From Ophelia to the Amazon: the Unthinkable Becomes Thinkable
It may be a horror that no one imagined, but it is a horror that the scientists predicted.
As I write, Ireland is being battered by ex-Hurricane Ophelia, with many schools closed and the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, calling the storm a national emergency.
The Taoiseach said Ophelia was the worst storm to hit the country in 50 years. Currently, one person has died and 120,000 are without power.
This is climate change in action. As the Guardian’s Environment Editor, Damian Carrington, notes: “An increase in hurricane-force winds wreaking havoc across the Britain and Ireland is entirely consistent with global warming, according to scientists.”
He adds: “A warmer world means more energy in the climate system, especially in the oceans, which is where big storms derive their energy from.”
Dann Mitchell, at the University of Bristol tells the paper: “There is evidence that hurricane-force storms hitting the UK, like Ophelia, will be enhanced in the future due to human-induced climate change. While tropical hurricanes lose strength when they travel north, they can re-intensify due to the nature of the atmospheric circulation at UK latitudes. It is the rise in temperatures over most of the Atlantic that is a primary driver of this, a clear signature of human-induced climate change.”
Indeed, as the Washington Post observed over the weekend, “On Saturday, Hurricane Ophelia accomplished the unthinkable, attaining Category 3 strength farther east than any storm in recorded history.”
Nearly every week now we have a new, previously unthinkable climate event, whether it be the number of strong Hurricanes hitting the Caribbean and east of the US, to unprecedented wildfires in the Western USA.
In northern California, the smoke still rises from the ashes of the latest devastating fires, with 40 confirmed dead and some 5,700 homes and businesses destroyed. “It’s a horror that no one could have imagined,” said Governor Jerry Brown over the weekend.
It may be a horror that no one imagined, but it is a horror that the scientists predicted. Their worst predictions are coming true elsewhere. What was once unthinkable in the Amazon is becoming thinkable too. The Amazon has gone from a carbon sink to one where it is now a net emitter of carbon.
As the website Mongabay outlines in a recent article on forest fires in the region: “While in the past Amazonian forests served humankind inadvertently by absorbing more carbon than emitted, delaying the worst impacts of global warming” this has “now changed. The Amazon has now become part of the problem”.
Mongabay quotes figures from the Brazilian government’s INPE (National Institute of Space Research) which show that 2017 is shaping up to be the worst year on record for forest fires.
Luiz Aragão, Senior Lecturer in Earth Systems Science at Exeter University, told Mongabay. “The dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent”.
Mongabay warns: “This year’s record wildfires are not only having Amazonian impacts. It is becoming increasingly clear to researchers that the fate of the Amazon’s forests is inextricably bound to the fate of the world — and vice versa.”
And that can only be bad news, as climate change makes the unthinkable become the thinkable.