New science shows humans have left the stable patterns of former climates. From the Stockholm Resilience Center, Owen Gaffney explains. As Australia burns with heat, Tasmanian scientist David Bowman reveals great regions of the world where fire will strike.
They call it “the great acceleration”. In 1950 human activity departed from the old cycle of ice and warmer times into a new geological age. We don’t know what it will be like, or how far it will go toward an ice-free world. But now we have the formula – in new science presented in this program.
Then we go to Australia, where burning heat has created the ultimate fire conditions. That will happen more and more not only in Australia, but in North America, the Mediterranean and Russia. We’ll talk extreme fires.
I’m Alex Smith. Get ready, with Radio Ecoshock.
OWEN GAFFNEY: SAY GOODBYE TO “NORMAL”
Continuing human interference in the natural systems of Planet Earth could lead to, quote, “abrupt changes in the Earth System that could trigger societal collapse.” That is not from a conspiracy blog, but in a scientific journal article published February 10th, titled “The Anthropocene Equation“. There is a lot more in that big picture, from authors Owen Gaffney and Will Steffen.
Owen Gaffney has a technical background as an astronautic engineer. He’s a hybrid between an author of scientific papers, and a communicator of big science issues. Gaffney aids the Future Earth Project. He’s also the director of international media and strategy at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
From Stockholm, we welcome Owen to Radio Ecoshock.
In 2014, we had German journalist Christian Schwagerl announce the Anthropocene with his new book. This new study shows that human influences of all kinds now dominate the equation of how and how much natural systems will morph. Our impacts are not just carbon emissions, but land changes, species eradication, ocean acidification, alteration of the nitrogen cycle – it’s a huge long list. Our impacts are so huge, the former drivers of climate change now amount to about “zero” in the formula.
In past ages, the influence of the tilt of the Earth toward the sun, the gravity of other planets, shifting continents and large volcanic events created long patterns of alteration between the ice house and greenhouse worlds. Unless an asteroid strikes, or a large chain of volcanoes go off, humans are determining the future on this planet.
Of course, that won’t be true forever. Human civilization will eventually crash as all do. Fossil fuels will most likely run dry, or at least dwindle to insignificance. Even so, these authors say, the geological footprint of humans will be still visible millions of years from now.
The Earth has experienced hothouse worlds before. As scientists have told us on Radio Ecoshock, the Earth was more or less ice-free for the majority of the history of the planet. So what’s the problem? First of all, we mammals and the life-support systems we know appear to have evolved to fit in a world with polar ice caps. Our bodily cooling systems and our crops assume that. The geologic record also shows that when a major shift toward warming occurs, there is a mass extinction of species. We may already be in the sixth great mass extinction event.
In 2009, I interviewed Anthony Barnosky from the University of California, Berkeley about his book “Heatstroke”. His 2012 paper “Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere” is referenced in this paper. Steffen and Gaffney write: “Sustained human pressures risk abrupt exiting of the glacial–interglacial limit cycle of the late Quaternary, and ushering in Earth’s sixth great extinction event.” Should that not be dominating the news, instead of President 45?!!
THE GREAT ACCELERATION
Our guest Owen Gaffney explains the development of our awareness of the speed-up of all human impacts that began around 1950, after the Second World War. Here is my nutshell version of what Gaffney told us.
The appreciation that we were in a new age may begin in 1999, when Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, also known in the UK as “John”, told scientists that human impacts must now be added to all formulas for natural systems. In the year 2000, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer announced the Anthropocene.
In 2004, scientists at International Geosphere/Biosphere project produced a series of 24 graphs based on data since the industrial revolution. All of them showed a huge upward ramp around 1950. That might include greenhouse gases, but also industrial activity, mining, land-clearing and deforestation, and more. Twelve of the graphs were socio-economic.
The term “the great acceleration” was coined at a scientific meeting in Germany in 2006.
In 2015, Gaffney, Will Steffen and others updated those graphs to 2010. The Acceleration continues. In terms of rapid climate impact, humans are the arriving asteroid.
While population growth is a driver, it has less impact than increasing production and consumption. The impacts of the top 10% of humanity is much greater than the other 90%.
I can’t get past Figure 2 in this new paper by Gaffney and Steffen. On one side is a kind of universe of climate change with ups and downs of temperature. But we seem to have left that orbit for spaces unknown.
I also became a little frightened reading this sentence from the paper, quote: “A stable Anthropocene basin of attraction is speculative. Beyond it lies a greenhouse attractor.” In this interview Gaffney explains what that means.
The heart of this new paper is a formula. I won’t try to reproduce it here, although if you follow the key for the symbols, it’s not impossible for the untrained person to understand. The formula allows us to measure the speed of the great acceleration. In an article at futureearch.org, the authors says “the rate of change in climate driven by industrialised societies is 170 times faster than the rate of change driven by natural forcings. And it is in the opposite direction.”
You can forget about the “coming ice age” that deniers trumpeted in You tube videos. The possible cycle of an ice age has been canceled. Instead, we get the Anthropocene. In a slight ray of hope, Gaffney says we don’t yet know whether the Anthropocene can stabilize at some resting point, or whether it travels inevitably into a new greenhouse world. That’s the place of no ice at the poles, sea levels at least 70 meters higher than now, a vast grassland where the Amazon rain forest once stood, and tropical creatures swimming in the Arctic Sea above Canada. We don’t know if it will go all the way, and we certainly don’t know how far humans can survive along that path.
Ironically, Gaffney and Steffen work at the Stockholm Resilience Center. Their job includes finding ways to make human civilization, or at least humans, more resilient. But if the worst happens, the massive and too-rapid shift of climate could overwhelm any possibility of resilience. We don’t know. But of course, we have to try.
In the conclusion, this paper says, quote: “It remains unclear whether anthropogenic forcing is significant enough to drive the Earth System into a greenhouse state.”
In addition to their work at the Stockholm Resilience Center, Gaffney and Steffen are also part of the futureearth project. Be sure and explore both web sites, because they are rich with information and action. One of their tasks is the Global Carbon Project.
Find another article about this paper here.
DAVID BOWMAN: EXTREME FIRE EVENTS
In recent years, extremely dangerous and damaging fires have dominated the news in many parts of the world. Just last month, a major forest fire ripped through Chile. Last year the oil sands city of Fort MacMurray Canada was almost destroyed. Are mega fires increasing? Will we see even more as the world warms?
There’s new research out about that. The title of a paper published February 6, 2017 in the journal Nature is “Human exposure and sensitivity to globally extreme wildfire events“. We’ve reached the lead author, Dr. David Bowman.
David Bowman is Professor of Environmental Change Biology, at the University of Tasmania’s School of Plant Science. He’s a visiting Fellow or Adjunct Professor at three other Australian Universities.
This interview could not be more urgent! Southeast Australia has just suffered through a long spell of intense heat. Fire officials there say the bush is “tinder” and in the most extreme fire danger possible. Unfortunately, David’s paper is needed badly.
David Bowman has a special personal drive to understand fire behavior. He lived through the terror fire of 1967. The Tasmanian capital of Hobart was devastated. Sixty two people died. That fire lives on in memory.
Just a couple of years ago, the world saw the images of a family huddled by a dock in Tasmania, while the sky roared with fire above them. We heard less about fires in a rare endangered rain forest on the other side of the island. There are trees and other life forms there that are prehistoric.
But the mainland of Australia has seen the worst bush fires, among the worst in the world for populated areas, right up there with Siberian fires and the Canadian Fort MacMurray “beast”.
EXTREME FIRE AS A SOCIAL EVENT
It turns out from this study, that global fire risk under climate change is not evenly distributed. Some places are far more likely to experience extreme fire events. Topping the list on the world maps are: Southeast Australia, Western North America, and the Mediterranean.
The Mediterranean is a special case. Previously, the form of agriculture helped keep fires in check. Now many of those farmers left for the cities. As farms grow back, they are more likely to burn.
In North America and Australia a co-existing cause is simply people moving into the woods, as they get more financially mobile. People want the trees, the cleaner air. That puts more people in the fire inter-face zone, and increases the possible causes of fires. We could regulate these zones for safety, but we don’t. It’s another example of how a 20 percent danger due to climate change (my figure, made up for argument) becomes a 70 percent danger, due to social action and inaction. Extreme fires are also a social event, Bowman tells us.
LEARNING FROM THE EXPERTS
Like Northern Tasmania, here in British Columbia we’ve had a few surprise fires even in rainforest areas. I recall asking Canadian fire expert Mike Flannigan about this. I said: if the boreal forest stretching across northern Canada is expected to get wetter as climate change progresses, why are we seeing even more fires there? The answer, he said, is thin northern soils. Those thin soils can dry out in three hot days, and we are getting more hot days in the north. I’m expecting a lot of boreal forests in Canada and Russia to burn down.
The other tip we learned from fire experts on this show is the importance of how often fire returns. Yes, our forests evolved with fire; it can be a natural cycle. But if fire returns to the same area too soon, that system breaks down, and the woods can convert to grasslands.
In my own Province of British Columbia, after some big blazes our government offered municipalities grants to cut down forests around cities, as a fire buffer. Some did, and some didn’t. People love their nearby trails in the woods and they fight any effort to create a fire barrier. That puts whole towns and cities in danger.
Bowman points out that many cities recognize Earth Quake risk. They make bylaws and spend a lot of money to reduce earthquake damage and prepare the population. Why don’t cities see they have to do the same for fire, especially during climate disruption, when we will see more extreme fire events?
OVER AND OUT
In America, the man who swore to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency has been approved to head it. The last of the EPA staff from Obama days have established a mirror site, to preserve the climate change and species protection information formerly provided by that agency.
Meanwhile in Berkeley, teams of young people have downloaded reams of databases from NASA. They have also set up software to track changes and deletions by the Trump Administration. We are reduced to saving what we can, before the new dark age of denial.
But we know what time it is, on the big clock. Our planet is weaving out into a new form, heading through floods, fires and storms toward the gate of mass extinction. Our children and descendants are in danger.
I will continue to bring you cutting edge science, activism, and information you need to know. Please pass it out as widely as you can.
I’m Alex. Thank you for listening to Radio Ecoshock, and caring about our world.