Ridicule often comes to those who think that we are living at the beginning of a bold, new era of progress, pregnant with possibilities and opportunity or conversely, to those with a more pessimistic (or eschatological) turn of mind who believe we are living at the close of an age whose life and culture are about to be wiped out in a great cataclysm (the result of our own doing, of course). After all, it is argued, by definition almost everyone lives in the middle of any definable era. It's a boring and disappointing thought that undermines our self-importance and robs us of our personal sense of drama.
To restore that sense of drama, the latest New Yorker magazine (April 25) has the first of a series of three articles on climate change. In "The Climate of Man-1," we learn from a leading permafrost expert that Alaska's permafrost is warming up to near the freezing point, some of it only one degree away from melting. If it melts, it would be the first time in 120,000 years that it has done so.
It sounds like nothing more egregious than the freezer defrosting and leaving you with some liquid ice cream all over the bottom. But, according to our expert it would definitely mark a turning point in geological history. Huge amounts of organic material frozen in the permafrost would begin to decompose sending out the first installment of hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane, which would then make things warmer, which then melt more of the permafrost and so on. It's the feared runaway global warming scenario.
For those not convinced that we are on the edge of a new era (climatically speaking) there's this:
Antarctic ice cores show that carbon dioxide levels today are significantly higher than they have been at any other point in the last four hundred and twenty thousand years.And, far from thinking about climate change as a slow process, we will likely not have to wait thousands of more years to see the result of our handiwork as this analogy that compares the climate system to a rowboat suggests:
You can tip and then you'll just go back. You can tip it and just go back. And, then you tip it and you get to the other stable state, which is upside down.In the article you get a short history of global warming studies--they began more than 140 years ago--a tour of the main venues of research including Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland and a lot of very well-explained climate science.
When you get done, you will no longer think that we are living through the middle of anything except an era of extreme change.
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