As I am writing this in June, the thermometer in the room reads 35 degree Celsius. The Bay of Bengal branch of the monsoon has entered east India a week ago but as of now no significant amount of precipitation has occurred. There is a forecast of rain today, the sky is mostly hazy and cloudy sometimes. It should be raining now, the monsoon should have set in full swing. But forget a wet spell, we even didn’t have a rainy day in the month of June, only occasional showers of rain for a few minutes. It wasn’t like this a few years ago. Conditions have deteriorated over the years and in 2019 the nation has been hit by one of the worst heatwaves. Temperatures reached 50.6 degree Celsius in Churu, Rajasthan. Scores of people died in different states with Bihar being the worst affected. Bangladesh and Pakistan are also receiving the brunt of the heatwave. It coincided with the drought and water shortages across the country and Chennai water crisis also surfaced at the same time. People living in cities and suburbs can turn on fan, cooler or AC to beat the unbearable heat but conditions are much worse in rural areas. The high temperature to bear is the least of their worries. No rainfall for a long period means drought. The entire crop yield would be severely affected and paddy crops would likely perish. However, there is still time for the monsoon and let us hope for recuperation.

What’s the reason for this anomaly? According to the Meteorological Department, conditions were already poor for the onset of monsoon and cyclone Vayu was the final nail in the coffin. In April we had Phani in Bay of Bengal and then Vayu in Arabian Sea derailed the monsoon. Two cyclones in the span of 2-3 months. Our cyclones are strengthening in intensity as well as in frequency. Speaking about the monsoon, cyclone Vayu isn’t the only culprit. El Nino is a natural phenomenon which affects the Pacific region. The phenomenon has occurred for hundreds of years and a latest study indicates even millenniums of El Nino activity but the effects have worsened in recent years due to climate change. An ongoing El Nino event was suspected during the last months of 2018 and by February of 2019, the effects were visible. According to a report of World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), sea surface temperatures were in the borderline of a weak El Nino effect in October 2018 but by February of 2019, some El Nino like atmosphere patterns and high temperatures were observed. It affected the monsoon severely. Last year hundreds of acres of forest in Sumatra caught fire due to hot season accompanied by drought. The suspected cause for this hot dry weather was El Nino. However, the good news is that the 2019 El Nino activity is waning and we can hope that this will boost the monsoon. Man-made climate change and global warming are leading to more severe El Nino activities with higher temperatures than its predecessors. This means more heatwaves, droughts, floodings, wildfires and storms. There were 70 tropical cyclones in the Northern hemisphere in 2018 compared with the long term average of 53. While El Nino brings rain and cooler weather on the eastern coast of the Pacific like southern America, it brings drought and hot weather to the ocean’s western coast like Australia and southeastern Africa. Towards the end of November 2018, eastern Australia faced a heatwave with temperatures exceeding 44 degree Celsius. If the trend continues, places in the US East coast like California can also suffer due to heavy rain with higher chances of flash floods and mudslides.

Let us now move from the warm southern Pacific Ocean towards the icy waters of the Arctic. This year Greenland is facing unusually early and heavy ice losses. A record four trillion pounds of ice melted in Greenland on 13th June. Such numbers for a single day pose serious danger as Greenland is a major contributor to sea-level rise. According to Thomas Mote, a research scientist at the University of Georgia, Greenland is an increasing contributor to the global sea levels for the last two decades. The worst thing about this rapid ice melt is that it’s a runaway process. To explain, geologist Trevor Nace drew the analogy of a roadway. On a hot summer day, it is much easier to walk barefoot on the white concrete sidewalk than the black asphalt. In Forbes, he wrote this phenomenon is initiating a positive feedback loop in Greenland. Ice has a high albedo, almost close to one. Albedo can be defined as the ratio of the amount of radiation reflected by a surface to the total amount of radiation received by it. As Greenland is losing more of its ice cover the surface is exposing darker colours which is absorbing much more solar radiation. This is causing more ice to melt, adding to the positive feedback loop. So keeping in mind Greenland’s contribution towards global sea level and the runaway process, the ongoing rapid ice melt is a concern for the whole world.

But such catastrophic events dependent on a single runaway process isn’t only typical of the Arctic. In the ice shelves of Antarctica is a ticking time bomb. Thwaites glacier is a broad and unusually fast-flowing glacier with speeds up to 2km/year in western Antarctica. NASA’s ice-penetrating radar Operation IceBridge has detected a cavity about two-thirds the size of Manhattan and about 300 metres tall at the base of the glacier. The cavity is big enough to have contained 14 billion tons of ice, most of which have melted during the last three years. According to Pietro Milillo of JPL such cavities under a glacier play important roles in its melting, as more water and heat gets under a glacier, it melts faster. Currently, the Thwaites glacier is responsible for a 4% rise in global sea level. If the glacier melts completely, sea level will rise by 65 centimetres. But that’s only a part of the problem that will follow, the tip of the iceberg, almost literally. Thwaites stabilises the whole glacier system. The ice front acts like a cork in a bottle to slow the seaward flow of ice from the continent’s interior. If the entire Thwaites glacier fractures into icebergs it will leave behind a giant cliff of ice which is highly vulnerable to runway collapse due to its own weight, like a domino effect of iceberg falling off the cliff of the ice sheet. If all the ice backstopped by Thwaites glacier melts, the seawater will rise by 2.4 metres. Such rise in seawater will be catastrophic, many of our cities will drown, billions of people will be affected and we will see some mass migration, all due to the melting of a single glacier.

Natural processes are indeed intricate and complex. Climate change is affecting us in bizarre ways that we can’t even conceive of. The most frightening part is that now we just don’t see it in the news happening in some obscure part of the earth. Climate change is starting to affect our daily lives, it’s at our doorstep. Can we undo it? Have we already reached the tipping point?

The solution to climate change is perhaps simple, the hard part is rather the implementation. The solution is two-fold: first—to stop further damage to the environment and second—to erase the damage we have already done. According to Stephan Leahy in an article in National Geographic, increasing the forest cover of the earth by an area equal to the United States will reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide by 25%. So, planting trees can’t be the only solution. Direct air and seawater capture of carbon and storing them underground or in long-living products like concrete is a method gaining popularity. The US Navy has already developed a prototype seawater capture device which can capture carbon and convert it to fuel by adding energy. More work on such devices can reduce excess carbon from our environment alongside solving the planet’s energy problem, giving us more efficient and green alternatives than fossil fuels. Unconventional and renewable energy sources like air and solar energy are already in use for decades. Now we require to upgrade them from a secondary source to a primary source of energy. The four highest energy consumption sectors are—industrial, transportation, residential and commercial. If green transportation means are adopted and we can meet half of our household energy demands from sustainable sources like solar energy, maintained either by individual household or by a community, we can achieve a significant decrease in carbon emission. The options are many. We know what we have to do on an individual level and on a global scale. We just require the goodwill and determination to secure a safe future for our posterity. We need it now, before it’s too late, before we can surely say we have already crossed the tipping point.        

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *