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"The unknown future rolls towards us..."

By: Daisyworld , 4:39 AM GMT on February 02, 2014

As we pass into the year of 2014 CE, I recall the first time that I discovered how much of a catastrophe the human race was facing when I picked up the January 1986 copy of Discover magazine in the mail:

Unknown to everyone at the time, our nation was in the waning days of the Cold War, with our attention more focused on an impending nuclear doomsday from a Soviet missile strike rather than the possibility of melting polar ice caps. The entire world had been primed to meet our ultimate fate for nearly forty years, so the Discover magazine cover didn't invoke the chilling effect in most people that it probably should have. "New York becomes the new Venice," I thought at the time, before jadedly tucking the mail under my arm and going inside to catch the evening news and the latest headlines on the continuing famine in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, the image on the Discover magazine cover stuck with me, eventually leading me to study the article in earnest, mulling over how real the prospect was of a flooded United States coastline. I remember conferring with my grandfather about it at the time, who was a retired executive from global chemical manufacturing firm. "Do you believe everything you read?" he asked me. Well, no I didn't. Not everything, at least. However, I was more likely to believe a popular national science magazine rather than the Midnight Star tabloid on the grocery store news rack. The contrast between the two is a metric that can still be used today, though between much larger news conglomerates...

Two years later, the 1988–89 North American drought hit all of us by surprise, and I found myself holding onto that Discover magazine, reading and re-reading it, wondering and fearing what life would be like when the waters started to rise. The article cited the predicted temperature rise as follows: "(According to the models) after 1985 the temperature shoots upward, reaching 1° F in the early 1990s and almost 2° by 2000." This equates to 0.56°C in the early 1990s, and 1.11°C by 2000.

Source: Maranto, G., (1986, January). "Are we close to the road's end?" Discover, 28-50.

And indeed, the predictions were close. According to the Discover article, one of the models they cited used data from the University of East Anglia for the period 1851-1984. Taking the currently available CRUTEM4 data from East Anglia (source), the temperature anomaly rose to 0.59°C by 1995. While it appeared to plateau a bit afterward (excluding the 0.84°C rise in 1998), the temperature anomaly hit 0.9°C in 2007 and 2010, just 0.2°C shy of the 1986 prediction of 1.11°C for the year 2000. This averages to about 0.42°C for the entire 1990s (don't forget that the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo occurred during that time), and 0.75°C for the 2000-2010 period. Below is a "best guess" reconstruction I performed on the Discovery 1986 article (this is an "eyeball" guess from the image provided on page 39 of the magazine), alongside the current CRUTEM4 data, and with some data from NOAA tossed in for good measure (source):

The correlations are pretty good. Between the CRUTEM4 data and the Discover 1986 data, the R-squared was 0.94 (not bad for "eyeballing" it). Between the CRUTEM4 data and the NOAA data (using only the 1880-1980 timeframe because that's where the NOAA data started), the R-squared was 0.84. Lastly, the NOAA data and the Discover 1986 data had a correlation of 0.75. Perhaps the best comparison that can be made between these data sets are the slopes of the linear regression trendlines: They are all 0.004. This means the temperature trends between them are nearly identical. Oh, we can point fingers at the 0.14°C and 0.36°C offset in the Discover 1986 predictions for the 1990s and 2000s as much as we like, but the overall conclusion is the same: Temperatures spiked upward. Furthermore, the temperature fluctuations were some of the greatest seen since the last ice age according to Greenland Ice Core temperature data (GISP2):

(data source)

In the above graph, the most recent (roughly decadal) temperature fluctuation that matched the average 1990-2000 trend of 0.42 occurred way back around the year 495 CE. The most recent one that matched the 2000-2010 trend of 0.75 was approximately in the year 9,291 BCE (this date is a very rough calculation to help establish a frame-of-reference). This annual was during the 10th millennium BCE, marking the beginnings of the Mesolithic and Epipaleolithic period in human pre-history, where the first inklings of agriculture were seen in the paleo-record, though most of the world's population of 1 to 10 million humans were still mostly hunter-gatherers. This 1,000-year period also marked the last major climatic shift the Earth has seen: The Younger Dryas stadial. This was a period of abrupt climatic change from a relatively warm, post-ice age period, back to glacial conditions in an interval of only 20 to 50 years... all well within the timespan of a human life.

The sudden onset of the Younger Dryas is as comparable in magnitude to that of it's effect on the planet: Forests turned to tundra, glaciers expanded down mountains, drought ravaged areas of the planet, and many animal species went extinct. The results of the Younger Dryas lasted for over a millennia in some areas of the Earth, and barely altered other areas.

Though the explanations for the cause of the Younger Dryas are many, with theories ranging from changes in ocean circulation to a cometary impact, humans were most certainly not the cause back then. Yet one thing was clear: After it happened, life was not easy.

While I do not hold to the prospect that we are headed towards another Younger Dryas, its impact on our planet should be a chilling reminder that nature's extremes are violent and common throughout Earth's prehistoric past, and often affects a wide swath of the biosphere. Most of all, we humans have barely experienced only a fraction of these extremes at any point during the course of our civilization. We should be concerned with the general rapidity and magnitude of our current climate change, precisely because the past extremes -- the ones that we know are coming -- have yet to fully manifest, and all signs point to things becoming worse.

Fact: Our climate is changing faster than at almost any point in our planet's 4.5 billion-year history. Fact: The decadal average global temperature swings that we're seeing now have never occurred at anytime during the course of human civilization. Fact: We caused this. No natural trend, no change in cosmic rays, no volcanic activity was the perpetrator of our predicament this time around. No other phenomena on Earth has converted such enormous natural stores of solid and liquid carbon within the interstices of our planet back into gaseous form through combustion. It was us; there's no getting around that.

As the past has shown, once rapid and abrupt climate change begins, we're left with few choices. The ecosystems that we've come to know and rely upon over the past several thousand years will change, most for the worst; today's fresh water resources will become unreliable as precipitation patterns shift, mountain glaciers will disappear, and surface freshwater reserves will dry up; sea levels will fluctuate and affect coastal communities; and just like the humans of the Younger Dryas, we all will be forced to make changes to our daily lives in order to survive.

The difference this time is that we know the change is coming. And as mentioned above, we've known for decades.

So, as the unknown future rolls towards us, we can guarantee that it's going to be a bumpy ride to our next climate equilibrium, whether that be another calamitous ice age, or another searing hot house condition. Lest we think it's a problem for tomorrow's generation, remember that the onset of the Younger Dryas took place within the timespan of a human life. Now, as the numbers add up and the predictions of the past point towards the trends of the future, we can either choose to face the onslaught of these extremes and prepare together for our common survival, or we can deny it and live our lives for only the moment of today, thus choosing the path towards extinction.

(Note: All calculations in this blog article were rudimentary comparisons constructed in Microsoft Excel with no actual peer review or statistical analysis performed)

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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18. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
9:18 PM GMT on November 20, 2016
Daisyworld has created a new entry.
16. Daisyworld
8:27 AM GMT on February 27, 2014
redagainPatti: You're quite welcome. You had a good blog entry, and was referred to it by SkyePony, as I drop by her blog regularly. She's much more detailed on the weather systems, while I focus on climate. Keep up the good work on your local level to conserve!

ricderr: There's many points that could be argued, especially since I was missing important statistical analysis. But, as you found, it was meant to be more of an overview of what's out there, and what we might take away from it. Thanks for reading.

GardenGrrl: There's still a lot of confusion out there about the subject of global warming. However, if we stay flexible in our opinions as new science becomes available, and each strive towards the goal of using our resources wisely, we'll all benefit. I appreciate you stopping by.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
15. GardenGrrl
2:42 PM GMT on February 26, 2014
Very well written. Will have to take your word on the math though. It's not my thing.

As far as the evolution of scholarly papers via internet, I really enjoy being able to click to the sources rather than old fashion footnotes.

No matter what ones position is on global warming, I think it is quite clear we as a species must adapt to how nature and our resources are changing instead of trying to change our environment with the rob Peter to pay Paul method.

Thanks. Well done.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
14. ricderr
2:58 PM GMT on February 25, 2014
fantastic.....some may argue points of your article...but no one can take away how well written, thoughtful and articulate it is....thankx for a great morning read
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
13. redagainPatti
2:32 PM GMT on February 25, 2014
I came in here to say thanks for dropping into my little blog to find a well wrote piece of work. Thank you for your comments AND this blog.

I heard about this mess also from the very same magazine copy. As a mom in that year, of three young children, I wonder what I could do. - that might make a good blog and start a grass roots action of small changes. I have no faith in our leaders stepping up.

Meanwhile, my family saves rainwater for our yard, buy as much as we can from local growers, recycle plastics, limit the lights in our homes to the room we are in, use the bus instead of our cars, -- and still wonder what more can we do.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
12. Daisyworld
2:39 PM GMT on February 04, 2014
A timely link posted by Xandra in Dr. Rood's WunderBlog: 'The Great Big Book of Horrible Things': WWII and Climate Change.


"Hell Is Truth Seen Too late." - 18th Cent. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes

Given what the world's climate scientists are now begging us to understand, it seems only logical that before we can begin to glimpse and assess any reasons for realistic hope in the rapidly growing climate crisis, it is important to see the true size of the problem.

And, as these scientists often tell us, the problem's biggest unknown is "What will the humans do?" Will humanity respond adequately in time to make temperatures level off well within the lifetime of today's teenagers?

Harvard historian and social anthropologist Timothy Weiskel, in his courses on the many aspects of the crisis of manmade global warming, sometimes quotes the insight of 18th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes that "Hell is truth seen too late."

The world's climate scientists are in effect telling us that one part of the truth we must now try to see is humanity's ability -- or lack of it -- for collective prevention of enormous manmade disaster, atrocity.

The record is worrisome...

The Rapidly Approaching Climate Catastrophe

But this time, say today's climate scientists, the rapidly approaching climate catastrophe threatens to kill far more people than all of White's 100 Deadliest atrocities combined.

Estimates heard in private conversations with scientists and economists reach even into the billions of people who could perish well within this century if the warming is not somehow controlled.

This reporter has heard figures in measured conversation, for example, such as this: If humanity does not now manage somehow to drastically cut carbon emissions so that the global temperature levels off at around 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial times, but reaches instead 4 degrees centigrade, it could mean some 4 billion people dying within this century because the world couldn't grow enough food in such heat and the drought it will bring -- rice harvests, for one, would be decimated...
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
11. cyclonebuster
6:05 AM GMT on February 03, 2014
And after that article we have had 12 Cat5 hurricanes in 19 years in the Atlantic Basin... 4 in 2005

Gilbert 1988 September 13 24 hours 185 mph (295 km/h) 888 hPa (26.22 inHg)
Hugo 1989 September 15 6 hours 160 mph (260 km/h) 918 hPa (27.11 inHg)
Andrew 1992 August 23 16 hours 175 mph (280 km/h) 922 hPa (27.23 inHg)
Mitch 1998 October 26 42 hours 180 mph (285 km/h) 905 hPa (26.72 inHg)
Isabel 2003 September 11 42 hours 165 mph (270 km/h) 915 hPa (27.02 inHg)
Ivan 2004 September 9 60 hours 165 mph (270 km/h) 910 hPa (26.87 inHg)
Emily 2005 July 16 6 hours 160 mph (260 km/h) 929 hPa (27.43 inHg)
Katrina 2005 August 28 18 hours 175 mph (280 km/h) 902 hPa (26.64 inHg)
Rita 2005 September 21 24 hours 180 mph (285 km/h) 895 hPa (26.43 inHg)
Wilma 2005 October 19 18 hours 185 mph (295 km/h) 882 hPa (26.05 inHg)
Dean 2007 August 18 24 hours 175 mph (280 km/h) 905 hPa (26.72 inHg)
Felix 2007 September 3 24 hours 175 mph (280 km/h) 929 hPa (27.43 inHg)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
10. Frasersgrove
4:38 AM GMT on February 03, 2014
Excellent post Daidyworld, one of the best I've read here at WU...
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
9. Daisyworld
1:56 AM GMT on February 03, 2014
Pap: Everyone from sector 7G sends their regards.

Neo: So if it snowed in Siberia, and Al Gore is fat, that must mean… The scientists are conspiring to falsify their data! I know because renowned climate researcher Roger Ailes told me so...

PCA: They'll have to do something eventually. After all, parts of the National Mall are only a few feet above sea level.

Thanks all for your kind comments.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
8. FLwolverine
1:41 AM GMT on February 03, 2014
Excellent. Thank you.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
7. PedleyCA
6:25 PM GMT on February 02, 2014
Well Done. Good luck getting our leaders(sic) to act since we don't have any.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
6. Neapolitan
6:02 PM GMT on February 02, 2014
Yeah, but it snowed yesterday in Siberia. Also, Al Gore is fat. So THERE!!!

Seriously, a fantastic blog post--maybe one of the best I've ever seen here, especially from a non-featured blogger. Well done...
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
5. Patrap
5:42 PM GMT on February 02, 2014
Most Egg-cellent blog!

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4. Daisyworld
5:35 PM GMT on February 02, 2014
Quoting 3. Birthmark:
Very nice article, Daisyworld. I didn't hear of GW until sometime in the 1990s. I didn't pay attention really until the mid-2000s. I figured it was just another End of the World story.

When I did look into it seriously, it didn't take too long to establish that this wasn't just another EOTW story -this was the real deal. While I doubt that humans will go extinct, I doubt that the human population in 2100 will be above two billion. And that's an optimistic guess.

I see no hope that AGW will be addressed in time to avert catastrophe.

Well, I'm not sure I'm ready to prognosticate a census for 2100 yet, but I think it's fair to say that things are not going to be easy for us by then.

When the tsunami of December 2004 hit, it was hard to comprehend that 230,000 people in fourteen countries had died during the event. That's almost a quarter of a million souls. During the 2003 European heat wave, 70,000 souls perished, yet ask most Americans and they'll probably barely recall that a heat wave even happened "over there", let alone such massive loss of life.

It's going to be hard for us to comprehend the destruction and loss of life that a more violent climate will bequeath upon us, and like the Younger Dryas, we can't really predict where the safe havens will be when it starts. What we do know are the areas of the planet that are vulnerable to the expected effects, especially sea level rise. We also know the areas that currently receive all their drinking water from seasonal melting of glaciers; glaciers that are expected to dry up in a warmer world. It's these sorts of hazards that we can prepare for if we're smart and begin making changes now.

Unfortunately, as a civilization, we tend to be more reactionary than proactive in our survival. Perhaps that is our Achilles heel. We've been warned, but it will be up to our leaders to act.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
2. Daisyworld
6:00 AM GMT on February 02, 2014
Quoting 1. BaltimoreBrian:
That article's time frame will probably be a little fast but 2100 seems like a good chance for much of that article coming true.

I'm not so sure. The increase in the temperature anomaly isn't linear, and like most of the models, I would expect it to increase about +2 deg C by 2060.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
1. BaltimoreBrian
4:45 AM GMT on February 02, 2014
That article's time frame will probably be a little fast but 2100 seems like a good chance for much of that article coming true.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:

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About Daisyworld

Daisyworld was one of the first climate models that effectively demonstrated that rudimentary biological feedbacks can affect the global climate.

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Europe Land temperature Anomalies, January-December
Critical Thinking Disposition Self-Rating Form
Greenland Multi-Year Temperature Fluctuations
Global Temperature Anomaly, Discover Magazine, January 1986