Welcome to the Hot—or Cold

It’s not true that nobody does anything about the weather, as Mark Twain claimed. We’re changing it right now.

Earth’s climate, over Deep Time, billions of years, has seen extremes. Unlike rock-solid Mars, the planet we live on is a mushy unsettled place, in which the continents drift, thrusting up huge mountain ranges like the Andes, and the Himalayas. It was very hot over the millions of years there were dinosaurs. Other times it was so cold that the whole planet froze solid. In fact, it’s quite a mystery how we survived Planet Snowball, because Earth should have remained in deep freeze forever, with no surviving life.

But maybe because we have a hot and molten core that moves around and keeps things lively that didn’t happen on our planet. We’re around to tell the story, after all.

It’s not true that nobody
does anything about the weather.
We’ve changed it forever.

In the much more recent past, as the Ice Age was literally grinding to an end a mere 30,000-20,000 years ago, Neanderthals and modern humans didn’t just survive, but thrived. Winter temps in Europe often dropped to fifty below, and storms could drive snow with winds as high as, say, sixty mph. I wouldn’t have lasted a week, even in a nice warm cave. Then, finally, the Ice Age ended.

But if you were floating around Europe about 14,500 years ago, after centuries of warmer weather, you were unpleasantly reminded that things were not going well, weatherwise. The winters were getting longer and more unpleasant. But since your whole life was less than fifty years, you had no way of knowing that it was the beginning the Younger Dryas, a “brief” ten centuries like the Ice Age. All you knew was it was making life damned difficult.

There must have been a huge temperature drop, to cover the land with deep permanent ice again.

But there wasn’t. Actually, if the same temperature change occurred in your home, you might not even notice it. Yet a global change of a few degrees was enough to alter the climate for well over a thousand years.

If the same temperature change
occurred in your home,
you might not even notice it.

I suspect your family tree doesn’t quite reach back to the Younger Dryas, but your more recent ancestors did live through 1815, known as the “Year Without a Summer”. This little digression into misery happened in the midst of two centuries of low temps in Europe called the Little Ice Age, caused by a change in the Gulf Stream. My own people were making their way westward from the east coast to steal Indian land about that time. There was snow on the ground in June. Almost no seeds sprouted, and the few that did yielded nothing. Livestock were slaughtered early, because they had nothing to eat. It was a tough year.

Unbeknownst to nearly everyone in our part of the world, Tambora, a quiet mountain in Indonesia had exploded in the most spectacular volcanic eruption ever, throwing 36 cubic miles of ash into the stratosphere. Skies around the globe were darkened with a reddish tint for well over a year. Yet the global temperature dropped by just 1.5˚F. Pretty touchy, that thermostat.

Today there is trouble in paradise, because we have already jacked the temp up over the past century or so. But no problem, right? We know from the experience of 1815 that all we have to do is keep it from going up more than 1.5˚F.


The more the ice melts,
the warmer it gets,
which melts the ice faster.

It’s already up 1.53˚F. Trouble is, atmospheric greenhouse gasses are higher than they’ve been in tens of thousands of years, and will continue to rise for decades because we’re pumping more of them into the sky than ever. A melting Earth absorbs heat, and greenhouse gasses keep it here in a feedback loop. The more the ice melts, the warmer it gets, which melts the ice faster. At some point it becomes unstoppable. Maybe we’ve already passed that tipping point.

Greenland is covered with ice a mile and a half deep. If it were all melted—which won’t happen quickly—the seas would become 23 feet deeper. On the other hand, if the Antarctic ice sheet were to melt entirely, the seas would be a couple hundred feet deeper. Neither of these things will happen for a long, long time, but while we’re waiting around, ice around the globe that has been frozen solid for centuries is melting faster and faster, including Greenland and Antarctica. It will probably make the oceans at least ten feet deeper by the end of the century.

The sea is already sloshing up in low-lying areas like Miami, where you might find yourself up to your ankles in saltwater, or your car up to its hubcaps. I have friends here in California who at high tide now have to wade through the parking lot to get to their houseboat. People are moving off of low islands in several parts of the world, because high tides regularly wash completely over their property.

Everyone who lives on the seacoast
will have to move to higher ground.
More places will become unbearably hot.

Every coastal region in the world is about to lose land to salt water. It’s already well underway. People who have non-floating homes in these places will have to move to higher ground, where other people already live. Unfortunately, places that are already hot will be hotter. We’ll lose a lot of agricultural land, like California’s Central Valley, because there won’t be enough fresh water to grow crops.

Well, maybe we’ll be “lucky” and have a big eruption of the largest active volcano in the world, making it colder for a while. That would be the volcano under Yellowstone National Park. It could blow any time between today and 100,000 years from now, and we haven’t the faintest clue when. Maybe another Year Without a Summer wouldn’t be such a great idea anyway.

Looks like we’re not about to have another 1815 year anytime soon, and each new scientific report brings worse climate news. Looks like it may be 4˚F  to 7˚F hotter by the end of the century. Looks like the seas will be ten to twenty feet deeper if we’re lucky.

That’s what’s trending.


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