Last Thursday’s big news story was the indictment of Donald Trump, with banner headlines in all the papers that still print on paper. The phrase I saw most often was “uncharted territory,” (and occasionally “unchartered territory”), which is somewhat true: we’ve never had a former president, much less one seeking election, under indictment. But, truth be told, it seems like these waters were fairly easy to predict. It’s been obvious for many years that Trump disregarded rules and laws, acted on whims and appetites, and was a greedy skinflint; him ending up in trouble for tax evasion to cover up an affair with a porn star seems unlikely only in its details.
The truly novel story came out a few hours earlier on Thursday, with the publication of Nature. The magazine is one of the world’s two pre-eminent scientific journals, and it emerges weekly from its London base with the latest in carefully peer-reviewed research. This week it carried one of the most important installments in the most important saga of our time, the rapid decline of the planet’s physical health. It was in the form of a dispatch from the Antarctic, where researchers found, to quote their title, clear evidence of “Abyssal ocean overturning slowdown and warming driven by Antarctic meltwater.”
One understands why that was not quite as easy to put into headlines as Trump’s arrest. But translated from the scientific, it’s the rough equivalent of “South Pole to Planet Earth: Drop Dead.” As The Guardian explained, in the best summary of the research I’ve seen, the study shows that “melting ice around Antarctica will cause a rapid slowdown of a major global deep ocean current by 2050 that could alter the world’s climate for centuries and accelerate sea level rise.”
If greenhouse gas emissions continue at today’s levels, the current in the deepest parts of the ocean could slow down by 40% in only three decades.
This, the scientists said, could generate a cascade of impacts that could push up sea levels, alter weather patterns and starve marine life of a vital source of nutrients.
Basically, as melting ice pours fresh water into the ocean around Antarctica, it dilutes the salinity of the sea; that reduces its density and it’s no longer heavy enough to sink, pushing out the water that’s already there. The decomposing organisms that have dropped to the sea floor thus remain locked there, as the whole vast conveyor belt begins to slow. This phenomenon has already been observed in the Arctic, where melting water pouring off Greenland and from melting sea ice has slowed the Arctic Meridional Overturning Current, or AMOC; the Australian scientists behind this new study have confirmed that the same thing is underway in the antipodes. The water that once flowed north, carrying nutrients to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans will stagnate in place. Other studies have predicted additional problems as these currents decline, including moving rainfall bands by a thousand kilometers from their present position. As one scientist put it, the Antarctic current is “on a trajectory that looks headed towards collapse,” and not on a scale of centuries, or even century. On a scale of decades and years. We’re as far from 2050 as we are from Bill Clinton denying he’d had “sexual relations” with “that woman,” which is to say not very far (and also reminder that embarrassing presidents are not in themselves a new phenomenon, even if Trump took it to an entirely new and endlessly more dangerous level).
The scale of the systems we’re now affecting is almost incomprehensible—the flow of the Arctic current is a hundred times larger than the Amazon river. And the speed is incomprehensible. “In the past, these circulations have taken more than 1,000 years or so to change, but this is happening over just a few decades,” one of the study’s authors said. “It’s way faster than we thought these circulations could slow down.”
But that’s because we’ve built a new planet, one with a markedly different atmosphere. Which changes everything. Even before the epochal news from the Antarctic, the earth’s oceans had been sending distressing signals this spring. In late March, scientists reported that the temperature of ocean waters around the planet was rising abruptly, reaching record levels in recent weeks.
Around mid-March, ocean-temperature monitoring data shows that average surface water temperatures surpassed 21 degrees Celsius (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit) around the globe, excluding polar waters, for the first time since at least 1981, when the data set originated. That is warmer than what scientists observed at this time of year in 2016, when a strong El Niño drove the planet to record warmth.
This time those records are being set in the latter phases of a La Nina cold cycle—though it’s becoming clear that a new El Nino is in the process of forming and should be here by late summer or early fall. The chances are growing that it will be an extremely strong version of the Pacific warm current, and if so it will drive the climate crisis into a new gear—Jim Hansen, the planet’s greatest climatologist, has suggested we could see temperatures pass, at least for a time, the 1.5-degree temperature mark. In political terms, this means probably the last spurt in aroused global fear, translating into the last chance for widescale emissions reductions, during the period when we still have some hope of really limiting temperature rise. After that, we may well be in territory where only truly terrifying interventions like solar geoengineering will suffice.
“The longer we go on with higher rates of greenhouse gas emissions, the more changes we commit ourselves to,” said one of the Aussie scientists who brought us this week’s grim and vital news. That’s been true for decades now; the question as always is if we’ll react to the latest warning. The crime that history will remember Trump for is almost certainly withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. But they got Al Capone on his taxes too.
In other energy and climate news:
+New York governor Kathy Hochul seems poised to do something really dumb, undermining New York’s climate laws at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, largely by introducing an accounting trick on the way we figure the warming impact of methane. New York enviros are fighting back. Follow the Twitter feed (sigh) of New York Communities for Change for the latest updates
+You can sign a petition asking state treasurers to do the right thing and back climate and indigenous rights in this spring’s round of shareholder meetings at big companies. Meanwhile, thanks to Senator Ed Markey and Reps Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib for introducing legislation that would cut off the flow of financing from big banks to the fossil fuel industry. A strong argument for this law comes in a Seattle Times oped from Third Act organizers Lisa Verhovek, Mary Lou Dickerson, and Bobby Righi:
In light of the recent upheavals in the banking sector and the greater concentration of deposits in the large Wall Street banks, we need more than ever to demand that these banks use their enormous power to invest responsibly. We can expect our banks to manage both financial and climate risks, and to this end encourage people to contact their own banks and credit unions to review both the stability of the bank, FDIC insurance coverage and whether they are funding fossil fuel development.
+Jeff Goodell, one of the world’s great climate reporters, has come back with a haunting dispatch from the Okavango Delta, where oil companies have begun drilling in yet another remarkable corner of the earth.
The Okavango Delta is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and for good reason: It is one the world’s last wild places. It’s not a savanna or a rainforest or a jungle. It’s at the northern edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana — a desert formed of the wind-blown fragments of some of the oldest rocks on Earth. But at certain times of the year, water comes flooding down from the highlands of Angola, a gently rising plateau north of Botswana and Namibia that was the site of bloody conflicts for the last three decades of the 20th century. Out of these battle-scarred hills, this land of strife and suffering, runs the water that makes up the delta.
The water in the delta is beautiful and clear, unpolluted by chemicals or sediments. For wildlife, this water is a lifeline, a paradise, a refuge. Hippos and crocodiles thrive in the shallow channels and pools. More than 500 species of birds flash through the skies. It is a landscape of ancient baobab trees (one baobab in Namibia is estimated to be 2,100 years old) and riverbanks of papyrus, the plant from which Egyptians learned to make paper 4,000 years ago. It is an unfenced, undomesticated place that still moves to the rhythms of nature, where the big animals that populated your childhood imagination live and hunt and die without human interference.
+An old friend—and truly veteran solar campaigner Sajed Kamal—offers an essay detailing his hopes for a move from mutually assured destruction to an era where climate cooperation offers some hope for peace. It includes a reminder of a quote from former Exxon CEO (and Trump secretary of state) Rex Tillerson: “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.”
+Many thanks to the Wall Street Journal (whose news side is different from its editorial side) for pursuing the “mystery” of who hired a global hacker to spy on opponents of Exxon. The hacker is in a New York jail, not talking. Bonus is a picture of yours truly, since my account was one of the ones he was after.