Two thousand and six is emerging as the year Americans finally wake up to the reality of global warming. Of course, E has been hammering away at the issue for six years or more, but now it has momentum, with the release of several new books and a Time magazine cover story (“Be Worried, Be Very Worried”) April 3.
An ABC/Time/Stanford University poll accompanying the article confirmed that Americans are finally focusing on the problem. Today, 85 percent of Americans believe that global warming is occurring, versus 13 percent who don’t. Sixty percent of respondents admit to worry about it either “a great deal” or “a good amount.” Sixty-eight percent think the federal government should do more to combat it. (It’s doing virtually nothing now.)
But Americans remain pretty confused. A stunning 64 percent in the poll think there’s “a lot of disagreement” among climate scientists on the reality of global warming, when there’s actually a near total consensus. And 54 percent think climate change is “a problem for the future,” versus only 44 percent who think it’s already a serious problem.
Given that misconception, we thought it might be helpful to provide some examples of climate change that are happening right now. Let’s make this clear: We are already causing major disruption to the Earth’s weather patterns, and we’re seeing huge effects, from melting polar ice to shifting species, from rising seas to dying coral. For humans, this poses grave dangers, but for some species it means extinction. “There will be no polar ice by 2060,” says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “Somewhere along that path, the polar bear drops out.”
These excerpts are from E‘s book Feeling the Heat: Dispatches from the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge). Our report on ongoing climate change came out in 2004, before Americans were as focused on global warming as they are now. But much of the evidence cited in the Time article and in other, more recent books first appeared between covers in Feeling the Heat. The book would probably have sold better if we simply sat on it for two years! Here’s some of what we saw around the world in 2004, from the pages of Feeling the Heat (which is illustrated, as is this article, with dramatic photographs by Gary Braasch):
The California Coast: Migrating Species
In 1949, a combination of state and federal organizations began monitoring physical, chemical, biological and meteorological facets of the California Current under the auspices of the California Cooperative Oceanic and Fisheries Investigations program, known as CalCOFI. It was designed in part to track many factors affecting commercially important fish species such as mackerel and sardines. The data gathered under CalCOFI include air temperatures, wind speeds, nutrient levels, salinity, water temperature on the surface and deep below the surface, and the abundance of larval fish and zooplankton—the smallest marine animals.
What happens if you watch those data change over the years? Your findings might echo those of John McGowan, an oceanography professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego: As water temperatures have risen, the base of the marine food chain off the coast of California has crashed. And one by one, the fish and birds farther up that food chain are crashing, too.
Life in the ocean begins with tiny plants known as phytoplankton. Like all plants, phytoplankton need light to drive photosynthesis and nutrients to feed the process. Although it’s somewhat counter-intuitive, the richest and most nutritive ocean waters are the coldest and heaviest. Strong winds do the work of stirring the system and pulling the nutrient-rich waters up toward the light.
The first problems showed up because of El Niños, short-term changes in ocean temperatures that tend to increase the warm water along the western U.S. coastline, reducing the food that boosts the phytoplankton. But researchers like McGowan noticed a difference between the early El Niños and the later ones. Numbers of zooplankton—the tiniest animals in the food chain, which depend on the phytoplankton—dropped during the El Niño of 1957-1959 and then quickly rebounded. But after subsequent El Niños during the 1983 to 1984 and 1997 to 1998 seasons, the zooplankton didn’t come back.
In 1995, going back through the accumulated years of data, McGowan reported a staggering finding in Science: Zooplankton numbers in the California Current had dropped by 70 percent. “It’s the largest change ever measured in plankton productivity in the ocean,” McGowan says. “This enormous change in the zooplankton in the California Current could not be detected from year to year. It took several decades before we discovered this big drop, by at least 70 percent or even up to 80 percent.”
With that huge loss at the base of the food chain, reverberations throughout the system that depended on it were inevitable. Since McGowan’s study came out, declines of species throughout the area have been attributed to the loss of zooplankton and the warming water.
The crash showed up in fish, although it’s often tough to tell if such declines come from too many nets or too little fish food. But even when researchers look at species for which human markets have no appetite, they find precipitous declines. The larvae of Leuroglossus stilbius—a fish of so little market value that it doesn’t even have a name in English—historically are the third most abundant in the California Current. Larvae counts for it dropped 50 percent after 1977. Another similarly ignored species with no common name, Stenobranchus leucopsarus, saw its larvae drop 42 percent after the sharp temperature rise. Its larvae are typically the sixth most abundant in those waters.
In 1967, aerial surveys found 70 square miles of kelp forests along the long California coastline. In 1989, that number dropped 42 percent. By 1999, the most recent year for which data are available, the total plummeted to just 17.8 square miles—down 75 percent from the 1967 survey.
But the most dramatic decline came to the sooty shearwater, a predatory seabird at the top of the marine food chain. “In the 1960s and 1970s they were present in the tens of millions,” McGowan says, “the largest population of pelagic [marine] seabirds in the entire California Current. They dominated it. Millions and millions of them.” The birds feed on juvenile fish and larger zooplankton. Researchers began looking at the birds regularly in 1987. By the 1990s, the population of sooty shearwaters had crashed, with numbers down 90 percent. —Orna Izakson
New York: The Virus Specter
Heat stress is probably the most obvious thing people think of when global warming comes up. Other effects are more subtle, but no less deadly. Higher rates of ground-level ozone are a major respiratory irritant, and vector-borne diseases thrive in warmer temperatures. And that’s the problem that’s keeping the city’s public health officials up nights.
New York City had never had a case of West Nile enceph
alitis before 1999, but that hot summer—the hottest and driest in a century—62 cases were reported in the region. In all, 8,000 New Yorkers were infected, and seven people died.
Between August 12 and 23, six people were admitted to Flushing Hospital in the borough of Queens with high fevers and headaches. Routine culture screens for bacterial or fungal microbes were negative, leading to a growing consensus the patients were suffering from an encephalitis-like disease of viral origin. Within three weeks, three elderly patients died.
Tests at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and Fort Collins, Colorado revealed that the illness was close to the St. Louis encephalitis, which had never previously touched New York City. By September 6, there were five confirmed victims of the new virus, and 34 suspected cases. By September 9, exotic birds began dying in the Bronx Zoo. A general health warning was issued, and city residents began to get used to helicopters overhead spraying clouds of malathion and pyrethriod pesticides. By September 21, scientists had isolated and identified the specific virus, not St. Louis encephalitis but West Nile.
West Nile is spread by a mosquito, Culex pipens, which breeds in stagnant pools of water. According to several prominent scientists, drought is the key factor in spreading West Nile virus. Outbreaks require an unfortunate series of events, they say. According to Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, Culex mosquitoes often live in close proximity to people because of the stagnant water they carelessly let stand. While the mosquitoes’ favorite prey is birds, periods of high heat and drought send such common urban-dwelling species as crows, blue jays and robins out of the city in search of fresh water. City bird populations are further reduced as unlucky individuals are bitten and killed by West Nile infection.
“By reproductive imperative the mosquitoes are forced to feed on humans, and that’s what triggered the 1999 epidemic,” Despommier says. “Higher temperatures also trigger increased mosquito biting frequency. The first big rains after the drought created new breeding sites.” It took Hurricane Floyd, which passed through New York on September 16, to break the weather cycle that led to the outbreak.
Despommier says this same pattern is also discernible in recent West Nile outbreaks in Israel, South Africa and Romania. In Bucharest, Despommier’s investigation turned up abandoned buildings whose basements were full of water, a perfect Culex breeding ground.
Another prominent proponent of the West Nile global warming connection is Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard University. “Droughts are more common and prolonged as the planet warms,” he says. “Warm winters intensify drought because there’s a reduced spring runoff. The cycle seems to rev up in the spring, as catch basin water dries up and what’s left becomes organically rich and a perfect mosquito breeding place. The drought also reduces populations of mosquito predators.”
In 2002, West Nile spread across the country, appearing in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Five provinces of Canada were also affected. In a growing scientific consensus, public health officials believe the next drought will give this serious virus even a wider reach. Spraying certainly hasn’t stopped these infectious bugs. Researchers at France’s University of Montpellier said in mid-2003 that a mutation in the West Nile mosquitoes’ genetic code resulted in their singular resistance to pesticides. —Jim Motavalli
Florida: Dying Coral
I first heard about coral bleaching from Billy Causey, the manager of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. We were sitting in his office deep in a 67-acre hardwood hammock on Marathon Key. It’s a place where ospreys, egrets, cormorants, fat black snakes, hermit crabs, parrot fish, even an old tropical fish collector like Billy can still find refuge from the Kmart mall sprawl out on Route One. Thick set with iron-gray hair and sea-gray eyes, Causey, who moved to the Keys in 1973, sounds like some Old Testament Jeremiah as he recalls the gradual decline of the reef during the years he’s been here.
Unfortunately, while among the most diverse of marine habitats, the world’s massive coral colonies are also fragile structures, living within a narrow range of clarity, salinity, low-nutrient chemistry and temperature.
“Throughout the ‘70s we saw various problems but constantly clear waters with typical hundred-foot visibility,” Billy recalls.
“In 1979, we had a warm water spell and big vase sponges started dying,” he continues. “In June of 1980 we had a pattern of slick calm weather and thousands of fish were killed. This was the first signal to me that things were tilting the wrong way. Then in 1983, with an explosion of onshore development, there was an urchin die-off. In 1984, there was another doldrums and the reefs bleached down to Key West. Maybe five percent of the coral died. In May of 1986, when we had hardly seen black band disease [characterized by dark bands of dead coral on otherwise healthy specimens], I went out to take a picture of it. I saw four-dozen massive outbreaks within an area about 400 feet in length.”
Causey pauses to listen to a passing bird cawing over the still, aquamarine waters of the Gulf a few yards away. Further north I’ve noticed the fringing waters of Key Largo have taken on a greenish lime Jell-O hue.
“In June of 1987 we got a slick calm,” he continues. “On July 13 we went out and saw all the corals turning mustard yellow. Then they went stark white. Then we began getting reports of similar bleaching in the Caribbean and on the Indo/Pacific reefs and we realized something global was going on. We began looking at this as the canary in the coal mine. Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was reporting 1987 as the hottest year on record and the 1980s as the hottest decade.” These records would all fall in the 1990s.
The bad news multiplied, Causey says. “In 1990, we had the first big losses linked to bleaching where the coral didn’t come back. We lost most of our fire coral that year. There was another benchmark year in 1997, with coral bleaching all around the Caribbean. Lots of living coral just went away in 1998, a catastrophic bleaching event. But remote reefs in the Pacific were also being lost, so it gave me a sense that this wasn’t an isolated event—the result of our failure to act. There were back-to-back severe bleaching in 1997 and 1998, then Hurricane George hit.”
Causey shakes his head, as if unwilling to believe his own unremittingly bleak narrative. “You look at old photos and film of the reef and you realize what was lost,” he says. “If you were lucky enough to be here 20 or 30 years ago, you know.”
I do. As a teen I got to snorkel through Keys’ waters so clear and vibrant with exotic life and color they were almost scary.
After talking with Billy I’ll do some diving in the Keys, including a couple of dives down to Aquarius, the world’s last underwater research habitat, seven miles off Key Largo. The habitat is a 48-foot cylindrical s
tructure resting on four steel legs planted on the bottom in 60 feet of water. Its yellow body is rusting in spots and encrusted with weedy growths being grazed by roving schools of fish. A couple of large tarpon in the 100- to 150-pound class circle it curiously, shadowing me as I swim under the metal skirt of the habitat, popping up in the wet room where a school of yellowtail snapper huddle discreetly at the edge of the entry pool. Beyond the wet room there is a lab, shower and toilet, kitchen and berthing area with two sets of triple bunks. Scientists, living here for up to eight days at a time, have a unique opportunity to study the world’s third-largest reef system.
Unfortunately the reef they’re studying is also dying. Where once branching corals grew I find only skeletal sticks in faded rubble fields. Many of the abundant rock corals are being eaten away by diseases that have spread in an epidemic wave throughout the Keys. The names of the diseases tell the story: black band, white band, white plague, and aspergillus, a fungus normally found in agricultural soils that can shred fan corals like moths shred Irish lace. The corals are also being smothered under sediment and algal growth linked to polluted runoff and are periodically bleaching white as a result of warming ocean temperatures. —David Helvarg
Pacific Northwest: The Incredible Shrinking Glaciers
It feels as if a giant meat locker has swung open, sending a cold, yet thin, wind blowing down South Cascade Glacier just outside North Cascades National Park in northern Washington. The sun glares. Everything is white. The expanse of snow acts like a big reflecting basin. Bob Krimmel, a scientist in a broad-brimmed hat and gloves, is initially winded by the altitude change, but spends much of the day trudging through brush to get to this spot—the longest-studied glacier in the northern Cascade mountains, the nation’s most heavily glaciated area outside of Alaska. So much snow. And yet, the glacier is shrinking.
“It’s very easy to see the glacier is much, much smaller,” Krimmel says later, back at his office at U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Seated at a computer, he looks at the side-by-side images—a photo taken in 1928 and another 60 years later. “In the last century, it’s retreated about 1.2 miles,” says Krimmel, a hydrologist and the glacier’s leading researcher. “Right now, it’s about 1.5 miles long. It’s lost about half of its length and half its volume.”
South Cascade Glacier has become the poster child for global climate change in the Pacific Northwest, contends Jon Riedel, glacier researcher for North Cascades National Park. It is thinning so much, Riedel points out, that between 1953 and 2000 it lost the equivalent of 72 feet of water in thickness off its surface. That’s about as tall as seven basketball hoops stacked on top of each other.
Call it the case of the incredible shrinking glacier. In this icy high country, 46 of the 47 Cascade glaciers observed by Nichols College researcher Mauri Pelto were found to be retreating. Riedel, meanwhile, personally backpacks several miles to monitor four glaciers; he notices the lower-elevation, smaller glaciers on the west side of the Cascades are shrinking, a pattern also found farther south.
This melting promises to change the very image of the Pacific Northwest. Montana’s Glacier National Park in 30 years may need to be renamed “the park formerly known as Glacier,” as Seattle-based writer John C. Ryan puts it. A hundred of its 150 glaciers have vanished, and the pace is hastening. Or take Washington’s white-capped Mount Rainier, that looming symbol of the Northwest depicted on Washington license plates and the label of a venerable local beer. The vast majority of Rainier’s glaciers are receding, says Andrew Fountain, researcher and Portland State University geology professor.
“They don’t recede because they’re getting colder, you know what I’m saying?” Fountain says. Whatever the ultimate cause, he says: “That’s global climate change—right there.”
In scene after scene played out around the Pacific Northwest, researchers are uncovering surprises that appear linked to the past century’s average one-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature and, based on what has happened so far, they predict serious problems to come in the next century. The surprises are as varied as the region itself, from the dangerously delayed spawning of salmon in British Columbia to the practically regionwide shrunken snowpack and perhaps happier news—such as the discovery of a butterfly that has colonized Oregon and Washington from the south as temperatures warmed.
“We’re seeing things that never happened before to our knowledge,” says Elliott Norse, of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington. “These things are consistent with what we would expect in a world that is warming. It would be, in many cases, surprising if this weren’t human-caused.” —Sally Deneen
Antigua: Stronger Storms
I am standing on the shoreline at Runaway Bay. It is mid-January, the height of the tourist season in the Caribbean tropical islands. The sea, as its groundswell rushes in, retains those same wondrous shades—the navy-blue, the turquoise, the cobalt. Something is missing: there is no sand. No sand, no tourists. The effect is not so much unreal, as surreal.
Lionel Hurst, since 1988 Ambassador to first the United Nations and then the United States for Antigua and neighboring island Barbuda, points to the waves crashing against a metal wall just below the concrete patio of the Sunset Cove hotel. “The owner put in that barrier to try to save his property after Hurricane Luis came ashore in September 1995,” Hurst says. “The waves used to break 23 feet further out to sea. But that entire stretch of beach just disappeared, overnight, and it’s never returned. So nobody wants to stay here now. The hotel’s clients used to walk up a little further and swim. But you can see the same thing has happened in that half-moon area there. Basically, about 1,000 feet of sand has eroded along what used to be one of our most idyllic areas.”
Hurricane Luis was the most devastating storm the island had ever seen. With gusts approaching 200 miles an hour and sustained winds of more than 140, Luis damaged 90 percent of Antigua’s homes, 65 percent of its business sector, and left 7,000 people unemployed. In a small country now dependent on tourism for 70 percent of its income, virtually all such facilities along the coast needed extensive repairs.
Clearly, something new was in the wind. “A signal,” as Ambassador Hurst puts it, “that something is terribly wrong.” Simply stated, warmer ocean temperatures put greater moisture into the atmosphere, two variables that work to power hurricanes. Caribbean-wide, as Hurst would summarize in March 2003 at the World Water Forum in Japan, storms and hurricanes have risen from an average of 3.5 events per year between 1920 and 1940, to 5.5 events per year between 1944 and 1980, to 13 events per year ever since 1990.
More hurricanes and volcanic eruptions are just the most extreme manifestations of what is happening to the leeward islands of the West Indies. Make no mistake: Antigua is
still achingly beautiful. Including day-trippers from the cruise ships, more than half-a-million visitors still arrive annually to vacation at places like the Jolly Beach Resort, enjoying wintertime temperatures in the 80s and cool rum punches before an evening feast of fresh grouper against a backdrop of Caribbean steel drums. But there is trouble in this Westerner’s paradise, and local Antiguans sense it all around them in myriad ways. —Dick Russell