Here at Planet Experts, we bring you environmental news every day, reporting on the most significant innovations, the most egregious catastrophes and the most important ecological discoveries on the planet. Sometimes, the full impact of climate change can be overlooked by focusing on the singular issues, so I’ve combed our archives to give you this full (albeit depressing) bird’s eye view of the current climate situation. Consider it a Planet Experts omnibus.
Let’s start from the top.
On a remote island off Norway’s northern coast, scientists are storing tens of thousands of seeds in the Svelbard Global Seed Vault. Because of the rapidly shrinking crop diversity caused by rapid land development, the spread of monoculture farms, nutrient deficiencies in soil and an increase in global droughts, putting the world’s seeds in an Arctic “doomsday vault” has become more than just a precaution.
But our Arctic stronghold may not be strong for much longer. Over the past 40 years, NASA has documented a steady decline in Arctic ice – a reduction of both its extent and its thickness. The disappearance of Arctic sea ice has been attributed to warming ocean waters and higher atmospheric temperatures resulting from increased global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s why this year 35,000 walruses had to come to shore to breed and feed instead of staying out on the ice.
The sea ice is where walruses have gathered for hundreds of years, yet now the ice is retreating farther and farther north where the water is deeper and the animals cannot dive to the bottom. This is largely because, for the first time in 800,000 years, the Northern Hemisphere’s atmosphere has a carbon dioxide concentration of 400 parts per million, which is trapping the heat of the sun and warming the upper globe.
For decades, it was believed that the Northern Hemisphere was simply warming faster than the South, but this is no longer the case. A recent report published in the journal Nature Climate Change has revealed that, due to inaccurate and infrequent samplings, South Hemisphere waters are absorbing 24 to 58 percent more energy than previously estimated. This may partially explain why the planet is now losing more than 204 billion tons of Antarctic ice every year – enough ice to minutely alter the Earth’s gravity.
But enough about warming, what about acidification? According to the annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin published by the World Meteorological Organization, the planet’s oceans are acidifying at their fastest rate in 300 million years. According to Planet Expert Benjamin Kay, this acidification is dissolving the calcium and limestone that shellfish need to form their shells, destroying food chains and affecting creatures as small as coccolithophores, phytoplankton that provide oxygen to both the ocean and the atmosphere.
In terms of how companies are reacting to these major changes in the Earth’s composition, look no further than Crystal Cruises, which has announced a new Northwest Passage package – a 32-day, $20,000 luxury cruise through the north parts of Alaska and mainland Canada that used to be considered impassable due to all the Arctic ice that no longer exists. Across the Atlantic, Russian gas giant Gazprom is building a port near the Siberian city of Nadym to navigate the formerly frozen Kara Sea. Over the next 30 years, the ice-free Arctic passage will cut travel time to Asia by 40 percent.
Shell and ConocoPhillips also hope to take advantage of a less icy Arctic by establishing oil rigs in remote areas that would be impossible to deploy emergency vessels to should anything go wrong during the winter months. A blowout in the oil companies’ rigs could discharge anywhere between 8,700 and 23,100 barrels a day, according to Fuel Fix. Despite this fact, Shell has been ardently pursuing Arctic drilling for the better part of a decade.
How bad could an uncapped, unlimited oil spill be to the ecosystem? To get an idea, you can read our interview with Nailah Jefferson, a young filmmaker who documented the economic devastation of small Louisiana fishing town following the 210 million gallon BP oil spill.
On land, the World Wildlife Fund has released a report calculating that the planet has lost half of its wildlife in the last 40 years due to human encroachment and climate change; biologist Samuel Wasser has estimated that if elephant poaching continues at current rates, major elephant groups could be extinct by the end of this decade; and California honeybee populations have declined in such numbers that the price of honey has risen by 65 percent.
Honeybees have disappeared in part due to Colony Collapse Disorder and in part due to the state’s exceptional drought that has now entered its fourth year. A “blocking ridge” of high atmospheric pressure has stubbornly pushed cool air up into the north, denying the West Coast enough rain to sustain its enormous agricultural economy. Ultimately, the drought could cost the state $2.2 billion in direct and indirect industry losses.
A recent study has shown that the high pressure ridge is three times more likely to occur in present, carbon-concentrated conditions. In other words, climate change may not be the sole reason for the drought, but it has made drought much more likely. And California is far from the only drought-afflicted region on the planet.
In 2013, China experienced its hottest summer on record. This coincided with the worst drought to hit the country’s breadbasket in 50 years. Now, scientists predict that China, the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, will experience hotter, longer heatwaves much more frequently – eventually every other year.
São Paulo, the capital of Brazil, is experiencing its worst drought in 84 years, and some scientists believe it’s because of the deforestation taking place in the Amazon. Without the rainforest’s heavy concentration of trees, less water is being absorbed, less vapor is forming and fewer clouds are reaching the Brazilian capital.
In the United States, voters could ask their elected officials why they aren’t doing more to curb this present and global disaster, but many of them will tell you the science just doesn’t support man-made climate change. Scientists, on the other hand – about 97.1 percent of them – will tell you that it does, and they will continue publishing and researching no matter what the deniers say.
And so will Planet Experts.