Climate change is already causing a dramatic ecological collapse.
It’s no use speaking of the need to prevent an ecological collapse. It’s here, now – we’re living it.
It’s getting hotter. The climate is unravelling and entire ecosystems are falling apart at this moment.
Global warming reached temperatures above 1°C for the first time in 2015 and the trend is upwards. The years 2010 to 2019 were the hottest decade ever recorded. The consequences are a global catastrophe. From the Arctic to Australia.
Archaeological evidence shows that about 750 years ago wildfires raged across the whole of what is now the Western USA after it became aid after being hit by a decades-long mega drought.
Scientists have known for a long time that one degree of global warming might turn the Western USA into a desert. Tiny changes in temperature could put the area back into its historical state; it was once a desert. This is because climate change heats the air that soaks up water from whatever it touches.
Small changes in air heat can increase the intensity in which it pulls out water. Trees die and provide the fuel for fires.
This year – 2020 – has seen the worst wildfire season ever in California. The past ten years have shattered records. The Los Angeles Times found that ‘wildfires and their compounding effects have intensified in recent years’. The fires are not limited to California; they have also laid waste to millions of acres of land and destroyed thousands of homes in the states of Washington and Oregon.
It has been predicted that at one degree of global warming the Arctic would start to melt but now the prediction is that it will now extend into becoming ice-free.
Currently, the Arctic is undergoing abrupt climate change. Big feedback loops are now unstoppable. Wildfires occurred in the Arctic in 2019 and 2020 that were unprecedented in scale.
This feedback loop releases more carbon from peatlands, which in turn increases warming and thaws more peat that causes more wildfires. Irreversible changes are happening – right now.
In 2019 the Greenland ice sheet lost an average of a million tons per minute throughout the year.
This record ice loss was caused by the Arctic region heating up at double the rate than at lower latitudes. The loss from the Greenland ice sheet will cause a sea level rise that is even now affecting coastal cities around the world.
A further consequence of this ice loss is a slowing down of the Gulf Stream.
In Tanzania the ice cap that has covered Mount Kilimanjaro for the past 11,000 years is melting. Over the past decades this rate has accelerated. Scientists predict that the ice will be gone by 2033.
Once this has happens, water will no longer be present to be distributed downstream. When this happens, the mountain’s forests will disappear. People will no longer have water to irrigate their crops and will most likely starve.
In Uganda, glaciers on the Rwenzori mountains are melting. The Rwenzori mountains are also called the “Mountains of the Moon”. The snows feed the lakes, the sources of the Nile. The likely outcome is utterly grim.
In Europe, the Alps are melting. Glaciers in the European Alps lost half their volume between 1850 and 1975. In the next 30 years 40 per cent of the remaining volume of ice will melt away.
Scientists think that the Gulf Steam, which moves warm water from the tropics up the east coast of America, across the Atlantic and into north-west Europe is slowing down because of the melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
This could result in colder winters in northern Europe and hotter weather on the East Coast of the USA.
Hurricanes are now occurring in places where they haven’t previously, in the South Atlantic. The first, in 2004, made landfall in Brazil. In 1991, a strong tropical storm formed off the coast of Congo in 1991. These rare events are likely to be caused by climate change.
The 2019 to 2020 Australian bushfire season was the worst ever experienced. Record-breaking heatwaves and a severe and long-term drought caused wildfires across Australia. Some 100,000 square miles of land burned and more than a billion terrestrial vertebrates perished.
The fires affected the following areas: New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania, Australian Capital Territory, and Northern Territory.
The fires were caused by climate change and contributed to by the release of 400 mega tonnes of carbon dioxide.
The Amazon rainforest is the world's largest terrestrial rainforest and carbon dioxide ‘sink’; it is a critical bulwark against climate change.
Deforestation, climate change and fires are causing the forest to dry out. Severe droughts have happened three times since 2005. In August 2019 the number of fires was the highest for any August since an extreme drought in 2010. This year the fires are set to overtake that of 2019.
In 2018, scientists Carlos Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy wrote that if just 20 to 25 per cent of the rainforest is cut down the eastern, southern and central Amazonia will burn down, becoming a savannah-like ecosystem. Another ten to fifteen years of tree mortality is all that is needed.
Their research was published in the journal Nature. Millions of people and animals will be affected and the change will probably result in the release of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Climate patterns will be altered farther afield. It is urgent that deforestation is halted and new growth promoted.
Tragically, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro is dismantling the country’s environmental policies.
In Nature, Adriane Esquivel Muelbert, an ecologist at the University of Birmingham, England, said: “It’s an emergency situation,” adding, “We can fix this, but we need to act now.”
The Pantanal is a wetland biome. Fires have increased by 180 per cent in relation to September 2019. It is facing its worst drought in 60 years. According to a report by the National Secretariat for Civil Defense and Protection, the severe drought might continue for up to five years. The Pantanal may never recover.
The Great Barrier Reef was badly damaged by coral bleaching in 2016 and 2017 that caused the death of around half of the entire 133,360 square mile structure.
Its future outlook has been downgraded from “poor” to “very poor”. Immediate national and international action is needed if the reef is to survive. When bleaching events kill reefs they break up and become rubble. The reef is classified as “in danger.”
The Boreal Forest or, Taiga, is the world's largest land biome and stretches across the high Northern latitudes. The Taiga stores more carbon than the world’s tropical and temperate forests combined.
Due to climate change, Earth’s northern regions are becoming warmer and drier. Forest fires are becoming more frequent and severe; 2019 was a particularly bad year with fires burning outside of their normal pattern.
It looks as if 2020 is going to be another bad year for the forest. The situation is dangerous. If these serious fires become normal and release carbon it will cause more climate warming, which will increasingly cause fires. The result would be a dangerous feedback loop.
The examples provided show the potential for ecosystem collapses but leave a lot out. For example, if the temperature gets too hot for bumblebees to survive the species of plants that they pollinate will die out. If insects are killed by the heat then there is a reaction up the food chain as other species such as birds have less to eat. Seabirds and marine mammals will die as the oceans heat up.
The solution is coordinated action against climate change by all governments. Unfortunately, right-wing governments are gaining power and they work on divisive rather than cooperative lines.
The world emits about 43 billion tons of CO2 a year. Because of this, emissions must be stopped by 2025-2029 and deforestation ended immediately. If this does not happen a decent level of survival will be denied to future generations
It would appear, therefore, that billions would likely die by temperatures of around 3.5C.
To avoid 3C we would need to slash emissions in the 2020s.
To avoid 3.5 we must slash emissions by 2025 - 2035.
To avoid 4C by 2055, we would have to slash emissions before 2039.
Mark Lynas’s book, Six Degrees, published in 2008