Nature at the Tipping Point

Nations surrender to climate chaos

Jan 3, 2012 at 4:55 pm


oward the end of the year, in anticipation of the climate summit in Durban, South Africa, a disturbing wave of stories emerged that made our planetary predicament chillingly — and boiling-ly — clear. This was, as even climate change deniers must acknowledge, the Year of Extreme Weather, as chaotic storms and wildfires and whatnot swirled upon the earth all year long.

Only a magical-thinking person could possibly call that an anomaly, in a year that also saw the rise in all three greenhouse gases.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, CO2 emissions worldwide in 2010 jumped by the highest one-year amount ever. The other two greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, not to be outdone, are increasing as well.

So, armed with this science, what did world leaders do, leading up to Durban? They gave up, publicly, saying that a climate treaty that resolves the disputes (mostly between rich and poor countries) would not be possible until 2020.

Given the fiddling, backpedaling and dilly-dallying since the Kyoto Protocol international agreement on global warming, nearing its 15th anniversary now, there’s no reason to believe another eight will compel government leaders to take the action necessary to reduce greenhouse gases.

Battle in the Arctic

The Arctic Sea is the poster child of climate change, and 2011 was another banner year for its transition from iced-over environment to cash cow for oil companies. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, and at the least (new data is constantly being re-calibrated) this year is on pace to meet or exceed the record-breaking Arctic ice melt of 2007.

Folks who believe that all this enviro-horror is just part of the “natural cycles” of the earth must see at this point that the speed by which this is happening is anything but natural. On a “natural cycle” scale of, say, a meteorite striking the earth on one end of the spectrum and, say, natural cycles and fluctuations of a bio-diverse planet spinning in the cosmos, we are nestled safely toward the meteor.

So what are earthlings doing to combat this disturbing ice melt? They are combating each other to secure oil leases to extract even more fossil fuels and create even more greenhouse gases to further ruin our habitat.

In late August, Exxon reached a deal with the Russians to plumb their territory of the Arctic Ocean. In early October, the U.S. Department of the Interior decided to uphold the sale (in 2008) of 487 oil-drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, which will allow Shell to begin exploratory drilling next summer.

This is just the tip of the melting iceberg in the scrum of bigwigs competing to drill, baby, drill.

The Arctic Ocean’s warming, exacerbated by these drilling activities, will only hasten the release of millions of tons of methane frozen beneath the ocean. Once that starts bubbling to the surface, everything that seems “extreme” now will look pretty tame in comparison.

On a human scale — i.e., on a scale that’s more fathomable — there were three incidents in 2011 to drive this Arctic melt home.

A British team of adventurers rowed to the North Pole. One of the benefits of climate change is now people can row to the North Pole, how cool is that! It took ’em 28 days to traverse an expanse that — only a few years prior — they could have walked.

Secondly, a female polar bear swam a record 426 miles because she could find no resting point. She swam nine days straight trying to find land, losing 22 percent of her body weight in the process. Oh, she lost her cub, too.

Perhaps in the near-future, oil rigs can create rafts for polar bears to pause on their journeys, a perfect opportunity for cute pictures to send home to the family.

Finally, in what must be the single most chilling story of 2011, a Russian research team, surveying the East Siberian Arctic Shelf off northern Russia, found plumes of methane bubbling up in the Arctic Sea.

To quote a scientist who has been studying the area for 20 years: “Earlier we found torch-like structures like this, but they were only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time that we’ve found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It’s amazing.”

Amazing, indeed.

Methane is 20 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2. If plumes 1,000 meters in diameter are starting to bubble up in the Arctic ... well, the tipping point hath tipped.

Antarctica becomes a horror film

What is the Arctic’s little sister doing to compete with big brother for the spotlight? Plenty.

A massive crack was detected in one of Antarctica’s glaciers, a crack so vast it would put your plumber to shame. 

When it breaks free, it will span 340 square miles, contributing to sea level rise and hunting down all Titanics, great and small, to turn them into future action/romance flicks.

King crabs have found their way to the edge of Antarctica, because of the area’s more habitable warmth. These crabs are not just invasive; they are ecosystem juggernauts.

With no known predators, these crabs will consume sea floor animals and reproduce to their hearts’ content.

Because populations of Chinstrap and Adelie penguins are shrinking (more than 50 percent in the last 30 years) and krill numbers are plummeting (40 to 80 percent), king crabs may have to resort to cannibalism (crabibalism?) before too many years pass.

We are seven billion wastrels

Around Halloween, we reached seven billion. Not seven billion hours logged watching TV, not seven billion thoughts-per-day about sex, but seven billion living, breathing, reproducing, farting, consuming and wasting carbon emitters. That is a shitload of people.

And if you are reading this (which, ahem, you are), then you are one of those people. Even the person writing this is one of those people. Crazy.

Many types of calculations place our population number as well beyond the earth’s capacity to sustain us for any period of time. Yet we keep on propagating the planet with ever more scads of cute, cuddly, pookie-wookie babies.

And who can blame us? It’s the biological imperative, coupled with the social paradigm that reinforces such fruitility.

The most extreme, egregious example of this in 2011 was the popular TLC cable TV show, 19 and Counting, which featured and celebrated the Duggars, a family with 19 kids.

By November, breathless Hollywood reporters were gaga over the Duggars’ announcement that they were expecting their 20th child — which subsequently miscarried.

These people don’t need to be celebrated; they need an intervention.

Jim Poyser is a writer for

NUVO in Indianapolis, where this article first appeared.