Climate Change gets real
2011 may well come to be seen as a turning point in the story of climate change and sustainability. While denial of climate change has become politically essential for any Republican Presidential candidate in the USA who hopes to be elected, and even in the UK, parts of the media regularly run misleading stories about climate the realities of the world's weather tell a very different story.
It was perhaps the first year in which the effects of climate change became unmissable. Clearly climate change has not “caused” the extreme weather of 2011 but it has increased the amount of energy in the system – creating “weather on steroids” (watch "How 2011 Became a Year of Mind boggling Extreme Weather)
Perhaps the most extraordinary example of just how much more energy is in the system is demonstrated by a NASA report that sea levels worldwide fell by 6 mm last year. This bucks a long term trend of rising sea levels and is accounted for by huge evaporation and unprecedented rainfall around the world.
While the USA's east coast experienced catastrophic flooding Texas was sweltering in one of the worst ever recorded droughts with fire destroying over 1000 homes and scorching more than 3.6 million acres of land. The $5.3 billion dollar drought has hit global commodity prices including beef and cotton and is predicted to continue through the coming year.
More frequent, more extreme weather events has been one of the most widely predicted effects of climate change and last year climate records fell like like confetti. Weather Underground's Dr Jeff Masters blogs that worldwide, floods in Thailand and Australia caused $75 billion worth of damage – the worst of 32, billion dollar plus, weather related disasters while the USA alone experienced 14, billion dollar plus, weather disasters. Fort Belvoir in Washington DC experienced over 7 inches of rain in 3 hours described as a “more than a 1 in a 1000 year event”. Some of the effects of these events can be seen in “Poisoned Weather: Year 2011 in photos”.
2011 was the 3rd hottest summer ever recorded but far more significant is the ratio of record highs and lows of temperature, which would average 1:1 if there was no warming. In the USA these have risen steadily from an average of 1.3:1 in the '90's to 2:1 in the noughties. In 2011 this leapt to a record 2.8:1. See a “Big Picture look at Global Warming” "Climate Change in Technicolour " for good graphs of key indicators of long term climate trends or
While floods have made the news, it is drought that has been the real cause for concern. Crop yields fell across Northern Europe, in some parts of the UK by as much as 30%, China is experiencing it's worst drought for 200 years and over 10 million people in the Horn of Africa are on the brink of starvation. An Oxfam report published in November highlights the risk extreme weather poses to global food security while the the World Bank's “Food Price Watch” estimates that food is 36% more expensive than a year ago and 40 million more people have been driven into into food poverty and famine since June 2010. Climate Progress report that NASA's James Hansen and associates have made a detailed clilimatological analysis showing hot extremes "which covered less than 1% of land area between 1951 - 1980, now typically covers 10% of land area"
Along with the extreme weather, Arctic sea ice reached it's lowest point on record and the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves have been described as melting “100 years ahead of schedule” having already lost “significant volume”. Fears that negative feedbacks from methane trapped in permafrost and seabed deposits of methane clathrates will amplify warming appear to be well founded. Climate Progress makes an in-depth analysis of carbon emissions from the Arctic where the situation has escalated so rapidly there are fears that we may well be close to a climate tipping point. This follows reports that a joint Russian/US survey of the East Siberian Ice Shelf found “huge methane plumes over 1000 metres in diameter” seeping from the seabed.
It's now abundantly clear that climate change is no remote concern for the future but already a serious problem that is having real impacts on eco-systems and on human well being. Could 2012 be the year where attempts to deny climate realities will be defeated by their own absurdity?