Melting of Ice Sheets Is Dramatic, But Melting of Permafrost Means Mass Death

When midnight strikes on New Year’s Day of 2050, there will be little cause for celebration. There will be the standard toasts with fine wines made in climate-controlled compounds by the wealthy few. But for most of humanity, it’ll just be another day of adversity bordering on misery — a desperate struggle to find food, water, shelter, and safety.

In the preceding decades, storm surges would have swept away coastal barrier erected at great cost. Rising seas would have flooded the downtowns. major citiesThis area once housed more 100 million people. The relentless waves of change will continue. pound shorelinesAll over the world, this is putting villages, towns and cities at risk.

As hundreds of millions of climate-change refugees in Africa and Latin America flood leaky boats, or trek overland in cramped vehicles, desperate searchAffluent countries around the world will try to close their borders even more tightly, pushing people back with tear gas or gunfire, in search of food and shelter. Yet those reluctant host countries, including the United States, won’t faintly be immune from the pain. Each summer, climate change will propel ever more powerful hurricanes. pummelThe country’s East and Gulf Coasts could force the federal government to leave MiamiAnd New OrleansDue to the rising tides. Wildfires, which are already increasing in size in 2021 will destroy vast stretches West, destroying thousands upon thousand of homes each summer and falling in an ever-expanding fireseason.

And keep in mind that I can write all this now because such future widespread suffering won’t be caused by some unforeseen disaster to come but by an all-too-obvious, painfully predictable imbalance in the basic elements that sustain human life — air, earth, fire, and water. As the average world temperatures rise by as much as 2.3° Celsius (4.2° Farenheit) by mid-century, climate change will degrade the quality of life in every country on Earth.

Climate Change in the 21st Century

This grim vision of 2050 is not a fantasy but a result of published environmental science. Indeed, we can all see the troubling signs of global warming around us right now — worsening wildfires, ever more severe ocean storms, and increased coastal flooding.

The spectacle of wildfires burning large areas of land is the focus of the media. Australia, Brazil, California, Canada, a far more serious threat is developing, only half-attended to, in the planet’s remote polar regions. The threat is not limited to the icecaps meltingWith alarming speed, sea levels are rising all over the world, but the vast Arctic Permafrost is quickly receding and releasing large amounts of lethal greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

The Arctic tundra is a frozen frontier that is far beyond our comprehension and consciousness. Ecological changes are brewing beneath the Arctic tundra and will accelerate global warming in ways certain to cause untold misery for all of us. More than any other place or problem, the thawing of the Arctic’s frozen earth, which covers vast parts of the roof of the world, will shape humanity’s fate for the rest of this century — destroying cities, devastating nations, and rupturing the current global order.

If, as I’ve suggested in my new book, To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change, Washington’s world system is likely to fade by 2030, thanks to a mix of domestic decline and international rivalry, Beijing’s hypernationalist hegemonyIt will have only a few decades of dominance in the future before it too suffers from the calamitous effects of unchecked global heating. As the seas submerge some major cities and heat centers, it will be 2050. begins to ravageChina’s agricultural heartland will force it to abandon any global system it may have created. As we look dimly into the potentially disastrous decades beyond 2050 the international community will have every reason to create a new type of world order that is unlike any other.

The Impact of Global Warming on Midcentury

One question is crucial when assessing the likely course for climate change by 2050: How quickly will it affect us?

For decades, scientists believed climate change would occur at what Eugene Linden, science writer, predicted. called a “stately pace.” In 1975, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences still felt that it would “take centuries for the climate to change in a meaningful way.” As late as 1990, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludedThe Arctic permafrostThe, which contains both methane (an even more dangerous greenhouse gas) and carbon dioxide (CO2), is not yet melting. AntarcticThe ice sheets remained stable. However, scientists began to study the phenomenon in 1993. studying ice cores extracted from Greenland’s ice cap and found that there had been 25 “rapid climate change events” in the last glacial period thousands of years ago, showing that the “climate could change massively within a decade or two.”

Representatives from 196 states gathered in Paris in 2015 to discuss the dangers facing humanity. agreedTo commit themselves to a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels. This, they argued, would be sufficient to avoid the disastrous impacts sure to come at 2.0°C degrees or higher.

The bright hopes of the Paris conference quickly faded. Within three years, however, the scientific community had fallen apart. realized that the cascading effects of global warming reaching 1.5°C above preindustrial levels would be evident not in the distant future of 2100, but perhaps by 2040, impacting most adults alive today.

The short-term effects on climate change will only be amplified due to the uneven rate at which the planet is warming. This will have a much greater impact on the Arctic. According to a Washington Post analysis, by 2018 the world already had “hot spots” that had recorded an average rise of 2.0°C above the preindustrial norm. As the sun strikes the tropical latitudes of the world, large columns of warm air rise. Then, greenhouse gases trapped in our atmosphere push them towards the poles until they drop to earth at higher altitudes. This creates spots with faster-rising temperatures in Western Europe, the Middle East and, most importantly, the Arctic.

In a 2018 IPCC “doomsday report,” its scientists warned that even at just 1.5°C, temperature increases would be unevenly distributed globally and could possibly reach a devastating 4.5°C in the Arctic’s high altitudes, with profound consequences for the entire planet.

Climate-Change Cataclysm

Recent scientific researchIt has been shown that feedback loops at both extremes of the temperature spectrum will be the main drivers of major climate change by 2050. Warmer temperatures will be found at the extremes of the temperature spectrum, in Australia, Africa, and the Amazon. sparkForest fires becoming more severe, reducing tree coverage, and releasingThe atmosphere is absorbing large amounts of carbon. This, in turn (as it is already occurring), will fuel more fires and so create an enormous self-reinforcing feedback system that could decimate the great rainforests of this planet.

The even more serious and uncontrollable driver, however, will be in the planet’s polar regions. There, an Arctic feedback loop is already gaining a self-sustaining momentum that could soon move beyond humanity’s capacity to control it. Rising oceans will be a reality by midcentury, or earlier, as the ice sheets continue to melt in Greenland & Antarctica. makeExtreme sea-level events like flooding and storm surges once in a century are common occurrences in many regions. If global warming grows beyond the maximum 2°C target set by the Paris Agreement, depending on what happens to Antarctica’s ice sheets, ocean levels could increaseThis century’s end marks the end of 43 inches

In fact, a “worst-case scenario” by the National Academies of Sciences projects a sea-level rise of as much as 20 inches by 2050 and 78 inches in 2100, with a “catastrophic” loss of 690,000 square miles of land, an expanse four times the size of California, displacing about 2.5% of the world’s population and inundating major cities like New York. Recent research in Nature predictedRain rather than snow could soon dominate Arctic regions by 2060, further increasing ice loss and raising sea level. Recent satellite imagery has brought that doomsday closer. reveals that the ice shelf holding back Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier could “shatter within three to five years,” quickly breaking that Florida-sized frozen mass into hundreds of icebergs and eventually resulting “in several feet of sea level rise” on its own.

It’s like this: Permafrost in the Arctic is drama, while ice in the Arctic is death. The spectacleIt is quite dramatic to see melting polar ice sheet cascading into the oceans. True mass death is however found in the murky, mysterious waters. permafrost. 730,000 square miles of this sloppy stew consisting of decayed matter, frozen water from ice age past, Northern HemisphereThe ice can reach 2,300 feet below the surface and is rich in carbon and methane, which can be used to melt the poles or flood densely populated coastal plains. These emissions would then only increase Arctic temperatures and melt more permafrost (and other ice) year after year. We’re talking, in other words, about a potentially devastating feedback loop that could increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere beyond the planet’s capacity to compensate.

According to a 2019 report NatureThe vast area of frozen ground that covers more than a quarter of the country. quarterThe Northern Hemisphere is a vast expanse storehouse for about 1.6 trillion metric tons of carbon — twice the amount already in the atmosphere. Current models “assume that permafrost thaws gradually from the surface downwards,” slowly releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But frozen soil also “physically holds the landscape together” and so its thawing can rip the surface open erratically, exposing ever-larger areas to the sun.

Already, there are dramatic physical signs of rapid change around the Arctic Circle. The vast expanse of permafrost that covers almost the entire Arctic Circle is a stark reminder of the rapid change. two-thirdsRussia, a small Siberian town temperaturesIn June 2020, it reached a historic 100°F, the highest temperature ever recorded above Arctic Circle. Several Arctic Sea peninsulas have also experienced this phenomenon. methane eruptionsThese have left craters as deep as 100 feet. Rapid thawing has led to craters up to 100 feet deep. releases more methane than gradual melting does and methane has 25 times more heating power than CO2, the “impacts of thawing permafrost on Earth’s climate,” suggests that 2019 report in Nature, “could be twice that expected from current models.”

To add to the already dangerous panorama of potential destruction, approximately 700,000 square meters of Siberia contain a methane-rich form of permafrost. yedomaIt forms a layer 30 to 260 feet thick. As rising temperatures melt the icy permafrost layer, expanding lakes, which now cover 30% of Siberia, will act as conduits for methane to be released into the atmosphere.

New World Order

The failure of the current global system to deal with climate change means that the international community will need to find new ways of collaboration by mid-century to limit the damage. After all, the countries at the recent U.N. climate summit at Glasgow couldn’t even agree to “phase out” coal, the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Instead, in their final “outcome document,” they opted for the phrase “phase down” — capitulating to China, which has no plans to even startIndia, which has recently reduced its coal combustion, will be reducing its coal consumption until 2025. postponedIts goal of reaching net-carbon neutrality before the unimaginable 2070. These two countries have been together since 1995 account for37% of all greenhouse gasses are currently being released into the atmosphere. Their procrastination leads to climate catastrophe for humanity.

Who knows what new forms of global governance and cooperation will come into being in the years ahead, but simply to focus on an old one, here’s a possibility: to exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, perhaps a genuinely reinforced United Nations could reform itself in major ways, including making the Security Council an elective body with no permanent members and ending the great-power prerogative of unilateral vetoes. This reformed and more powerful organization might then agree to cede its sovereignty over a few crucial areas of governance to ensure the survival of humanity.

As the Security Council can now (at least theoretically), punish a nation who crosses international borders, so could a future U.N. sanction a state that continues to emit greenhouse gases or refuses to accept climate-change refugees. This human tide is estimated to be between 4.5 and 5.5 billion. 200 millionAnd 1.2 billionBy mid-century, people would be in need of a U.N. high commission to enforce mandatory resettlement. The current voluntary transfer to poor tropics of climate reconstruction funds, from the prosperous temperate region to the poorer tropics, would also need to be made mandatory.

It is impossible to know with certainty whether reforms such as these and the power that they would bring to change national behavior will arrive in time for climate change mitigation and slowing emissions. Or if it will arrive too late (if ever) to manage a series progressively uncontrollable feedback loops. Without such change, the current order of the world will almost certainly fall into global chaos with dire consequences.