The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


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BOO!

This morning, I saw an article posted on Facebook in which a woman recounted having seen two oddly-behaving men while she was out shopping with her children and mother. The two men followed them and did not appear to be shopping. The women, quite understandably, grew concerned, suspecting that the men were trying to kidnap one or more of the kids. The family managed to evade the men and report them, and there the story ended. The kids are safe, but if anything more was ever learned about the men, it wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps understandably, the author of the piece assumes that her assessment of the situation was correct; her children had been targeted by child traffickers, but had managed to escape. She provides four “warning signs,” so that other parents would be better able to evade would-be kidnappers also. She pleads with parents to watch their kids closely at all times.

The two women acted correctly; while they didn’t have enough information to be certain the men were planning an abduction, the situation was clearly freaky enough to justify getting the kids out of there. And I have to admit that, were I in her shoes, I, like the author, would likely also assume the danger was certain. That there is no proof would feel like a trivial technicality.

But it’s not trivial.

When someone cries “danger!” it matters very much whether the danger they’re warning of is plausible. If you hear a hurricane warning for your area from the National Hurricane Center, you get very busy battening down the hatches. If your friendly neighborhood three-year-old tells you the dragons are coming, you play along for twenty seconds and then go back to whatever it is you were doing. So, when a woman says “there are creepy men lurking in department stores looking to snatch kids,” it really matters whether there actually are.

And this woman can’t tell us. Her understandable assumptions aside, she really doesn’t know.

Irrational fears can actually hurt people. In his book, The Science of Fear, Dan Gardner points out that, following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans chose to drive rather than fly, presumably out of fear of hijacked airplanes. But because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes, thousands of people died in car crashes who would have been fine had they flown.

Mr. Gardner’s contention is that people are very bad at estimating risk (for reasons he explains lucidly) and that we often put ourselves at greater risk as a result. He specifically addresses the issue of “stranger danger,” pointing out that while children are occasionally abducted by strangers, it is an extremely rare tragedy. Most kidnappers are family members, for one thing. And yet, the widespread conviction otherwise has a very strong bearing on how people of my generation raise their kids.

The flip side of the danger of irrational fear is the irrational lack of fear. Not fearing car accidents, even though they are a greater danger than terrorism. Not fearing depression and type 2 diabetes, even though I’m guessing a lot of kids kept “safely” indoors develop these life-threatening problems. Not fearing all the various things that really could mess up the lives of our kids and present much more certain risk than creepy guys lurking around furniture do.

Look, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I am an aunt. There is a four-year-old hand that sometimes holds my index finger. It is just about the sweetest thing, ever. I understand that the merest hint of a child-snatcher is insanely terrifying. I also understand what loving adults are prepared to do when their kids are in danger. And I can’t help but notice that’s not being done about climate change. Not on a massive scale. According to polls last year, 68% of Americans now believe that human activity is causing climate change, and yet we have been electing consistently climate-denying governments anyway.

Today, President Trump signed an executive order intended to undo President Obama’s climate legacy. Although the undoing will be difficult and probably incomplete, and there are things that can be done to fight back, this is not good news. It is, in fact, clear and present danger for children.

I have written before of what climate change could look like over the lifetime of children born this decade. I have also explored climate change as a cause of death. There are hurricanes. There are fires and floods, wars and famines. Already, more people die from heat waves than from all other natural disasters combined.

Unaddressed climate change over the next century means more kids dying.

If climate change falls under the heading of irrational absence of fear, if it lacks the necessary emotional oomph to inspire emergency action, let me offer a more compelling visual. If climate science doesn’t do it for you, imagine that every climate-denier politician and business leader is a child-snatcher lurking around the corner of the next place your family has to be.

Meet me in Washington for the climate march and the march for science next month. And start organizing for pro-climate legislatures, both state and federal, NOW.


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A Few Things Not to Worry About

Recently, the Internet has erupted with tales of increased volcanism and more extreme earthquakes. Depending on the writer’s point of view, this geologic bent towards catastrophe appears as either a certain sign of the Biblical End of the World, or as yet another deadly permutation of climate change. We’ll leave the Biblical debate for others, but can anthropogenic climate change actually cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?

In a word, yes–but it’s not anything we need to worry about.

How frequent are disasters?

First of all, contrary to popular claim, there is not an increase in geological activity right now. At least, not a significant increase–any event that occurs randomly through time is going to have some clustering, the same way when you flip a coin many times in a row you’ll get a few consecutive heads or a few consecutive tails here and there. It doesn’t mean anything. Statisticians can calculate what these random clusters should look like and how to tell when something more than random variation (something that’s “statistically significant”) is going on. And right now, with regard to geology, it isn’t.

Or, at least it isn’t with earthquakes. We are in a bit of an earthquake cluster these days (2014 had about double the recent annual average of quakes), but a team of scientists analyzed the data and found nothing that differs from chance. They were hoping for more–they suspect that large earthquakes can trigger each other across the globe and they were looking for evidence to support their claim. They didn’t find it. Tough break. As for volcanism, I found assertions that there is no increase, but no description of any studies on the subject. That could mean that there aren’t any, or it could mean the search engines are being distracted right now by a lot of gorgeous color photographs of disaster. But there are plenty of reasons why we could be hearing about a lot of volcanic eruptions even if nothing unusual is happening:

  • There are more people than ever before, so the chance of somebody being nearby (with a video camera!) when a volcano erupts is higher than ever.
  • We have better data collection than ever before, so the chance of scientists noticing the most remote eruptions is higher.
  • A lot of people evidently expect to see evidence of the end of the world these days, and most of us see what we expect.
  • Social media exists, meaning that rumors can fly across the world very fast (OMG!)

All these principles apply to earthquakes as well, so the fact that we are in an earthquake cluster is probably irrelevant to public perception.

Ok, but could climate change influence geology?

One of the drivers of all this geologic attention is the new book, Waking the Giant: How a Changing Climate Triggers Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and Volcanoes, by Bill McGuire. The book itself is evidently fairly measured, though its marketing is histrionic to the point of evoking a Hollywood big-budget disaster movie. But marketing aside, there are links between climate and rock.

The most obvious of these links involves isostatic rebound, or earth movements in response to melting glaciers. Glaciers are very heavy, heavy enough to depress the land they lay upon by many hundreds of feet. There is a particularly dramatic example of this principle on Mt. Desert Island, in Maine, where a short side trail brings the visitor to a shallow cave on the side of a mountain. What created the cave? It turns out the ocean did–even though the actual ocean depth was somewhat less than it is now. When New England was under a glacier, the weight of the ice pressed it down and then the ice melted faster than the land could rise. The sea, swollen from all that glacial meltwater, rushed inland, drowning the coastal plain and even filling the Champlain Valley with sea water–and that high sea, breaking against the resistant granite of Mount Desert Island (at the time, Islands, plural), hollowed out a cave–something like a larger version of today’s Thunder Hole, for those familiar with the area. In time, the land rebounded and lifted that sea cave up hundreds of feet above the water, where it is today.

All that rebounding causes earthquakes. Try leaning your weight on the hood of a car and then letting go suddenly–you’ll hear a noise just as your weight comes off the car, when the temporary dent you made fixes itself. That noise is a vibration, a car-quake, if you will. The earth does exactly the same thing, it just takes a lot longer.

And I mean a lot longer. In fact, New England is still rebounding after ten thousand years ice-free.

And the rebound must also have taken a very long time to get started, because the sea had time to carve out that cave–in granite, an almost unimaginably hard and wear-resistant rock. Under some circumstances, it can literally take and keep a smooth polish for thousands of years. I’ve actually seen it, bedrock surfaces still as smooth as a counter-top, just as the glacier left them. How long did it take the waves to chew away that sea cave before the land lifted up?

So, when Dr. McGuire claims that melting glaciers in Greenland and Alaska could cause earthquakes, he is almost certainly correct–but that doesn’t mean we should get ready for a summer blockbuster come to life. Now, the temperature is rising now much faster than it did at the end of the last ice age, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of something horrible getting triggered by that insane speed, but we should really focus on the disaster that is actually happening right now instead of worrying about that.

xkcd 748

Except from XKCD 748: Worst-Case Scenario. https://xkcd.com/748/

 

There are also hints that yes, climate influences plate tectonics (which in turn involves earthquakes) and volcanism. Tsunamis follow from earthquakes and volcanism, so they, too are implicated. But again, the connections between these phenomena and anthropogenic climate change are tenuous and probably won’t make any difference any time soon.

Climate changes of the past definitely have influenced geologic processes, besides the isostatic rebound-related earthquakes I already described. Faster erosion from stronger monsoon rains has lightened the Himalayas enough to give the Indian plate a counterclockwise spin (over millions of years).  And massive ice-melt events have been followed by dramatic increases in volcanism, possibly because the loss of ice-weight from the continents, combined with increased water-weight over the ocean basins, changes stress patterns in the Earth’s crust, triggering some volcanoes to erupt. Although speed of change is definitely part of the picture, and we are looking at some incredibly fast changes right now, there is a reason why “geologic” is a synonym for “slow.” At this time, it looks like we can expect a lag of about 2,500 years before volcanoes respond to climate change.

So, where does all this leave us?

I am trained as a scientist, so accuracy is important to me. I find it irritating in the extreme that some writers are evidently making it sound as though something that may happen over the next several thousand years is an imminent catastrophe. Also, I care about general science literacy and I do what I can to further it. But in pointing out that geologic change is very slow I do not mean to say it is unimportant. If what we’re doing now means that our descendents 2,500 years from now have to cope with a lot more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, then that is enough reason to stop and do something less damaging. After all, consider that 2,500 years ago, Rome became a republic. What humans do matters across long time spans.

Finally, as the cartoon above suggests, we hardly need to invoke earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis to argue against changing the climate–we already have flood, fire, and famine to contend with, quite literally.

Isn’t that enough of a reason?