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18 Signs That Show We've Reached the Tipping Point

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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.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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