it is legal or not. This is the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court has ever blocked an EPA rule.

The U.S. climate commitment at Paris, 80 percent CO2 emissions reductions by 2050, is 30 percent less than and 30 years behind Kyoto Phase 2, which was supposed to be implemented by 2020. President-elect Trump has threatened to back out of the Paris Agreement and he will also have final say over the CPP when it returns from court. After over 20 years of trying, we remain without meaningful climate pollution regulations, even though the U.S. is the single country that has unarguably emitted a third of all CO2 ever emitted—three times more than China. It is also very important to note that the U.S. is the only country in the world that did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

3. Increasing Wildfires Across Western North America

Work from the Sierra Nevada Research Institute by Anthony Westerling reveals the western U.S. wildfire season has increased by more than 60 percent since the 1970s, from 138 days to 222 days, because of earlier onset of spring. The average burn time has increased nearly 800 percent, from six days to 52 days, because of deeper drying from early snowmelt. Burned area increased an astonishing 12 times (1,271 percent). Human-caused ignition has played a very small role in increasing wildfire trends. Westerling also notes: "Given projections for further drying within the region due to human-induced warming, this study underlines the potential for further increases in wildfire activity."

Work from the University of Idaho and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory led by John Abatzoglou revealed that most of the increase in wildfire across the American West has happened since about 2000 and beetle killed trees are not factored into the trends (40 million acres across the US West has been killed by native beetles since 2000). Abatzoglou said that in 20 to 30 years, so much of the forest will have burned that the annual burn rate will begin to fall even with continued warming, because there will be too little forest left to burn.

4. The Amazon Continues to Emit More Carbon Than it Absorbs

It began in 2005 with a 100-year drought. Then in 2010, there was another, more extreme drought. Billions of trees were killed. As a result, the Amazon is no longer absorbing CO2. Instead, it is emitting it to the tune of 257 megatons annually—more than half of Brazil's annual emissions. The most recent and extensive study of this topic, from 56 researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK, led by Ted Feldpausch, showed the decreasing sequestration was not from drought kill alone, but drought stress induced by higher temperatures was also responsible.

In 2010, I spoke with Leeds University researcher Simon Lewis who performed some of the first work on Amazonia after the 2010 drought. He said billions of trees were killed in the two droughts, and that for all of the trees to decay will take a relatively short 29 years in the rain forest. Lewis continued, "Two droughts like this in one decade will not completely offset the sink within that decade, but three in a decade may." Considering the newer work by Feldpausch shows the flip has already occurred, it's clear that—as so often happens with climate science—the deeper we look, the more extensive the damage really is.

Next Page
Show Comments ()
Sponsored

How Big Is Your Environmental Footprint?

If you want to make a positive change this Earth Day but don't know where to start, one of best things you can do is take an honest look at your environmental footprint. For instance, how much water are you wasting? How much plastic are you throwing out? How much planet-warming carbon are you producing?

Luckily, there are many online calculators that crunch through your consumption habits. While the final tally might be daunting, it's the first step in living more sustainably.

Keep reading... Show less
Shopping at farmers markets can help minimize your waste.

6 Simple Tips to Reduce Waste So Every Day Is Earth Day

Earth Day 2018 is focused on the all-important theme of reducing plastic litter and pollution. Of course, we shouldn't just reduce our plastic footprint, we should try to reduce waste in all shapes, sizes and forms. It's said that the average American generates a staggering 4 pounds of trash every day—but you don't have to be part of that statistic.

Here are six entirely manageable tips and tricks to help you cut waste.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

Earth Day Tips From the EcoWatch Team

At EcoWatch, every day is Earth Day. We don't just report news about the environment—we aim to make the world a better place through our own actions. From conserving water to cutting waste, here are some tips and tricks from our team on living mindfully and sustainably.

Lorraine Chow, reporter

Favorite Product: Dr. Bronner's Castile soap

It's Earth-friendly, lasts for months and can be used as soap, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and even mouthwash (but I wouldn't recommend that).

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Will Rose / Greenpeace

7 Things You Can Do to Create a Plastic-Free Future

By Jen Fela

We're celebrating a huge moment in the global movement for a plastic-free future: More than one million people around the world have called on big corporations to do their part to end single-use plastics.

Now we're taking the next big step. We're setting an ambitious new goal: A Million Acts of Blue.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular

5 Environmental Victories to Inspire You This Earth Day

Planet Earth is at a crisis point. Researchers say we have to begin reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 if we want to meet the temperature goals outlined in the Paris agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change.

The work to be done can seem overwhelming. A survey published this week found that only 6 percent of Americans think we will succeed in reducing global warming.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A fin whale surfacing in Greenland. Aqqa Rosing-Asvid / CC BY 2.0

Iceland to Resume Killing Endangered Fin Whales

By Kitty Block

Iceland seems to be the most confused of nations when it comes to whales. On the one hand it attracts international tourists from all over the world to go out and see whales as part of their encounters with Iceland's many natural wonders. On the other hand it kills whales for profit, with some portion of the kill even being fed to some of the same tourists in restaurants and cafes.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
A.millepora in the Great Barrier Reef. Petra Lundgren, Juan C Vera, Lesa Peplow, Stephanie Manel and Madeleine JH van Oppen

Hope for Great Barrier Reef? New Study Shows Genetic Diversity of Coral Could Extend Our Chance to Save It

A study published Wednesday had some frightening news for the Great Barrier Reef—the iconic marine ecosystem is at "unprecedented" risk of collapse due to climate change after a 2016 heat wave led to the largest mass coral bleaching event in the reef's history.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Lyft

Lyft Announces Carbon Neutrality Drive

Lyft will make all of its rides carbon neutral starting immediately by investing millions of dollars in projects that offset its emissions, the company announced Thursday.

The ridesharing service, which is part of the We Are Still coalition, provides more than 10 million rides worldwide each week. "We feel immense responsibility for the profound impact that Lyft will have on our planet," founders John Zimmer and Logan Green wrote in a Medium post.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!