|In August 2021, volunteers are engulfed in smoke as a forest fire burns nearby Kyuyorelyakh settlement in eastern Siberia. Image credit: Ivan Nikiforov/AP|
Scientists were scrambling to maintain their credibility as they uncovered the potentially disastrous effects of the "new" phenomena of global warming in the 1980s when climate science started to really take off. Because no journalist wanted to ruin their name by spreading false alarms, the majority avoided this subject. However, as the science grew more and more overpowering, academics pressed their findings on decision-makers.
The recent climatic extremes, such as the floods in Pakistan and west Africa, the droughts and heatwaves in Europe and east Africa, and the rapid ice melt at the poles, are causing an increasing number of experts to publicly state that they are afraid.
That is not because it was not anticipated that extremes would increase. Along with longer-term problems like sea level rise, it was always a top concern. Researchers are concerned about recent events because of their suddenness and fury as well as the vague potential of tipping points, where certain parts of warming would become unstoppable.
Typically, temperature increases have been predicted by climate computer models to be rather steady but smooth. However, it appears that the climate recently went crazy.
|Scene in Lytton, a town in western Canada, in the summer of 2022, one year after a wildfire ravaged through. Photo by Reuters/Jennifer Gauthier|
In the Canadian hamlet of Lytton, for example, the heat phenomenon created a "dome" of trapped heat that raised the temperature to 49.6C. The settlement was destroyed by wildfires that raged. When I told Prof. Sir Brian Hoskins, one of the Royal Society's most influential members, the news, at first he did not believe me. "Oh, my god, that's extremely scary," he then exclaimed.
When records are usually broken by just a few tenths of a degree, the high temperature was stunning enough on its own, but it was even more astounding that it exceeded the previous record by five degrees. Later, Hoskins informed me: "The real world is experiencing fast regional changes, whereas climate models have traditionally forecast relatively smooth changes. The increase in average global temperature is a valuable indicator of how far climate change has progressed, but it does not emphasize the likelihood of local and regional effects.
Therefore, land warms faster than the oceans, higher latitudes warm faster than lower latitudes, especially in the winter, and the warming is not uniform, which causes fluctuations in the weather. Rainstorms are greater due to increased water retention capacity in air that is 6C warmer, and storm surges are more destructive due to sea level rise.
"With barely 1.1C warming [globally], I have been astonished and frightened at the record temperatures and floods we have experienced in many places around the world."
|Melting pond inside an iceberg, Baffin Bay, 20 July 2022. Over the last 20 years, the Arctic has lost roughly one-third of its winter sea ice volume. Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images|
This year's first 40-degree day occurred in the UK in July. Researchers estimated that there was a 100 to 1 possibility that would occur this decade two years prior. The fine print of that day showed that Bramham, Yorkshire, saw a genuinely remarkable high temperature that day, exceeding the previous record by 6.5C.
This sort of stuff is truly frightening, according to Prof. Hannah Cloke from Reading University. It is but one figure in a sea of extreme weather incidents formerly referred to as "natural disasters."
But the British Antarctic Survey's director, Prof. Dame Jane Francis, is most concerned about the possibility of irreversible long-term alteration. She has seen temperatures that are 30C above normal in the Arctic and 40C above normal in the Antarctic.
Francis was most disturbed by recent research that warned that numerous climate tipping points may occur that would be abrupt, irreversible, and have harmful effects if the 1.5C threshold was exceeded. This threshold is viewed by most scientists as almost unavoidable.
It's very frightful, she said. Some of [these tendencies] appear to be already in motion. She declared that she was concerned about the permafrost, the Greenland ice sheet, the Arctic sea ice, the Thwaites glacier, and the western ice sheet of Antarctica.
The entire world, as well as the local population, will be impacted by these various repercussions, she claims. She searches the past for information about the Earth as it is today, with its inflated CO2 level, which reached at roughly 420 parts per million in May, rather than modeling the climate.
"During the Pliocene, three to four million years ago, when global sea levels were 10 to 20 meters higher and temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher, the earth last experienced 400 parts per million of CO2. Over millions of years, those modifications took place. Now, it seems as though we are imposing these changes on the earth in much shorter amounts of time.
|Baffin Bay's melting pond is inside an iceberg as seen on July 20, 2022. About a third of the Arctic's winter sea ice volume has disappeared over the last 20 years. Associated Press/Getty Images Image: Kerem Yucel|
Most people are experiencing the effects of the crisis in the form of harsh weather. Wildfires and sweltering heat records caused self-inflicted climatic wounds in North America and Europe. In California, unprecedented rainfall couldn't stop the drought's drying effects. After Hurricane Ian tore through the state, Florida, whose Republican officials had voted against climate change policy, urged Washington for assistance.
Floods in Nigeria have caused a significant number of fatalities, while summer in Europe has been extremely hot. French highways were shut down as wildfires raged. Greece, Portugal, and Spain were also devastated by wildfires. A drought that caused parts of the Po, the country's largest river, to dry up might cause Northern Italy to lose up to half of its agricultural output.
And that only accounts for a warming of 1.1 or 1.2C. We will soon surpass the 1.5C threshold, and unless much more drastic action is taken, we will see a warming of between 2C and 3C. Politicians are being urged by scientists to avoid experiencing what the 2C of global warming feels like.
The limits of human knowledge irritate scientists as well. Climate change will only worsen, according to Prof. Richard Allan, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Global warming of 1.5C will be significantly worse than it is currently. However, as you zoom in on local scales, you start to see extremes that the models are unable to depict. That covers small-scale floods and droughts. It's these events that are challenging to imagine.
Therefore, the scientists are stuck. They are confident that things will worsen. They are unsure about the precise when and how much. They are aware that they risk losing credibility if they come out as campaigning. However, an increasing number of them are so worried that they are attempting to use various tones to shock the public and lawmakers.
Prof. Piers Forster from the University of Leeds, another former IPCC lead author, said: "I have tried to adapt the way I speak to make it more human and emotive. Extreme impacts are already problematic and will become much more so. However, you also need to give the general public and scientists like us hope. If we take quick action, the rate of warming can be slowed.