Scientists Find New Way Climate Change Can Ruin Life as We Know It

T-Rex would have liked having the heat return to dinosaur territory, and other ironies of global warming in this week’s Haaretz climate change briefs!

Ruth Schuster
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Prayer flags
Tibetan prayer flags Credit: Ng Han Guan / AP
Ruth Schuster

The canary in the phosphorus mine

Violent shrieking storms, record-breaking wildfires, floods, mega-droughts, heatstroke – and phosphorus depletion? Accelerating climate change is changing life as we know it and now scientists warn of another potentially worrying aspect. Phosphorus is 100 percent necessary to 100 percent of plants, and Tibet – which is warming up to 4 times faster than elsewhere – is a good place to study how warming is affecting it.

So: After meticulously analyzing the phosphorus cycle along a 2,300-meter-high gradient from Tibet’s plateau (cold because it’s high) to the (warmer) lowlands, scientists from China’s Lanzhou University and colleagues conclude that over time, global warming can deplete soil phosphorus of the type plants can use.

The 'Great Nutrient Collapse'

This follows on the 2017 Harvard paper “The Great Nutrient Collapse,” explaining that rising CO2 levels are depleting protein levels in crops. By 2050, barley protein will decrease by over 14 percent and in wheat and rice by nearly 8 percent, they predict. Why? Because with more CO2 the plants make more sugars. Yum? Maybe. Good? Not good: their protein manufacturing and therefore their nutritional value to us decreases, as Politico explains .

Much of the world gets its protein from crops, not animals. Apropos, cows also become sicker and less productive the hotter it gets and dairy farmers for one have known this forever. Anyway much of the world gets its protein from crops, not animals. Israeli dairy farmers counsel cooling the cows, which is more sustainably done using mist and fans than by air conditioning.

T-Rex might like it: Heat returning to dinosaur territory

Over the last 50 million years the global temperature has trended downward, as a pretty graph from the University of California, Santa Cruz shows in Science. The pretty graph also projects the future if we do nothing – and behold: In one violent swing, we may return to the dinosaur age. Assuming greenhouse gas emissions don’t diminish (they’re still growing, coronavirus be damned) and assuming they are not stabilized before 2250, Earth could revert to the hothouse world of the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago) by 2300.

How CO2 is returning to dinosaur territory
Carbon dioxide in atmosphere over 66 million years: Returning to dinosaur territoryCredit: Westerhold et al. / CENOGRID
man wearing a T-Rex costume on a paddle board during hot weather at Sferracavallo beach, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Palermo, Italy, July 31, 2020
Man in T-Rex costume plying a paddle board during Italian heat waveCredit: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/REUTERS

Europeans are getting sicker

Pollution and climate change are making Europeans sicker, the European Environment Agency warns: One in eight deaths there these days are due to climate vagaries and pollution. In the year 2012 alone, the agency counts 630,000 deaths in the 27 EU member states (and Britain) because of pollution and climate. At this point the leading environmental threat is pollution, which is causing more than 400,000 premature deaths a year in Europe. It bears adding that atrocious environmental conditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina jack up the statistics, with a 27 percent death rate due to environmental factors. In short, the coronavirus is less of a killer than environmental destruction, the agency concludes.

The great pyramids of Sudan in danger – from flooding

Okay now this is the planet saying: Hold my beer. Ancient pyramids, palaces and sundry precious ruins in the Sudan from the time of the Meroitic Empire over 2,300 years ago are in danger of water damage. Why? The Nile flooding – a seasonal event on which northeast Africa depends – is breaking records. Over 100 people in Sudan have drowned and tens of thousands lost their homes as flooding followed unusually torrential rains. With the rains scheduled to continue to the end of September, Sudan has declared a three-month state of emergency.

Yay, parasitic wasps and flies are adapting

In another episode of the planet handing you its beer while it frolics, wouldn’t you know that one of the most horrifying life forms of all is adapting just fine to climate change. So far. We refer of course to parasitic wasps and flies, notorious for laying their eggs, typically, in another insect which they then paralyze – not kill. God forbid the wasp/fly hatchlings eat rotting cockroach. Nobody wants that.

Parasitic waspsCredit: National Geographic

The Arctic climate is warming twice as fast as elsewhere (other than Tibet…) and what are the parasitic wasps/flies doing? They’re moving with their meals. As warmth-loving butterflies creep northward, so do their pests. “We have found that the proportion of parasitoids preying on warmth-loving butterflies is especially in areas where summer temperatures in particular have risen in recent decades. By contrast, winter-time warming is reflected in a large representation of parasitoid species feeding on Diptera” – i.e., flies, says Tuomas Kankaanpää, of the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki.

Before you hate on parasitoid wasps and flies, and we admit they are pretty heart-stopping, note that the dearly beloved Alien franchise monster does exactly the same thing. Also, without these parasites, the vast team involved here notes, we’d hardly have any green plants because the insects would have eaten them.

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