The Real Zombie Threat as the Arctic Thaws and Other Climate Briefs

This week's climate change briefs bring grim news for gray whales, those planning their vacation in 2100, and reveal the zombie threat we should be worried about

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Floodwaters spreading across the runway of Rockhampton Airport in 2011.
Floodwaters spreading across the runway of Rockhampton Airport in 2011.Credit: AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

How many ways will climate change our lives? A new study from Newcastle University examined more than 14,000 airports around the world and concluded that even modest sea level rise will place 100 of them under water by 2100, they report in the journal Climate Risk Management.

Note ye that there are a lot of assumptions here, but if anything this estimate seems conservative, and they point out that 269 airports are already at risk of flooding now. The study by Prof. Richard Dawson and Aaron Yesudian is based on a two-degree Celsius increase in global mean temperature by that year. If the global mean temperature increase is higher, they count 572 airports at risk. 

Sea level rise will happen – it is inevitable, based on the amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere – leading to higher global mean temperatures. We don’t know how fast the sea levels will rise, though, let alone how much the water will rise by 2100 or any other arbitrary date. We are in uncharted territory.

Warming Arctic is starving gray whales 

Each winter, gray whales migrate southward, from the cold northern seas to breed in the warmer waters of southern California to Mexico. In January 2021, for the third year running, scientists have observed that instead of arriving fattened and healthy after eating all summer, the whales are arriving emaciated, says a paper in Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Three adult gray whales photographed between 2017-2019 in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, showing the poorer body condition of whales in 2018 and 2019.Credit: Fredrik Christiansen (left), Fabian Rodríguez-González (center) and Hunter Warick (right)

Drone footage also shows fewer sightings of mothers with calves. Investigation is still underway, but the whales seem to be embarking on migration in starving condition. Their main prey is masses of amphipods, like shrimps without carapaces, which are declining as the Arctic waters warm.

Just for instance: ocean surface temperatures in the Arctic in August 2020 were as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) warmer than the average that month from 1982 to 2010, LiveScience reports.

That is a drastic change, helping to explain why sea ice cover in the Arctic has been shrinking from year to year. This winter, it is a mere 3.7 million square kilometers in area (1.4 million square miles), the second-lowest value in 42 years, reports The Wire Science.  Scientists warned in December that the changes in the Arctic could be permanent

The real zombie threat

The extraordinary heat combined with aridity is triggering more and more wildfires in the Arctic because the peat, slowly decaying plants and moss, is highly flammable. Once alight, like coal seams, peat (aka duff) may smolder beneath the ice all winter, then spring back to life as full-fledged conflagrations in the summer – a phenomenon known as zombie fires. The year 2020 was a record year for fires in the Arctic, following a record year in 2019. Last year, zombie fires spewed more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than, say, Egypt, according to the BBC.

What starts zombie fires? Lightning, human activity. Same as forest fires. 

Wildfires in Siberia in July 2019, seen from spaceCredit: Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2019

Carbon capture who?

Mounting carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere translate (at some point, it’s impossible to pin down) to higher temperatures – there are myriad parameters, but that’s a basic. Recognizing that carbon dioxide has reached its highest concentration in around 23 million years and that greenhouse gas emissions haven’t stopped, the latest talk is all about carbon capture – “filtering” it out of industrial exhausts and extracting carbon dioxide from the air, and storing it somehow.

Some experts cry out against investing in developing capture carbon partly because it could perpetuate filthy industries. Investment should go to improving energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. The point here is that planet-scale or even rather smaller carbon capture doesn’t exist yet, and counting on it to save our lifestyles isn’t advisable. Eco-Business explains why it won’t work  and Forbes explains why Elon Musk’s pledge of $100 million to “the best” carbon capture technology won’t do the trick either.

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