Arctic Warmer Than Jerusalem, Again, and Other Climate Change Briefs

Plus, bad news for Americans already complaining about the heat, global food production is projected to shrink by a third by 2100 and an even better idea than reforestation – not chopping trees down in the first place

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A wildfire in California 14 years ago.
A wildfire in California 14 years ago.Credit: REUTERS

Hot in the city tomorrow

On May 19, the temperature in Jerusalem was 26 degrees Celsius (nearly 79 degrees Fahrenheit). As of writing, the Jerusalemite temperature was a balmy 24 degrees. In some parts of the Arctic, including the Russian town of Nizhnaya Pesha, temperatures reached 30 degrees Celsius late last week, surpassing all of Europe with the exception of sun-kissed Spain, ZME Science reports.

The Arctic is suffering a “ferocious heatwave,” meteorologist Scott Duncan explained to ZME: Parts of it are as much as 24 degrees Celsius hotter than average for this time of year, while Europe is about 20 degrees Celsius cooler than it should be. And thus, yet again the polar circle found itself warmer than the Middle East

U.S. heat stress toll expected to double by 2100

“Heat stress” refers to the conditions ensuing from intense heat and humidity, from sweating gallons to heat stroke to collapse. (When it’s humid, on top of being hot, your sweat can’t evaporate and cool you.) This week, the American Geophysical Union reported that on the current trajectory of emissions, the number of people suffering from heat stress in the lower 48 states may double by 2100. Worse: In some areas projected to experience population growth, including the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and central California, the number could triple compared to the past 40 years. Never mind drowning from sea level rise, heat stress is projected to be one of the biggest killers in this age of climate change, explains study co-author Dr. Michael Mann, from Penn State University.

Antarctica, as captured by John Englander on an expedition.Credit: Patrick Kelley / USCG

Vegetation changing faster now than after Ice Age

As the last Ice Age waned, plants “rushed” to colonize the lands freed by the retreating glaciers. A dramatic image, that. But what is nature compared with anthropogenic influence? A new study published in Science, based on a global survey of fossil pollen, claims that humans began monkeying with the vegetation starting with the advent of human civilization. Starting about 4,000 to 3,000 years ago, we see accelerated change in plant communities where humans set foot. Now the Earth’s vegetation is changing at least as quickly as when the last ice sheets retreated, around 10,000 years ago, as the climate warmed by about 12 degrees Celsius.

“At the end of the ice age, we had complete, biome-scale ecosystem conversions,” stated study leader Prof. Jack Williams from University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And over the past few thousand years, we’re at that scale again. It has changed that much.”

The threat to food

Another thing we can expect by 2100, based on the current (unchanged) emissions trajectory, is that global food production will shrink by more than a third compared with today, warns a study from Finland’s Aalto University, published in One Earth.

The authors point out that today’s food production systems developed under relatively stable conditions over the last 10,000 years, and we don’t understand what an unsafe climatic space is like. It’s much the same reason that people, who have experienced the same sea level for 6,000 years, don’t grasp what sea level rise actually means. Desertification, extreme weather and heat are especially threatening to food production in southern and eastern Asia and northern Africa, says the paper – and the plants and livestock adapt in these short time frames. Arctic tundra is expected to disappear entirely, by the way.

Like bailing water with a colander

Reforestation is a noble goal, but planting trees to soak up greenhouse gases is no panacea: “We can’t plant our way out of the climate crisis,” said University of Arizona’s David Breshears. Writing in Science with colleague Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Michigan, they urge: Don’t squander effort on planting lots of trees in a manner destined to fail. Focus instead on keeping extant forests healthy and reducing greenhouse gases.

Keeping forests healthy includes thinning to prevent wildfires and keeping abreast of which trees grow best where. That is a dynamic thing in today’s world. As Breshears puts it, trying to found new forests is “like bailing water with a big hole in the bucket: While adding more trees can help slow ongoing warming, we’re simultaneously losing trees because of that ongoing warming.”

The A-76 iceberg in Antarctica. The outline of Majorca is placed there for scale (and to freak out any vacationers planning to visit the Spanish island this summer). Credit: HANDOUT - AFP

A-76, we will barely know ye

And no list of climate change briefs would be complete without a video of the biggest iceberg in the world today, A-76, calving from the Ronne Ice Shelf in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. It’s 4,320 square kilometers (nearly 1,670 square miles) in area. That’s almost 12 times the size of Gaza and is bigger than Rhode Island.

As is the fate of all icebergs, A-76 will – eventually – melt.

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