Mark Lynas has spent the past three years travelling throughout the world to witness the effects of global warming. The following are some brief bulletins from the frontiers of climate change: Alaska, Australia, China, Tuvalu, the United States and Peru.
The Professor’s Whisky
Fairbanks, Alaska – Gamblers as well as scientists take a close interest in Alaskan temperature records. Each winter the people of Nenana, a small town just south-east of Fairbanks, place bets on the exact day, hour and minute that the spring ice ‘break-up’ will begin on the the town’s river. The tradition began when railroad engineers put down a wager of $800 in 1917; by 2000, the sum at stake had grown to $335,000, attracting punters from all over Alaska and assuring round-the-clock vigilance of the river from Nenana citizens. Records of the results provide a valuable insight into how the weather in Alaska has warmed over the past century. The average date of the spring thaw is eight days earlier than it was in the 1920s – Alaska has a week less winter. Alaskan scientists have little doubt that they are witnessing a rapid acceleration of global warming in the earth’s high latitudes. Most of the state’s interior, including Fairbanks, was used to seeing winter temperatures drop forty or even fifty degrees Celsius below zero. Recently, even twenty below has become rare. Professor Gunter Weller, a climatologist with the University of Alaska, remembered a New Year’s Eve party in 1968, at the end of his first year in the state. ‘I put a shot of very good scotch in an ice-cube tray and left it outside, it was frozen within half an hour. You wouldn’t see that now, no way.’ On average, he said, Alaskan winter temperatures have shot up by six degrees Celsius in the past thirty years; a warming which has also been recorded in many parts of the Canadian and Siberian Arctic.
The effects of the thawing permafrost are striking, even when seen from a taxi in urban Fairbanks. Roads have new undulations and sometimes wide cracks; crash barriers are contorted and buckled; houses tilt. Alaska spends $35 million on repairing permafrost damage every year.
A cynic or an Old Testament-inspired theologian might say that Alaska has only itself to blame. Its oil wells produce nearly a million barrels of crude a day, which, when refined, helps feed America’s 200 million automobiles, the exhausts of which…but the rest of the story is familiar. The Eskimo residents of Kaktovik, a small town on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, personify this conflict between cause and effect. On the one hand, they regret thinning sea ice, new patterns of weather, and fewer animals to hunt. On the other, they enthusiastically support the oil industry for the jobs and money it provides. In Kaktovik, when I asked people about the contradiction in their attitudes, they shrugged. One woman sighed, ‘All I can say is God bless us all.’
The White Death
Great Barrier Reef, Australia – The cliché is true. Coral reefs are the ‘rainforests of the ocean’. They are the most biologically diverse of all marine ecosystems – tropical reefs hold nine million different kinds of plants and animals, including a quarter of all known sea fish. When I walked along the beach at Heron Island, at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef, turtle hatchlings were emerging from the white sand and enormous shoals of pilchards turned the shallows dark brown. Heron Island seemed to be as thrillingly alive as the books suggested. Its coral told a different story.
Large sections had turned bone-white, losing the gentle greens and browns that are the marks of a healthy reef. I went snorkelling with Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, one of the world’s most distinguished marine biologists, who pointed out which corals had died, and which might yet manage to survive. Out of the water, he explained that coral dies when sea water temperatures pass the tolerance levels of the coral polyps, which then eject the algae that normally live deep within their bodies and provide food. For a few days the corals can cope, but if the water stays too warm for too long then they die in massive numbers.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg has long ago abandoned the nuanced language of science; he feels the crisis is too urgent. In his view, the dead and dying coral is probably ‘the most serious human impact on an ecosystem ever, certainly for at least the last 2,000 years’. The year 1998 has been the most disastrous so far – the great bleaching and death of tropical reefs from the Caribbean to the Maldives, with ninety per cent mortality rates in some areas. He estimated that a sixth of tropical corals had been destroyed. ‘We’ve never seen an ecosystem lose sixteen per cent of its key organism in a single year before. If we lost that percentage of the rainforests in a single year, people would be screaming.’ Some of the corals which died on the Barrier Reef were 700 years old: evidence that what is happening is unprecedented within at least several centuries.
Writing in the journal Marine & Freshwater Research, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg has estimated that, as global temperatures continue to rise, coral deaths on the scale of 1998 will become an annual event within twenty or thirty years. That day on Heron Island, he said, ‘You’ll see coral reefs disappear, an explosion of toxic algae, and a change in the whole marine food chain in these regions. It’s not going to be pretty.’
A River Ran Through It
Gansu Province, China – ‘We have a saying,’ Dr Zhang was telling me, as we stood on a dried-up river bed near the city of Wuwei, ‘that in this region nine out of ten years bring drought.’ He looked around at the pebbles and sand in the shadow of a now superfluous bridge. ‘These days it’s ten out of ten years.’
All six rivers around Wuwei have stopped flowing. Even China’s grandest rivers are not what they were: the Yellow River, the second biggest after the Yangtze, now fails to reach the sea for more than half the year. Not far from Wuwei, two deserts are spreading towards each other. Dr Zhang, an official with the regional water bureau, pointed them out as we drove east, over the route of the old Silk Road, to the ancient oasis town of Minqin. The left-hand side of the road was already mostly sand. On the right, beyond a narrow strip of greenery, the dunes of the second desert were shimmering through the heat haze. Once they joined up, Minqin – once one of the most productive agricultural areas in China – would be cut off.
According to government figures, more than 2,500 square kilometres of land in China turns into desert every year, providing grit for the increasingly strong dust storms which roar down off the Inner Mongolian plains every spring, into Beijing and the south. Chinese dust storms can be killers; one ‘black wind’ in May 1993 left eighty-five people dead, and the corrosive action of the wind was strong enough to strip the tops off tarred roads.
Dr Zhang and I were discussing all this in an academic kind of way when he suddenly wound up the car window. A dust storm, the fifth so far this year according to Dr Zhang, was about to hit. We could see peasants hurrying from the field towards their houses, coats wrapped around their heads. Workers from a road crew took shelter behind a wall, their shirts around their faces. Then the world around us took on an eerie red glow as the wind swirled China’s topsoil high into the air.
Going Down With Tuvalu
Tuvalu, South Pacific – I had been in Tuvalu for only two days when the first puddle of water appeared at the side of the small airstrip. More puddles soon joined it. The sea had welled up suddenly through thousands of tiny holes in this tropical atoll’s bedrock of coral. People gathered to watch the water flow down paths, around palm trees, and into back gardens. Within an hour it was knee-deep in some places. One of Tuvalu’s increasingly regular submergences had begun.
A similar thing occurs most winters in Venice, but Venice has a budget of £1.6 billion to spend on a system of protective floodgates. Tuvalu is one of the world’s smallest and most obscure nations, 10,000 people, scattered across nine tiny coral atolls. Sea level rise here is a crisis of national survival: very little of Tuvalu is much more than twenty inches above the Pacific and its coral bedrock is so porous that no amount of coastal protection can save it. According to Professor Patrick Nunn, an ocean geoscientist at the University of the South Pacific, in Fiji, atoll nations such as Tuvalu will become uninhabitable within two or three decades, and may disappear altogether by the end of the century. Pleas by a succession of Tuvalu’s prime ministers (and those of other atoll nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives) for dramatic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions have been ignored by most other states. Tuvaluans will have to move.
The first batch of evacuees – seventy-five of them – is scheduled to move this year to New Zealand, 2,000 miles to the south. Many of the older people say they will refuse to move. Toaripi Lauti, the first Prime Minister of Tuvalu as an independent country (it was a British colony until 1978), said, ‘I want my children to be safe. I tell them: you leave so that Tuvaluans will still be living somewhere. But I want to stay on this island. I will go down with Tuvalu.’