An ice bridge linking a shelf of ice the size of Jamaica to two islands in Antarctica has snapped.
A few weeks ago I watched a podcast episode of the PBS show NOW, entitled Sea Change. The show included a science demo that had a middle-school air of simplicity, but demonstrated with profound gravity the devastating consequences of loosing glaciers. Everyone who has taken thermodynamics has had it impressed upon them that water takes a relatively large amount of energy to change phases (and much less energy to change temperature within a given phase).
When we talk about climate change it may be helpful to think about energy rather than temperature. The scale that we happen to measure temperature with makes the anticipated changes seem small, whereas if we consider the change in energy regime, it becomes quite obvious that we are talking about enormous orders of magnitude. Remember that thermo discussion about “heat sinks”? It was one thing to say that the temperature remained relatively unchanged, and quite another to actually calculate the enormous energy dump!
We also speak of ecological ‘adaptation’ in response to global climate change, knowing that evidence of this type of ecological adaptation abounds within our existing perception of experience. Obviously successful evolution requires timescales equivalent to numerous generations of species, but we don’t intuitively consider the entire ecological web: during various stages of life many organisms eat very specific things which are also synchronized through adaptive processes to be available. Furthermore, the ability for species to migrate is inhibited by man-made discontinuities so in addition to the pace there are physical barriers limiting adaptation by geographical shifting. Invasive species also have an advantage when native biotas are stressed. (And recall our reading/discussion for/in last Thursday’s class—rain vs. snow has a significant impact on water availability in many reservoirs….eventual human migration?)
I recently watched a delicious interview (in terms of the lovely linguistic constructions), in which the interviewee was asked to explain a question he had posed: “can Obama see the grand canyon?” He explained that when John Wesley Powell first stumbled upon the grand canyon he could not understand it—there was simply no analogue within his experience with which he could comprehend what he was seeing, and it took “ten years of heroic effort” to fully Grok.
I know that we have gotten serious in the past, and made significant changes to mitigate or undo anthropogenically-induced calamities. But as we become increasingly aware of the complexities and magnitude of our simultaneous crises of climate change and global financial turmoil, I hope that we can dig deep for the courage and creativity to thoroughly react. Even if it seems too late, is there really any other option?